A few months after my first child was born, I wrote a post likening parenthood to entrepreneurship called “Startuphood and Parenthood: Not for the Faint of Heart.” Two and a half years later, I’m expecting my second. I was quite guarded about my first pregnancy (especially on social media), so aside from that blog post, I shared very little about the experience. This time around, I’ve been much more open about it and felt inspired to write thoughts and observations I’ve had over the last few months.
Given the endless controversy about sexism, women in tech, working moms, women founders, gender roles, etc, I was initially hesitant to write this post. Anything and everything is fuel for someone’s fire. However, it’s important to be vocal about these things (in a constructive manner, of course) and put it out there. Being a pregnant VC may sound less than desirable, given how male dominated the industry is. You could argue the same applies to tech companies and startups. There are tales of companies not wanting to hire women of a certain age for fear they’d get pregnant and be out of commission for a few months. As we see more women running companies, in leadership roles, and also on the other side of the table as investors, this will hopefully become a non-issue.
Companies like Google and Facebook offer great maternity and paternity leave. However, when you’re a startup, it can be nebulous especially if you’ve never had a pregnant employee on the team. Many startups don’t have a maternity (or paternity) leave policy in place. But as your company grows and/or women on the team have children, this changes. In fact, more than just coming up with a policy, it’s absolutely critical to ensure that you retain these employees. The last thing you want is to lose talent because your company culture is a hindrance to parents.
With that, here are a few tips I’ve come up with (in no particular order). My suggestions have more to do with how to treat expectant moms versus how to develop your actual leave policy:
1. Uphold a company culture that supports pregnancy and working parents
This is first and foremost the most important thing, because once you have this then everything else falls in line. Oftentimes companies (especially small ones, where resources are stark) will view pregnancy as a burden. Some are even reluctant to hire women for that reason, especially married women of childbearing age. Don’t be that company. You’ll only do yourself a disservice and miss out on amazing talent.
2. Be flexible
Pregnant women have to somehow make it through the day and also deal with physical changes, unpleasant symptoms of pregnancy, and a barrage of doctors’ appointments and lab tests that will often happen during work hours. If you need to re-arrange meetings or schedule around your team member’s appointments, do it. These appointments are all important and oftentimes are time-sensitive.
3. Do not make assumptions or decisions on her behalf
We all make assumptions about pregnant women, either based on having been through it directly, indirectly, or pure conjecture. “She’s probably too tired to do X,” “She’s not going to want to travel because she’s pregnant,” “Her due date is Y so she won’t want to take this on so I’ll ask someone else to do it,” etc. While your intentions may be good, this is something every expectant working mom fears – being phased out. I’ll put myself out there and admit this has/is a fear of mine. Let her be the one to decide whether something’s too much for her to handle or not. Let her lead the conversation and decision making around what her maternity leave plan is, especially if it has to do with transitioning work and hiring people – or at the very least, make sure she is directly involved.
4. Assume that pregnancy changes nothing about her role in the company
I’ll refrain from opening a can of worms and get into the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom debate. But from personal experience and from the many working moms I know, we’d rather that people assume we’re going back to work after maternity leave. In fact, some women will actually want to stay plugged in with what’s going on while they’re on leave. Don’t question whether she’s returning to the company once the baby arrives. Don’t be an asshole and take the position away from her while she’s out.
5. Offer awesome maternity leave
There is a minimum requirement every state mandates for companies (usually of a certain employee size). My 2 cents – of course companies should comply with what their state law requires. However, depending on the state, it might be rather stingy and it’s in your best interest to go above and beyond what you’re “required” to do. Startups may think they can’t afford to have an employee out for too long, let alone pay them during that time. But remember that it’s temporary and most likely it won’t have a significant impact on the bottom line if you were to (for example) provide fully paid leave. Being as generous as possible will go a LONG way in both retaining and attracting talent for both moms and dads. Also, good employees will feel just as invested in making sure things don’t go awry while they’re out and not leaving teammates in the lurch.
6. Do NOT touch her stomach
This may seem like common sense. But many people don’t get it. Yes, it’s not every day you see a round, beach-ball shaped stomach. But think of it this way – would you touch her stomach if she weren’t pregnant?
7. Remember the dads
Pregnancy is usually all about the mom because she’s the one carrying the baby for 9 months. However, realize that expectant dads are going through a lot too. I love the fact that Facebook offers equal leave for moms and dads. Consider that for your company. Offering unequal leaves just reinforces the longstanding notion that parenting responsibilities aren’t equal, and that doesn’t help anyone.
8. Remember that It doesn’t just end with maternity leave
I’ve heard of companies offering great maternity/paternity leave, only to be oddly inflexible when it comes to working parents’ schedules. This all goes back to your company culture. You may have a company where telecommuting, leaving the office early, and working from home are frowned upon. That’s your prerogative. But if you want to be more inclusive of working parents, then revisit these policies and make it easier for parents to juggle their two full-time jobs. (Yes, parenting is a full-time job even if you work at a company too) And extra brownie points if you set up a mother’s room for moms when they return to the office! (500 did)
I spent most of this week interviewing heaps of startups for our upcoming accelerator batch. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to meet all these companies, many of which had flown hundreds or thousands of miles to interview in person at our office.
500 has come a long way since Batch #000 kicked off in January 2011. This was back when I half-jokingly half-seriously reminisce that we had to beg startups to participate in the accelerator batch. "500 Startups? WTF is that??" These were the days when we had a hard time getting press to cover our Demo Day.
Things have certainly changed since then. However, what I hope never changes about 500 is our humility. For me personally, whenever I asked people during interviews why they wanted to join 500, it was a sincere question. It wasn’t an implied "Why do you think you’re good enough for us?" I was blown away by the answers. One company actually told us that 500 was “legendary” in their hometown back in Michigan. My reaction was, “Really??? We are?? Why!?" To this day, it’s amazing to hear such praise bestowed upon 500. In many cases, my gut reaction is that such praise is undeserved because I feel there are so many things we need to work on. Perhaps that’s just me suffering from Imposter Syndrome.
We work tirelessly to make the 500 Accelerator as awesome as possible with every new batch. We are awesome at some things, and we massively suck at a lot of things. It’s engrained into our culture to be confident enough to take risks, yet remain humble and feel/act like the underdog. It keeps us hungry and IMO makes us more human - especially to our companies.
We’ll be making decisions over the next week, but to any company reading right now who met us in Mountain View this week - thank you for taking the time to travel to the 500 office and meet us. I hope any interaction you had w/ someone from 500 was warm and welcoming, and that regardless of whether you get an offer or not, that the entire experience was a positive one.
We hadn’t updated our logo in 18 years. Our brand, as represented by the logo, has been valued at as much as ~$10 billion dollars. So, while it was time for a change, it’s not something we could do lightly.
There are tons of productivity tips out there. Here are my top 5.
Be present. Multitasking is dangerous and causes you to feel frazzled because you’re never fully concentrating on one thing. If you’re on a phone meeting, don’t plow through email or Facebook or Twitter. If you’re in an in-person mtg, don’t bring your laptop. Just bring yourself (and maybe a notebook) and actually listen to the other person. When you’re spending time w/ your kids before they go to bed, actually play w/ them and engage yourself. Put your phone down. Email can wait.
Be on time. I find that when I start to run late for meetings, my whole day feels frenetic and drains me of energy, leaving me less likely to actually GSD. When I actually do run on time, I feel energized because I know I wasn’t wasting time. In-person mtgs often run late b/c you lose track of time, so I try to avoid this by setting up a calendar event immediately after my mtg (whether I actually have a mtg or not) and setting an alert to go off 5-10 min it’s scheduled for. Then I know I need to skedaddle.
Be good to your body. Folks in Silicon Valley work themselves to the bone like it’s a badge of honor. But it’s not possible to be running at full capacity for a long period of time. Otherwise you burn out. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Eat well, hydrate yourself, get exercise, and SLEEP. Such basic things are hard to do (I have a LOT of trouble w/ all 4 of these things). But when I am able to do them, I am able to get a lot more done.
Be responsive. Everyone is guilty of dragging their feet in getting back to people - particularly over email. Gokul Rajaram (who I worked with @ Google and has been a wonderful mentor) spoke to our accelerator batch yesterday and shared his tips for handling email. He quickly assesses incoming email. Anything he can handle in <= 5 minutes, he tackles right then and there. Anything he deems will take much longer, he categorizes into a different label. He also mentioned how some people don’t even use email, but only communicate via text. Whatever your method of choice is, being quick to respond usually helps productivity. You put the ball back in someone else’s court and that’s one less thing for you to do.
Be crisp. Eric Antonow is one of the most sage people I know. I had the honor of working for him @ Google. He always reminded me to “be crisp.” In other words, be concise, be direct, and prune things down to the most salient points. I have found this to be true. This prevents you from wasting time due to beating around the bush, needing to clear up misunderstandings, etc. and ultimately makes you more efficient. (whether it’s verbal or written communication)
What are your productivity tips? Please leave a comment below and share yours.
"As a manager, your team doesn’t exist for you. You exist for your team."
Wise words uttered (and paraphrased) by Sam Schillace during tonight’s fireside chat at 500.
I have had plenty of managers all across the board. The good, the bad, the ugly. Ultimately whether any relationship works is whether you have good chemistry, understand and trust each other. That said, there are certain behaviors and actions that I’ll sum up as “bad manager” and “good manager.”
A bad manager takes. A good manager gives.
A bad manager errs on the side of “no”. A good manager errs on the side of “yes”.
A bad manager takes credit. A good manager gives credit.
A bad manager talks. A good manager listens.
A bad manager is a closed book and keeps you in the dark. A good manager is an open book and is transparent.
A bad manager makes obstacles more complicated. A good manager helps you get through them.
A bad manager ignores problems and lets them fester. A good manager faces them head on until they’re no longer a problem.
A bad manager closes doors. A good manager opens doors.
A bad manager is insecure and often feels threatened. A good manager unfailingly supports their team and checks their ego at the door.
That isn’t to say that someone w/ one of these “bad” qualities is therefore a bad manager. There are plenty of different styles out there, and what works for one person doesn’t work for another. I’ve worked w/ managers that I loved whom others didn’t. And vice versa.
But in general, there is some truth to these bad/good comparisons.
Note you could essentially replace “manager” with “CEO,” “co-founder,” “leader,” “teammate,” etc.
In the tech world, so much is going on. How many times have you had a conversation w/ someone that started out with, “Hey did you hear Company X just raised X?” or “Whoa, BigOldCo is in talks to acquire NewCo!” or “Neutron funding is the future of investments.” Sometimes your reaction is one of panic that you’re not “in the know”, and you feel self-conscious that you’re behind. NOOOOO!!!!
When this happens to me, I remind myself of Charles’ advice. Remember that there are plenty of things that you know well. For everything you don’t, turn it into an opportunity to learn.
Above: A view of the Seoul cityscape from my hotel in Gangnam.
I spent this week in Korea attending beLAUNCH and getting a taste of the Seoul startup scene. I head back home today, so here are a few observations and musings while it’s all fresh in my mind.
Brand alone can only get you so far.
Before, I naively assumed that a few emails and press articles would be enough to get Korean startups to apply for the 500 Accelerator program. However, like almost everything in life, relationships are everything. Korean founders will likely feel no urgency to uproot themselves and come over to the U.S. for the program unless they feel some connection to 500. There are movers and shakers (like Richard Min and David Lee) in the Korean startup scene, who I’ve been fortunate to meet but only in the last few months. We’re lucky to have folks like Chang Kim and David Y. Lee as 500 Mentors and portfolio companies, and they’ve done a great job evangelizing 500. But more has to come from 500 itself.
If you’re looking to get traction in an international market as an investor or accelerator program, then you need to be there. It’s impossible to count on brand alone to “win” in a market. You have to be on the ground. You don’t need to relocate, but you have to get yourself out there and build relationships with the influencers.
Above: Seoul Space, Shakr Media, and 500
Be sensitive to cultural differences. Then help bridge the gap.
Many people cite culture as a huge barrier for Korean startups. The fear of failure is real. Failing in Silicon Valley is like a badge of honor. Failing in Korea means you are blacklisted and written off. Hopefully this will change as the ecosystem develops and Korea produces more role models. Many people in Silicon Valley criticize Koreans for lacking hustle and being too ‘safe’ and lambasting such a culture that writes off failed entrepreneurs. It’s important to be sensitive to these cultural differences. In other words, don’t be arrogant. You’re not going to be able to change a country’s culture. Rather, figure out how to work around that and help bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and (strongly) encourage/coach entrepreneurs to hustle and be fearless.
I don’t know if there is a Korean word for “hustle”. When I used the term “aggressive,” that seemed to have a negative connotation. Having a sense of URGENCY and HUSTLE are two qualities that are absolutely critical to have as an entrepreneur. Do Korean entrepreneurs possess these qualities? Yes, I believe so. I met a number of entrepreneurs this week who are building great companies. One girl sold off most of her valuable personal belongings to bootstrap her startup, and volunteered at beLAUNCH as a way to meet people. I think they just need even MORE of it if they truly want to be global and make it to Silicon Valley. Which brings me to my next point.
Above: the D.CAMP co-working space in Seoul
Silicon Valley and being “global” are mostly aspirational, but not realistic. (yet)
Nearly every Korean entrepreneur wants to be global. You’ll rarely hear any of them say that they want to focus solely on Korea (or Asia). However, there seems to be a disconnect between their aspirations and actuality. Most of the products look and feel very Korean down to the UI. Many of them say that they plan to use Korea as a test bed, then go after the U.S. I believe this mostly comes down to the lack of role models - Korean entrepreneurs who have successfully built global companies and are accessible and relevant to the new generation. A lack of mentors who can advise on topics like user acquisition, distribution, virality, conversion funnels, analytics, business development, user experience, fundraising, etc. It’s easy to forget that there is a dearth of such people in Korea, because the ecosystem is not quite there yet. So when Korean founders say they want to be ‘global’, it’s likely they don’t have a game plan to get there.
Above: Phil Libin of Evernote delivering the morning keynote at beLAUNCH.
Events and conferences are critical to the Korean startup ecosystem.
Many people underestimate the value of events - whether they’re casual meetups, hackathons, or large conferences. I was so impressed at beLAUNCH and came away each day feeling energized. I had heard beLAUNCH was sort of like the TechCrunch Disrupt of Korea, and I think it will continue to be THE startup/tech conference to attend. In Silicon Valley, you could attend an event almost every day of the week. There’s easy access to environments where you can network with people. Korea needs that. There are many organizations that are doing this in Korea like Seoul Space, Kstartup, D.Camp, and even big companies like Facebook and Google doing hackathons, meetups, and backing entrepreneurial initiatives.
Above: Startup Expo section at beLAUNCH.
Now is the time for Korean startups.
Korea has historically been cautious towards foreign services. Nowadays, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are huge. Even Google is further along than it used to be. iPhone adoption is growing rapidly. Even things like K-POP, PSY, and Korean dramas have opened the world’s eyes to Korea. CE brands like Samsung and LG are viewed as premium products and are hot. While some may dismiss Korea’s growth potential because the economy is well-established, entrepreneurial activity is simmering and on its way to a rolling boil. If you know anything about Korean culture, when something gets traction, it spreads like wildfire. On the other end of the spectrum, Korean corporates are eagerly looking to startups for innovation and establishing themselves in Silicon Valley. The new Korean government is fiercely supportive of funding entrepreneurs and making it easier for them to build companies. Access to early stage (seed) capital is getting easier.
There’s still a long ways to go, and in many ways it’s still the Wild West. While the country’s population is only 50M people and Seoul alone is just shy of 11M, there’s immense talent and passion in the Korean people. I believe Korea is at an inflection point and it’ll only get better for startups from here on out.
Happy New Year! For those of you who missed PSY & MC Hammer performing on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve (is it still called that?), check it out here.
I haven’t had much time to think about New Year’s resolutions, but now that the holiday hubbub has quieted down, I’ve started to reflect on the past year and what I hope to accomplish in 2013.
First, a look back on 2012.
This isn’t a very long list, mainly because I’m having a hard time remembering what happened aside from a few big things - plus I don’t want to bore you with 100 bullets. So a quick snapshot:
Came back from maternity leave @ the beginning of the year and figured out how to be a working mom. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “work/life balance” - it’s more of a “work/life juggle.”
Completed two successful accelerator batches and took over the reins of running the 500 Accelerator program.
Celebrated the wedding of one of my dear friends. Honored to have been a bridesmaid in such a beautiful, meticulously planned wedding.
Welcomed one of BYT’s newest friends.
Celebrated my mom’s 60th birthday.
Celebrated BYT’s 1st birthday!!!
Moved into our new house, which is always a work in progress.
Had the HUGE honor of introducing two Star Trek stars at separate events - LeVar Burton at our MamaBear conference and George Takei at a special talk at the office. (see photos at the end of the post)
Last but not least, had so much fun watching BYT grow from a baby into a full fledged toddler who has endless energy and endless appetite. He loves FOOD (especially Sweet Tomatoes, his favorite restaurant), riding in his push car, Nickey and Snowball, dancing to upbeat music, Pororo, cars, trains, exploring new things, meeting new people, and taking baths because he loves playing in the water. If his current personality is a strong indication of what he’ll be like when he grows up, then we hope he’ll grow up into a cheery, positive, sociable boy who’s active, athletic, and loves to learn. :) (To quote Phoebe from Friends: "Are you guys talking about the same kid?")
I have a few aspirational resolutions for 2013, and a few that are very specific goals. Here they are below. Surprisingly (or maybe not), many of them touch upon very basic necessities:
Take at least 1 ballet class before the end of January.
Eat a well-balanced diet.
Get more sleep.
Be more optimistic.
Make 2013 the most transformative, productive, and prosperous year for 500 Startups.
Continue to absorb the startup / investor ecosystem in Korea. (a market which I’ve been personally interested for a long time) I hope that in the Spring 2013 accelerator batch, at least 1 company will hail from Korea.
At yesterday’s Startup School, Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann talked about how the secret behind Pinterest’s growth was marketing, not engineering. In the early days at only 3,000 users, they started holding local meetups w/ Pinterest users (largely women) and engaging w/ bloggers to spread the word. Even when you hear him talk about the company, it’s clear that engineering - while important - does not call all the shots. Marketing and design have equal seats at the table.
No matter what the startup is, marketing’s mission is the same — to tell the world about the product. However, the similarities end there. How you tell your target customers about your product and why it’s valuable couldn’t be more different from company to company. This is why marketing is so often misunderstood. Ask 5 different people what marketing does and you’ll get 5 different answers. However, if you keep that core mission in mind, it’ll be much easier to set marketing goals for your company.
In order to tell the world about your product, there are many important ingredients. Marketing’s responsibilities are as follows:
Positioning the product.Easier said than done, but it’s a critical exercise that every startup should go through. Take Foodspotting. In the early days, they ran the risk of being known as the product for “people who like to take pictures of their food.” However, they worked hard to position themselves as a “visual food discovery guide.. And that is what stuck.
Defining the target customer. To properly position your product, you need to understand and define your target customer. Understand what makes them tick, spending time w/ them regularly, and acting as their voice. (Arguably every stakeholder in the company should be doing this, not just marketing) Products can often have more than 1 target customer segment, but usually you shouldn’t exceed 3, and there is always a pecking order. (One type of customer will ultimately be more valuable than another)
Representing the customer voice in the product roadmap. Too often I see product decisions being made without incorporating marketing - at both small and big companies. Marketing can have an impact on key product and business decisions by representing the voice of the customer. Also, in order to properly market a product, marketing MUST understand the ins and outs of the product and how it works. To do so without that knowledge only makes your marketing weaker and less authentic.
Developing the company’s brand. The key to branding is identifying your core values/attributes and building a compelling narrative. Brands are powerful because of the emotional connection. How will your brand make your customers feel? It starts with the founders. Leah Busque built TaskRabbit after one snowy night in 2008 wishing there was a way to have someone else go out and buy dog food. Aihui Ong has an amazing personal story behind her company LoveWithFood which she shares openly on the website. Brian Wang and Richard Talens were inspired to start Fitocracy after their own personal transformations. Their narratives have been core to their brands, and it has served them well. The beauty of marketing in this day and age is that, like building a company, it’s much easier and cost-efficient. So invest time into blogging, tweeting, Facebook pages, videos, external messaging (website copy, email marketing, basically anything your product touches).
Acquiring customers. Marketing should build the customer acquisition strategy (define key marketing channels), execute on them, track results, and constantly be testing and iterating. Think of it like a stove with pots and pans on each burner. You have to keep an eye on each one, turn down the heat when something’s overflowing, and turn up the heat when something’s not cooking fast enough. Marketing channels can be either organic to the product (ex. changing the colors and copy of your sign-up button), or external (ex. SEM/PPC, SEO, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc). Note that all of this is closely integrated with all bullets mentioned above. For example, blogging is part of building your company’s voice. However, it may also be an effective acquisition tool and you’ll need to figure out how to track users coming in via your blogging.
Keeping customers happy. Call it customer retention or customer engagement - there is huge opportunity in marketing to your installed base. Get them to do more stuff, adopt more features, buy more, etc. Specific tactics may take the form of regular email communication, incentives to invite new customers (referral program), events and meetups, etc. Customer support also plays a huge role in customer happiness.
Should marketing be your first hire?
Yes, or if not your first hire, then bring someone on as early as possible. Many founders first hire engineers before they hire marketing because they think they need more hands on deck in building the product. The other reason is also that they themselves are engineers and don’t know what to look for in a marketing hire. I’d challenge any founder to think closely about how marketing fits into their company. Twilio hired Danielle Morrill as their first employee (and she was marketing). By not treating marketing like a second class citizen, that was one of the best decisions they ever made.
What if you don’t have the budget to hire a marketing person, and it’s just you and your co-founder who have zero marketing background/experience?
As a founder, you’re already wearing many different hats. You’re not just writing code, but you’re also raising money from investors, talking to reporters, taking out the trash, doing partnerships, and so on. Be scrappy and figure it out. Seek out mentors who can help guide your marketing strategy, and talk to other founders. If you’ve raised money, hopefully you’ve raised from good investors who are willing to help you. Tap into them and their networks.
Still don’t think you need a marketing person? Joe Kraus put it best. If you don’t think you need it, then you haven’t seen greatness.
The 5th installment of the 500 Startups Accelerator program kicked off a couple weeks ago. Since then, a lot has already happened - kickoff festivities, 1:1 metrics reviews with each company, and a field trip to visit Google’s HQ.
Blogging is like exercise. It’s critical to focus on building a strong brand that customers connect with, and a strong culture, even when it’s just the founders, and generating content (e.g. a blog) is key. Going through the 500 Accelerator is such a huge investment for these companies, especially for those who traveled halfway across the world to be here. Several companies have vowed to document their experience @ 500 on their company or personal blogs (some have already done so).
In the same spirit, I will do the same - publish weekly posts on what goes into running the 500 Accelerator program. Lessons learned, observations, my own humble advice on making an accelerator program successful and having a significant (positive) impact on the ‘bottom line’ for each company - more customers, revenue, growth, capital.
Each company coming into the accelerator program has a set of goals and milestones they plan to achieve by the end of the program. They often revolve around growth, revenue, hiring, and fundraising. In the same vein, I’d like to share a few high level goals for ourselves:
Enable companies to hit or exceed their milestones by giving strong mentorship, resources, 1:1 time, etc.
Improve our own intelligence of each company to make more data-driven, informed decisions for follow-on investments.
Deepen engagement w/ 500 Mentors - actively communicate ways to participate, invite them to accelerator events and more.
Improve Demo Days to have maximum (positive) impact for the companies.
One last thing to note - this was the first accelerator batch where we utilized an open application process. While the majority of the companies came through referrals, we decided to experiment with an open application process using AngelList’s platform to fill the remaining spots in the program. We were blown away by the number of applications - and strong ones, at that. It was definitely an experiment, and we learned a lot from it. We brought in a few strong companies that I am certain we would never have found otherwise.
We’ll be announcing this batch in a couple weeks. Stay tuned to meet them all.
In my last post, I covered how we built a strong community at 500 Startups among our companies. In this post, I will focus on how we built the 500 Mentor network. (Fun factoid: "Mentor" is a character in Greek mythology)
The 500 Mentors are a tribe of 180 people (and growing) who commit time and energy to help our startups. They:
are based all over the world
work at startups
work at big companies
have founded startups
have domain/operational expertise in one or more functional areas and verticals
do this all on a volunteer basis
may or may not invest in startups
are opinionated (I mean this in a good way)
LOVE helping entrepreneurs
LOVE 500 Startups
are LOVED by 500 Startups and our founders
Given mentors at a fund or accelerator program aren’t typically compensated for their time, there’s got to be something else that motivates them. From the beginning, we knew the 500 Mentors would be a very unique group. We wanted them to be as excited about helping our startups as we were, but we also were counting on them to help shape the direction of 500. To be able to come on board as a mentor to a brand new seed fund/accelerator program and actually help steer its direction was definitely a big motivator for the early mentors.
The following slide provides insight into how we approach mentoring. (screen shot from an internal team presentation I created for a recent partner offsite)
How it all got started, and what we’ve done so far:
We compiled a HUGE list of potential mentors from our networks - PayPal, Facebook fbFund, Google, YouTube, Mint, SimplyHired, and the list goes on. We categorized everyone w/ their areas of expertise, how we knew them, their location, and then rated each person by priority. (e.g. likely to be involved, maybe, not likely) We extended invitations to a small number of individuals to join us on this crazy journey and be one of the first 500 Startups mentors. In those days, I actually met with every single mentor in person or by phone. Given we were so new, it was a great way to get their feedback on what a successful mentor program should entail. I will never forget meeting Blake Commagere at SBUX and him warning me that I’d most likely be late for my next appointment due to his incessant chattering.
We created a charter in the form of a Google Doc that captured the goals and objectives for the 500 Mentor Program, the 500 Culture, and 500’s expectations and requirements of any mentor. Every new mentor received this doc when invited to join as a mentor.
We created a community. We felt this was key in getting mentors motivated. While helping startups was already a big motivator, for mentors to feel like they were part of a ‘tribe’ and develop relationships with fellow mentors was just as important. Similar to the 500 portfolio, we also created a Google Groups mailing list and encouraged interaction on that platform. We also kicked things off with the first ever mentor meetup (even before mentors actually started meeting w/ any companies). At the meetup, we gave an overview of 500 Startups and then had mentors split into breakout groups where everyone discussed topics like what good mentoring is/isn’t, how 500 could differentiate ourselves with our mentor program, etc.
We actively communicate with mentors and kept them abreast of the latest with 500 Startups, even if it wasn’t directly related to mentoring. In being open and transparent with the overall fund strategy, that in turn made mentors feel like we were entrusting them with important information and thus really valued the relationship.
We offer numerous ways to mentor. Given mentors all have different schedules and in many cases actual day jobs, we wanted the mentoring options to be flexible. So we offered numerous options - having mentors give talks to the accelerator batch, hold office hours, participate in 1:1 formal mentor/mentee relationships, assist with pitch prep, etc. In the last few months, we revamped the mentor program and instituted a monthly time commitment. Going back to one of the beginning of the post and one of the bullets being “opinionated” (about our mentors), we certainly did hear from them about this time commitment - both good and bad. But as the saying goes, there is a thin line between love and hate, and neither is as bad as indifference.
We hold quarterly meetups at the 500 office for all our mentors. It’s a chance for them to mingle, for us to share updates on 500 Startups, and hold “townhall” discussions for them to tell us what’s working, what’s not, etc. The big challenge of these meetups is that they’re only accessible to the mentors in the local area. Mentors outside of Silicon Valley aren’t able to participate as easily (unless they happen to be in town). To that end, we’ve encouraged mentors in other areas to self-organize 500 meetups in their local geo. And of course if someone from the 500 team happens to be in town at that time, we’ll most certainly join in.
We try to differentiate the mentor experience such that being a mentor for 500 is something unique. In addition to everything I already mentioned, we also come up with creative ways to engage mentors. With the last accelerator batch, we launched a mentor co-investment program where mentors could invest an accelerator company via $5,000 convertible notes. We pushed it out a bit hastily and have more work to do to make the process smoother, but we plan to do more stuff like that.
It really is amazing that we’ve recruited such an amazing group of people. I’m honored that they take time out of their busy schedules to mentor our companies and, in many ways, mentor us.
**From L-R, T-D: Andy Johns, Jenny Gove, Dror Shimshowitz, Blake Commagere, Hong Quan, Rebecca Meissner, Michal Kopec, James Levine, Natala Menezes, Jennifer Lum, Mike Greenfield, Christine Herron. They are 12 of our amazing mentors.
The number one reason that entrepreneurs are attracted to 500 Startups is our community. I call it the “500 Family” because it really is a family. Everyone helps each other, is quick to jump in and provide help, gives tough love, and gets into squabbles (or downright fighting). At the end of the day, there is always a sense of unity, of something bigger that connects us all. We call it #500STRONG.
Over 600 founders and 180 mentors make up the 500 Family. Recently, people have asked me how we went about creating and nurturing this tight-knit community. So I’m sharing part I of it in this post. Before I get into any specific tactics, I will take a step back and explain why the notion of #500STRONG matters to us.
Community must be in your DNA.
In the early days of 500, we thought long and hard about the 500 brand and what our identity and culture should be. Fun at all costs. Move quickly, make mistakes, fall down, and get back up again. Willingness to teach others and learn from each other. “Open” rules, stealth drools. Diversity wins. But we didn’t just want this to be the staff’s culture. We wanted it to embody the entire portfolio and mentor network. We knew we’d be investing in a high volume of companies but we didn’t want the value of our resources to be inversely proportional to the size of our portfolio. Rather, we wanted them to scale together. Our solution? Help our founders help each other and build a community for them. We also worked tirelessly to personify all those tenets of our culture in how we engaged with our companies, mentors, etc.
Create a brand that people are proud to be part of.
Meet any 500 Startups founder or mentor and I guarantee that they will tell you how proud they are to be part of 500. In building 500 Startups from the ground up, we relied heavily on our founders and mentors to help us shape the direction of the fund and the accelerator - possibly more than other funds do. In the early days, much of 500’s brand was still closely intertwined w/ Dave's personal brand. People knew of him, but not of 500. In the last 2 years, 500 alone has become a force to be reckoned with. Some call us edgy and rebellious, fighting tooth and nail for our startups. Others call us crazy, chaotic, and spread too thin. However we are perceived, there's no denying that people are drawn to the 500 brand.
How you support your startups speaks volumes.
Everyone says they’re founder friendly and that they help their startups. I’m sure there are many ways that we fall short in our founders’ eyes, but I still think we do a pretty awesome job (and sacrifice a lot of sleep while we’re at it). Beyond offering our own time and attention, we work really hard to help our founders. When startups announce funding, we tweet out that they’ve joined the 500 Family. In many cases, we help behind the scenes, connecting them w/ reporters and advising them on how they craft their launch announcements. We constantly play match maker, introducing companies and mentors to each other. We’re actively building out resources in areas like Design and Distribution, including our recent Growth Hacker-in-Residence hire. Our accelerator batches devise wacky videos to announce themselves (partly due to our encouragement), which we amplify with press outreach and social media. All of this helps to truly align the 500 brand with founders. Similar to what I said earlier, an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.
Now - the actionable stuff. Once you have the foundation set, what are some key tactics in building an engaged community?
Create and nurture an ACTIVE communication channel. A Google Groups mailing list might sound trivial at first, but it can make a huge difference. That’s what we started with. In the beginning, founders would still come to us directly with questions and I would direct them to email the list. I even “seeded” the list with questions to get conversations going. The first couple months were pretty quiet. Eventually, founders started to make more use of it, and the rest is history. The archives of our mailing list contain nuggets of wisdom that have benefitted everyone in the 500 portfolio. Now we have evolved into an awesome internal tool called dashboard that Paul is building - a hybrid of mailing lists, Quora, events calendar, directory, and messaging system. All for the 500 Family.
Create opportunities for the community to interact. We have the “luxury” of running an accelerator program and a physical office space that’s conducive to gatherings. So there’s ample opportunity for the 500 Family to participate and connect with each other — speaking or attending weekly talks, self-organizing meetups, attending one of our founder or mentor meetups, office hours, etc. Christen heads up all our events and conferences, which are also an amazing platform for our companies to get visibility as well as connect with folks inside and outside of the 500 community. Even if you don’t run a formal program, explore the idea of hosting a few workshops, talk series, or meetups for your companies. Many funds hold founder/CEO summits or events specifically for the [marketers/designers/engineers] of these companies, which is also a great way to increase connections among the portfolio.
We are all human. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable to your community. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve screwed up or dropped the ball on our companies because it’s far too many. For example, there was a big stink among the 500 Family about the fact that some of them never hear back from the 500 team when they refer/intro a prospective investment to us. In the end, we were pretty frank in acknowledging that we weren’t doing a good job and were open to ideas on how to fix it. And we really meant it.
Why does community matter for a VC fund/accelerator?
Truth be told, it may not matter. It really depends on what type of investor you want to be. If you’re only interested in writing checks, then community probably isn’t important to you. However, venture capital has gone through some dramatic changes in the last 10 years. To quote Dave’s recent post, "funds that offer serious expertise and mentorship in these areas have a substantial advantage – both in being able to attract higher quality founders and companies who want access to those resources, as well as the potential to improve financial outcomes by amplifying traction."
Another key reason to foster community - practicing the concept of paying it forward, something that pervades startup culture (at least in Silicon Valley). Building a company is a challenge like no other. It’s impossible to do it on your own. Knowing that you have access to a community that will be there for you, even if it’s just to bounce off ideas with, can help make the journey easier. That is what the 500 Family is.
In Part II, I will talk about building a strong mentor network as part of the community.
In the last couple months, I’ve met up with old colleagues who are curious about getting plugged into the startup/investing scene. They’re currently employed by big tech companies and haven’t actively been on the job hunt, but they’re intrigued by startups. Everyone’s motivations vary, but the most common one I’ve seen is that they’re hoping it will lead to something better (aka a new gig) or at the very least help them figure out what excites them.
Based on my own personal experience and what I’ve observed others do, here are a few tips I’ve gathered. This is not so much targeted at people who are completely new to Silicon Valley (Ryan Junee’s post is much better for that), but rather people who’ve been around for awhile and worked at big tech companies (ex. Google, Microsoft, etc).
Find ways to weave it into your day job.When I was at Google several years ago, I co-managed a marketing talks series. I was also a big fan of Fred Wilson’s blog (even before he had the avc.com domain). Although he wasn’t a marketing person, I decided to reach out to him anyway and invite him to speak. Which he did. I also helped organize Google mtgs for Seedcamp companies, rallying product managers across different teams to come meet w/ the startups. Think creatively about how you can weave it into what you already do.
Build your brand. A lot of being in the “startup scene” is about you as an individual and what you bring to the table. Sure, your company/resume helps a lot. But what else? That is the beauty of social media. Nowadays, it is easy for you to start building your identity. Start blogging. Tweet. Tweet at people. Be active on Facebook. Think about what your angle is and what perspective you can share. Everyone has something unique they bring to the table.
Read. Read. Read. There are countless blogs out there - founders, investors, company blogs, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, TheNextWeb, etc. Stay abreast of what’s going on. Don’t stress out if you don’t know EVERYTHING (plus it’s impossible to).
Participate in the conversation. Actively comment on other blogs. Tweet at them. Blog yourself. Don’t start a blog, and then post once every 2 months. Make the commitment to write at least a couple posts a week. It’s like exercise. Hard to get going at first, but eventually you get into a rhythm and after awhile, it feels weird not to do it. If your company will let you do it, then consider writing up a guest post for one of the big tech blogs like TechCrunch or GigaOM.
Leverage and grow your own network. Do you have friends/colleagues who’ve gone on to become entrepreneurs and/or investors? Keep in touch with them. One of the most valuable assets a person can bring to the table when it comes to helping startups is their network (aka their rolodex).
Show up at events, or organize one yourself. Now I wouldn’t overdo it and try to attend any and every event/conference. (plus it gets pretty expensive if you’re paying for a ticket) But there are plenty of free or low-cost events where you can meet people — startup happy hours, meetups, hackathons, etc. An ex-Google colleague of mine recently started organizing small ‘women in tech’ dinners at her apartment. You can get creative and try organizing such events yourself. You never know where they might take you.
Take advantage of the “pay it forward” culture. In the startup community, especially in Silicon Valley, there is a very “pay it forward” culture. People are usually very willing to help out strangers and meet them (as long as there is a somewhat close degree of separation), without expecting anything in return. I was amazed at how willing many colleagues were to introduce me to various folks in the startup/investor world simply to have a conversation. I look back on these meetings and appreciate the time they took to chat.
Become an angel investor. If you have the financial means to invest in startups, then by all means go for it. Especially now with the advent of AngelList and the fact that most startups raise from angels first (not big VCs), there’s never been a better time to be an angel. Also, contrary to what you might think, you do not need to be some billionaire to invest in startups. An angel investment can be as small as $5-10K. (depending on what minimum amount a startup wants to accept from investors)
Mentor startups. What better way to get plugged into the startup world than to actually spend time w/ startups? With the increasing number of accelerator programs out there, there are more opportunities to get involved with startups by volunteering time to mentor them. And despite what naysayers say, you do not have to have been a startup founder in order to be helpful to startups.
And finally, take hundreds of coffee meetings. I used to think this type of thing was overrated and that you should always have some clear agenda for any meeting. Sure, there is a time and place for that. However, there is also something to be said about serendipity. Jeffrey Bussgang calls it the “siren song of serendipity” and declares that by putting yourself in more situations like this, it can lead to more serendipitous moments. But that aside, it’s an awesome opportunity to learn from others. That’s how you should always approach these meetings - yet another chance to learn something new and make yourself think. That’s why I love what I do.
Hopefully this is helpful. If you have any suggestions for other ways to get plugged into startups, please leave a comment.
In life, you do not get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.
This seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Why? Because at one point or another, everyone has witnessed and experienced that feeling. You work hard, people around you agree, and you produce awesome results. Yet somehow…
you get passed over for a promotion or raise
others get credit for your work
others take credit for your work
you can’t convince investors to believe in you and your company
you don’t land an offer for a job you really want and are convinced you’re the perfect fit for
… and the list goes on.
Whatever happened to that old adage “Good things come to those who wait?” Even the new version of this adage “Good things come to those who work their asses off and never give up” doesn’t quite ring true. Rather, the most accurate adage seems to be “Good things come to those who are loud about what they do and ask for what they want.”
If you really deserve good things, then why you have to ask for it? It is a question I’ve asked myself many times throughout my career. Long ago, I used to think, "If I work hard and do great things, then people will recognize that and recognize me for it. Why should I have to constantly remind people of my accomplishments? Shouldn’t they notice it already?" That recognition rarely happens. In fact, what’s more likely to happen is something bad. I have countless painful examples from my career to prove that point. Interestingly, bad things always seemed to happen when I felt like I was on a roll - when things were going really well, and I was proud of and super excited about what I was doing. There’s always someone wanting to bring you down or get a piece of the action.
Life is unfair. You’re an awesome startup that’s solving a huge problem for a huge billion dollar market. Yet investors push back and say “this market isn’t big enough,” or ask to see more traction… and then they turn around and fund another company that has barely launched. You’re running an incredibly successful project and leading an entire team and producing great results… and then you find out that rather than you getting promoted, someone else is coming in to manage you and your team - the role you think you deserve.
What I’ve learned from all that pain is this:
Know your worth, be loud about it, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
It may go against your nature to ask for that raise, to ask for that promotion, to ask for investors to fund you, etc. But you absolutely MUST step outside your comfort zone if it means getting what you want. And asking for stuff always involves negotiation. Everything in life involves negotiation. Don’t expect people to read your mind. If you never say anything, then nothing will ever change and people won’t know what you want or who you are.
Finally - don’t get what you want the first time around? Dust yourself off and try again. And again. And again and again. I have many perseverance stories I’d love to share, but I’ll save that for another time.
The measure of a truly remarkable (ballet) dancer is not the beauty of her lines or how graceful she is. It is in the quality of her footwork during petite allegro, because that is the most difficult skill to master. Many underestimate the sheer amount of precision, speed, strength, and nimbleness required to look as if you’re effortlessly prancing about.
This can be analogized to being an entrepreneur. There is really only 1 reason startups close shop - they run out of money. The reasons they run out of money are numerous- they weren’t able to prove product-market fit, failed to find fruitful distribution channels (or found them but weren’t able to execute), couldn’t raise outside funding, etc… and burned through their capital before they could figure things out. The running theme here is time. Startups must move quickly - whether that means product (launch and iterate and launch again, rinse and repeat) or getting distribution or closing investors or hiring. Patience may be a virtue, but an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. The more quickly you move, actually produce something (even if they’re bad), and react, the better off your company is.
Don’t get me wrong. It is hard. It’s easy to be reckless and move fast. It’s much harder to move quickly in a ‘smart’ manner. Unfortunately, I was always terrible at petite allegro. So I always felt like that limited my ability to really excel at ballet (that and my feet). Hopefully that doesn’t carry over into my professional life :)
Last month, I had the honor of having my writing published on TechCrunch. I was overwhelmed (in a good way) at how much the piece resonated with readers, especially parents and/or entrepreneurs (or some who were both). And without further adieu, here it is:
Parenthood is the closest thing I’ve found to entrepreneurship. Looks cool from the outside but can be really messy inside. Everyone has advice, you work like a dog, the highs are amazing and lows horrendous, and it is the best thing ever.
A 500 Startups company founder emailed me this recently, and I found it to be the best analogy I’ve heard in a long time. Being a parent and being an entrepreneur are quite similar. Allow me to elaborate based on my experience as a mom so far and someone who works very closely with entrepreneurs.
Looks cool from the outside but can be really messy inside.
Jeff Lu of Daily Aisle said it best in a recent blog post he wrote about the hardships of doing a startup:
I find it entertaining observing other startup founders. We all ask each other how everything is going and we all answer “GREAT” and then like a PR firm, we spew the latest good news spin. I then go grab drinks with a few close founder friends and we order stiff drinks, stare off like zombies, and talk about all the things going wrong with our companies.
From an outsider’s perspective, things could appear to be going very well. Yet people are blithely unaware of the fact that you’re still struggling to make money, you can’t figure out why your customers aren’t converting into paying customers, you get the sinking feeling you’re going to have to fire one of your employees, you and your co-founder aren’t seeing eye to eye. The only toilet in your office bathroom keeps clogging. Every night you go to bed (when you actually sleep in your bed) and have trouble falling asleep because you’re worrying about all these problems.
Motherhood is also something where oftentimes you feel like you’re forced to plaster a smile on your face whenever someone asks you about how things are going. What you expose to the world is carefully curated – my son’s blog features photos and videos that make it seem like having a baby is fun and easy. The reality? You’re running on fumes with only a couple hours of sleep each night. You barely have enough time to eat a full meal. Every little thing freaks you out and sends you running to the pediatrician. The job literally is messy, too — poopy diapers, spit-up, streams of pee all over your clothes, projectile poops, drool. To be fair, it’s especially difficult when your child is an infant, and most parents will tell you that it keeps getting better and better. But with a new age comes a new set of challenges. So I don’t believe things ever get “easier.”
Everyone has advice.
Launch now. No, launch in 6 months. You should be selling to small businesses. No, you should be selling directly to consumers. Raise a small advisory round now. No, hold off and raise a huge seed round. Your company name is holding you back from getting more customers – change it.
It’s in your best interest to be talking to as many people as possible about your startup. However, this presents a challenge when you’re in coffee meeting after coffee meeting and everyone is doling out all sorts of advice. How do you know who to listen to? Your head spins after hearing all this advice.
Moms get their fair share of conflicting advice, with a heaping of unsolicited advice. Parents debate the pros/cons of different types of disposable diapers, whether the supposed carcinogens in Johnson & Johnson baby products hurt their kids who used it, which method of sleep training to use. The fact that there is no right or wrong answer and the fact that you’re already on edge about every little decision and how it’ll potentially impact your child in the long run, makes parenthood all the more confusing.
You work like a dog.
Entrepreneurs don’t have a regular 9-5 work day. They don’t take vacations. They live and breathe their business 24/7 and wear many different hats. Polyvore co-founder Jess Lee notes in this Fast Company article how she wrote code, sold ads, did dishes, and went on food runs. A few of our founders shared their lesser known roles at their companies in this blog post.
I can say without a doubt that being a mom is the ultimate test of my multi-tasking skills. I spend my day meeting startup after startup, helping our portfolio companies, bringing in speakers, and soon gearing up for Demo Day for our accelerator program. I am also my son’s diaper changer, food source, coach, laundry service, dish washer (or rather, bottle washer), and medical aide. I take phone calls with startups while also supervising my son as he plays on his activity mat and editing slides for an upcoming fund advisory meeting. Once he’s down for the night, I’m back on my laptop. Everyday is a marathon, where I’m left completely wiped out at the end. And then the sun rises and it starts all over again.
The highs are amazing and lows horrendous.
Very few people talk about the emotional roller coaster that comes with being a founder. Even with the most successful businesses, it’s rarely pretty behind the scenes. You make tough decisions, deal with rejection, lose money, lose customers, argue with your co-founders. Founders put everything on the line to start their companies, and it takes a toll on everyone around them. That said, when things are good, they can be good. You feel on top of the world when you land your first paying customer, close a round of funding, hit 500K users, hire awesome people.
Moms know exactly how that feels. Some days I am SuperWoman. I can do anything and everything and feel that I truly do have it all — an awesome baby, awesome family, awesome job, awesome everything! I pat myself on the back for being able to get my son ready for the day, having a bunch of good meetings, and making it home on time while also keeping the house tidy and organized. Then there are days where I feel like I’m failing at home, failing at work, just failing all over the place. Basically, like I’ve hit rock bottom.
It is the best thing ever.
I’ve never met an entrepreneur who regretted taking that path, even if it cost them everything. I’ve never met a parent who regretted having children, no matter what sacrifices they made to raise them. Startuphood and parenthood are not for the faint of heart. But that’s what makes the journey so rewarding and such a thrill. You learn so much about yourself and surprise yourself with what you’re really made of when you’re pushed past your limits.
What I’ve found therapeutic is knowing that I’m not alone. Hearing other parents’ trials and tribulations makes me realize that, in fact, I’m not doing too shabby of a job and that it isn’t just me who finds this whole parenting thing difficult. In the same vein, entrepreneurs should never feel like they’re alone. I sincerely hope that every entrepreneur out there feels like they can be truly honest and transparent about their emotions and struggles — if not to a wide audience, then at least to a small circle of confidantes. It’s never good to keep all that bottled up inside of you. We’re allowed to be human.
As counter-intuitive as this may seem coming from someone who’s a VC – while running a company may seem like it’s all about the destination (or exit), it is the journey that ultimately has the most significance.
Above: A slice of red velvet cake (my favorite kind of cake)
2011 has been an exciting, transformational year for me, to say the least. In July, we became parents when our sweet little boy Brendan joined us, making us a party of 5 including our canine kids Nickey and Snowball. You could say this has been the Year of Brendan.
As I turn 31 today, here are a few life lessons I’ve learned over the past year:
An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. My favorite quote and something I try to live by. Life is far too short to be merely thinking about doing things. Just do it.
Invest time in your relationships - personal and professional. Even something as simple as a “hey how’s it going” email or phone call, or meet up for coffee. It’s the little things that matter. "It doesn’t matter what you say about someone once they’re gone. What matters is how you treat them when they’re still here." So true. (Bonus points to anyone who can identify that quote)
Have an opinion and make yourself heard. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong or if people disagree with you. On a related note, don’t be afraid to be direct and say what you really think.
Be efficient. Get the most out of doing the least. This is an absolute MUST for me when time is so precious everyday. For example, rather than washing the dishes, I’ve been using the dishwasher a lot more. I haven’t had time to make something for holiday potlucks this season, so I’ve resorted to buying dishes. I’m still learning how optimize my time, but multi-tasking is definitely key.
Always be learning. Every moment is an opportunity to learn something, especially when you meet new people. That’s one of the great things about my job - having conversations with so many amazing people and learning something new everyday. To quote Steve Jobs, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
You ARE in control. Stress happens when you feel powerless. The best way to relieve this? Intervene and take control. Make decisions. You’ll be surprised at how much this helps.
Take care of yourself. It’s easy to let everyday go by and forget about yourself. Life is so busy with work, errands, kids, etc. I’m certainly guilty of this. But don’t forget to slow down and do something for yourself. Ideally do something everyday that makes you happy, even if it’s something small - take a walk, grab coffee from your favorite cafe, read a magazine leisurely, whatever. Maintain your mind-body health. After all, your health is your greatest wealth.
Here’s to an eventful, wonderful, fun-filled 2012!
Last night, we had the unfortunate task of having to call a plumber over to fix our drain. Water and gunk had overflowed from the bathtub drain and our toilet was also leaking water from the back, causing a mini flood in the bathroom.
We’d noticed some signs of a problem before (occasionally the bathtub would drain slowly, etc.), but it always seemed to clear up on its own. So we let it be, thinking we’d need to eventually get a plumber to come out and check out our pipes. Looking back now, I wish we’d called someone out at the first sign of a problem. Then we could have saved ourselves a lot of headache. It would have also been easier on our wallet - plumbing services after hours often have a 50-60% surcharge (or more).
Life often works that way, doesn’t it? Until something becomes a huge problem and increases in urgency, we aren’t motivated to take action. “It’s probably nothing to worry about”… “I’ll take care of it later”. We procrastinate, we de-prioritize the problem, we convince ourselves it’s not really a problem, or we stick our head in the sand and don’t want to deal it. It’s only in hindsight after the sh*t hits the fan that we regret not having taken action sooner. It may have been painful back then, but the worse the problem gets, the more painful and daunting it becomes to address it.
Granted, things don’t always blow up because people avoid dealing with it. Sometimes you just don’t realize something bad is brewing. Sometimes all the signs are there, but we fail to put the pieces together - especially when our lives are so busy and we have so many things to worry about.
I don’t have a great answer to this, but it seems that one way to mitigate molehills actually turning into mountains is to address and fix problems as soon as they come up, rather than passively waiting. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Especially in the startup world, time is of the essence. When your team is small and you’re operating on a limited amount of capital, you can’t afford to let problems fester (whether they be product-related, customer-related, investor-related, or staff/employee-related).
One other area you should NEVER put off - your health. Better to be conservative and be a worrywart than to let things be. Your health is by far your greatest wealth.
I have never felt more adamant about all this than since Brendan was born. Partly because now my life is even busier than before and I can’t afford to put things off, and also because I want to set a good example for him and make sure he doesn’t procrastinate. Regardless, it doesn’t take a baby to realize that it’s much easier to fix small problems than to fix ginormous problems.
And if you find your drain is backing up, call up a plumber ASAP. Just hope it isn’t after hours!
Even though I’ve had ~9 months to prepare myself psychologically and emotionally for this huge upheaval in my life, I realize that nothing will ever truly prepare you. You can read all the books and get advice from all the people in the world, but until you actually experience it yourself, you won’t truly know what being a mother and parent is like. So I try to reassure myself that me not feeling ready for this baby is totally normal.
This is the first time I’ve actually talked about this ‘externally’ - e.g. on any social media. Rather than spurious Facebook updates or tweets, I thought I’d try to capture some of my thoughts and emotions with this post.
Now that I’m in the home stretch, I reflect back on the last 9 months and am amazed at just how quickly time has flown by and just the sheer physical and emotional demands of pregnancy. On the physical side of things, I’m thankful that my pregnancy has been pretty smooth. Even as I’m approaching 37 weeks, I’ve still been pretty active and coming in to the office every day.
In terms of emotions.. well. That’s another story.
Pregnancy is an emotional roller coaster, which is easy to chalk up to hormones. Hormones aside, it is a huge change in a person’s life and identity - albeit a very positive change - but definitely a life-changing event that is full of mixed emotions. Happiness, elatedness, anticipation… and then the less positive emotions: worry, doubtfulness, fear. The world expects expectant mothers to be nothing but “over the moon” about their babies. In reality, it is much more complex than that.
Two of the biggest worries I believe most women have are one, whether they’re well-equipped to be a good parent, and two, what will the impact be on their career (and related to this, work-life balance). Ever since I saw my little guy via ultrasound and he looked like a gingerbread cookie (making one of his many nicknames “Gingerbread/GB”), I’ve worried every single day about whether I will be a good mother. I get all sorts of reactions when I actually tell people this, but despite all the reassurance that I will do a great job, I continue to worry. Being responsible for a human life is like no other responsibility, and I have no idea what to expect. I have high hopes for our child, and yet ultimately I know he will be his own person and just want him to be happy, healthy, and feel well-loved. But I’m starting to think this feeling is perpetual. My son will probably be 18 years old, off to college, and I will still be anxious about whether I am a good mom. Welcome to parenthood? Perhaps.
Now the other worry. Career. This is probably one of the foremost reasons why women hold off having kids. They worry that having children will prevent them from achieving their professional goals and otherwise have a negative impact on their careers. These worries aren’t selfish, nor are they trivial. While your career doesn’t necessarily define you completely as a person, it is a huge part of who you are. It’s something I’ve definitely worried about.
Again, I get all sorts of reactions when I talk about this. Most of them involve brushing me off, saying that I’m crazy or stupid to think I’ll be phased out or that I have anything to worry about in terms of work. I give these people the benefit of the doubt because they probably just don’t want me to worry. Regardless, every now and then (or admittedly more often than that), I still worry about being away on maternity leave and being phased out, what life will be like attempting to balance work and kids and whether I will fail at one or the other (or at both). Any pregnant working woman who denies such feelings is lying through their teeth.
So how do I respond to this and not let such worries consume me? (especially someone like me who’s one of the biggest worrywarts ever) It’s not easy, and some days are better than others. But this is what I try to do.
I try my best to remind myself how lucky I am to have so much support at every angle - both at home and at work. I know how fortunate I am to have so much support from my partner, team, and our startups. To quote a favorite blogger of mine, "Motherhood is simply a fact of life for many/most women and that it should not be a hurdle for women entrepreneurs. We just need the men [and women] in their lives (husbands, co-founders, investors, etc) to be supportive of their "side project". It’s a damn important one." This extends not just to women entrepreneurs, but to any working woman.
From my perspective as a woman VC, you hear stories about VCs being reluctant to hire female partners because of the potential for them to get pregnant and be “out of commission” for a certain amount of time. Or VCs who are reluctant to fund pregnant entrepreneurs. However, more and more, this line of thinking is becoming irrelevant. Personally, I’ve yet to come across anyone who’s questioned my abilities because of my pregnancy. In my opinion, it’s actually helped me to become a better investor and better understand startups who are trying to solve problems for women, mothers, and/or parents - customer segments that we love to invest in. It’s made me pay more attention to initiatives like Women 2.0 and women entrepreneurs in general - particularly those who are mothers. I’m experiencing firsthand the problems that these customer segments face, and I’m hungry to see startups that try to tackle these problems. (More on that for a future post)
Despite the naysayers, I firmly believe women *can* have it all - happy family, successful career, and a well-balanced life. Nothing’s gotta give. It’s just about having the right support system both at home and at work and getting rid of the stuff that prevents you from spending time on those three things. I just have to remember to listen to my own advice.
Thick skin is an entrepreneur’s armor. Given how tough it is to get your ideas off the ground and run a startup, it’s no surprise that rejection and failure happen more often than not and that founders should be used to hearing “No.”
The problem? You don’t always hear “No.”
Talk to any entrepreneur who’s gone fundraising and s/he will talk about investors who seem interested at first, but then post-meeting they either 1. go radio silent, 2. give some vague answer when asked point blank if this is something they’d want to fund, 3. string you along and request that you keep them updated if you get other investors to commit, or 4. actually do say no, but don’t give much of a reason other than “This isn’t really something we invest in.”
I’m definitely guilty of one or more of these tactics. Every investor is.
To be fair, it’s not easy to be upfront. No one wants to tell another person that their baby is ugly. The problem is that this does a disservice to the entrepreneur. And in the “Pay It Forward” culture that is Silicon Valley, I believe that offering honest feedback - as uncomfortable as it may be - is the best thing you can do for a startup. You don’t have to be an ass about it, but you should try to be honest. Whether you have concerns about the actual product, the ability of the team to execute, some aspect of their strategy that you disagree with, the market they’re in, etc., constructive criticism is valuable.
Finally, for the startups who are convinced that an investor who rejected them made the wrong decision - they may be right. The investor could very well be wrong about them. Which brings me to this key point - as much as people try to make investing more “scientific”, particularly at the seed stage, at the end of the day you realize that it really isn’t and maybe never will be. There may be certain signals or qualities you look for in a founding team that will likely set them up for success. But in the end, a lot of it comes down to plain old human interaction. Maybe the investor was having a bad day. Maybe the idea was great, but the chemistry wasn’t there. Maybe the investor only wants to participate if someone else is doing it. (How often do you hear investors jumping in on a deal because “so and so” is also investing? Social proof, though not always the best reason to invest, is nonetheless powerful) Having a high EQ is one of the most valuable tools you can have in your arsenal. (along with the thick skin, of course)
I certainly don’t claim to be perfect, so hopefully publishing this post will keep me accountable to being transparent about why I might say “no”.