IronBrandon is dedicated to triathlon, running, cycling, swimming and the people who get out and do it...
Have you ever eaten squash blossoms? The thought of preparing them always seemed a little daunting to me, until a friend made some for me for a traditional Mexican quesadilla (Quesadilla de Flor de Calabazas). They’re so easy! You just roughly chop them and sauté them with onions and garlic. The flavor is lovely, like zucchini but more delicate, and perfect in a quesadilla with cheese and corn tortillas.
|standing by reformer|
|protein packed breakfast|
|dense and delicious|
|braving the chilly water|
|proud to stand in the sand|
|lovin the waves|
|beaching with my girls|
If there's one thing we've basically figured out in the digital world, it's marketing. There's no more well tread aspect of building an online business than marketing. We've got more channels, tools, and analytics to tell you weather or not it's working than you can shake a stick at.
It's table stakes. You spend some dollars to get more dollars out. It's not complicated.
That's why I care much more about engagement--do people like what you built, versus whether or not more people used it today than they did yesterday. Plus, the startup world is littered with companies that grew exponentially without becoming successful--Fab, Turntable, Dailybooth, etc.
If people engage regularly with your product, but you can't get more people to use it, you've got a marketing problem. Marketing problems, for the most part, are solvable by a very distinct set of best practices. You've just got to figure out why the current set of people like it, and find more of them. Now, maybe there just aren't that many people out there, but for the most part I see a lot of low hanging fruit ways that marketing could improve.
On the other hand, if people are coming, but they're not engaging, you've got a product problem. Sometimes, it's easily fixible. Other times, you're just so way off on product/market fit that you've fallen into "bad idea" territory, and there's really no timetable for fixing a bad idea.
On top of that, there's another problem that startups have more trouble figuring out than marketing--scaling. What do you do when you actually start getting people in the door? How does your sales support staff change? Where's the first bottleneck? Does the experience in your marketplace suffer at all because you've got an influx of too many sellers, or buyers?
In a seed round, I think it's safer to prove engagement and the ability to create a scalable process, than to load up on customers. This way, you know that you've got enough in place not to fall apart when you do grow.
That being said, I'm tired of companies saying "And we haven't spent any money on marketing." The fact that marketing is a commodity, to me, means that this is a box you should have already tested in some way. If it's not 100% obvious why someone would use your product or how they could be marketed to, not doing any market testing is like saying "I ran the marathon with one shoe!"
Why would you do that, let alone why would you be proud of it? If anything, it just confuses an investor. Do you not know how to market this company? Are the channels for acquisition unclear? No one says you have to spend tons of money on this, but to spend zero seems bewildering.
You could spend it on Google ads, Facebook, PR, content marketing, referral programs... really, anything. While marketing isn't a secret magic sauce that will turn your startup successful, it's certainly going to tell you a lot about whether your product resonates.
You need some minimum amount of people coming through the door to tell whether you've got something.
So let's recap this meandering Monday morning post:
Early on, engagement is better than growth.
People have figured out how to do marketing--you should go learn what everyone else knows.
It's a basic part of running a business, so don't skip it entirely either.
There’s a reason why the Southern dish of stewed okra and tomatoes is timeless. It’s just plain good. First you start with browning some bacon, then you add the holy trinity—onions, bell pepper, and celery, then the tomatoes, okra and spices. Everything is cooked together until tender and almost falling apart.
My father is somewhat of a homebody. He doesn’t often drop by unannounced, but when he does, there’s usually food involved, especially if that food includes chocolate, or cake, or in this case both. This chocolate bundt cake can feed many, so I was happy to have dad’s enthusiastic support enjoying it. (He gives it “two thumbs up”!)
I'm excited to share that goTenna, a Brooklyn Bridge Ventures portfolio company, has launched the presale of its point to point communications device.
Have you ever texted anyone in the same room and thought about the infrastructure behind it--about where that message travels to, the great distances it gets bounced around, all to travel ten feet, in just milliseconds.
It's pretty magical.
It's also pretty stupid, technically speaking.
When you can literally see someone else's phone, even a three year old would suggest that the message should go from point A to point B on a pretty straight line.
There's a lot of other things about telecommunications that a three year old would probably agree with--that no one should ever be able to read your message, except the person who sent it to you.
And if you go on a remote camping trip and one of you gets lost on your way to the hole in the ground behind a tree, you should be able to contact each other if you both have phones.
These situations--the lack of coverage in emergencies, the need for privacy, and the ability to offload point to point communications--make goTenna a pretty handy device to have around. It is a small piece of hardware that syncs up with your phone, freeing it from the carrier network and enabling point to point communication.
But handy isn't why I backed it. Handy is the first step to gamechanging.
I met Daniela Perdomo over a year ago at SXSW. I was scanning the SXSWSocial network for anyone that had tagged themselves "Brooklyn". Daniela's profile came up and I noticed that she was involved with NYC Resistor, the hardware hackerspace that Makerbot came out of. I tweeted at her in response to a post about cheese.
@danielaperdomo That is serious! BTW... Putting together a little dinner of folks Sun night. Would love to meet a Bklyn maker/Resistor.— Charlie O'Donnell (@ceonyc) March 9, 2013
We agreed to meet up and she told me what she was working on. I had no idea she was a founder with a startup. I just wanted to meet the hardware hackers from Brooklyn. When she told me she was working with her brother Jorge on disconnecting phones from the network, and reconnecting them directly to each other, I was intrigued. We met back in NYC and after another meeting, I agreed to give her terms and lead the seed round.
Fundraising wasn't an easy road. She pounded the pavement for months looking for other investors who also wanted to take a shot at a first time founder team on a towercutting project. To get there on goTenna, you had to believe in the near term usefulness of the device, but also be excited enough about the possibilities around mesh networks. You have to understand how decentralizing the system makes it more resillient. No longer should anyone in a city as dense as NYC should ever go without the ability to communicate with their phones in an emergency--not when the nearest device to you is likely within a mile of you.
Whether she got better at pitching or the tides turned in the hardware space in general, I'm excited that some investors eventually did step up--and when they did, the seed round became oversubscribed, totalling $1.8 million. It's been great to work with Karin at Bloomberg Beta, Alberto at Collaborative Fund, and Brett from MentorTech, and to have supporters like A16Z and NY Angels. I'm really proud of the work of the people behind the company--Daniela, Jorge, John Levy, who has been with them from the very early days, and their whole tech team.
I'm buying a pair of goTennas because the next time I do the Ragnar running relay, and I roll my ankle at 2AM on the side of a deserted highway, I want to be able to text the van down the road to come see if I'm ok.
I'm investing in goTenna because the grand experiment of untethering from the cellphone tower is a worthwhile one.
There's been some writing about how VCs and founders interact with each other and it inspired me to take a step back and reflect on what my role is supposed to be with regards to the investments I make and the founders I deal with.
Here's what I came up with...
First, I have a fiduciary responsibility to my investors who entrusted me with money in the first place. If I don't do right by them, then I have no money, no fund, no career, full stop. They count on me to be a good steward of their capital, and to take reasonable and appropriate risk with the expectation of a certain level of returns.
That also means that I need to act in a way that ensures my ability to get future opportunities to invest their capital in attractive deals. Rather than using my investors as an excuse to be short-sighted and screw over the first entrepreneur that works in the door, I need to balance their need for return with the long term viability and reputation of the fund and the firm. I believe that ethics and opportunity for investors will go hand in hand over the long term--and opportunity drives returns.
It also means I need to be really careful about how I'm spending my time. I want to be helpful to a lot more people than I'm able to spend time with, but I can't distract myself too much from this clear and primary mission.
Second, I am a provider of capital--so my check needs to clear and I need to be transparent about when and if I plan to invest, or if entrepreneurs should look elsewhere.
Third, I try to help my teams be the best company managers they can be--because ultimately, no matter how much help I can be, it's up to them to do most of the heavy lifting. That does not mean telling them how to run the company, but to help them create a management discipline--a framework for thinking about problems and solutions. I am there, along with other investors and board members to audit their thinking--to make sure they were considerate about the plans *they* came up with, not me.
Fourth, I am highly incentivized to provide assistance to my portfolio companies in any way that I can--whether it means connections to talent, PR, other capital, customers, etc.
Fifth, as I intend to be a long term participant in the innovation ecosystem, I have a role to support and champion the community at large. This means that it's important to me to be supportive of everyone's success, not just those I back, since it's not a zero sum game. I, along with my investors and my portfolio, will have the best chance of success when the ecosystems we participate in, especially the geographic ones, fully support high growth entrepreneurship.
Here's what I am not:
I am not necessarily an entrepreneur's friend. Granted, over the course of working together, we can become friends--and sometimes I might actually back a friend--but just because you invest money in someone's company doesn't make you friends. This is a professional relationship and we're here to grow an enterprise.
I am not an expert. Maybe ten years from now, when I've got lots more exits under my own watch, you can call me that, but for now, I consider myself a really ambitious student. I'm learning everyday and I count on founders to be the ones that bring the best insight into the problems they face in their industry. If I can provide helpful context about some of the seed stage startup best practices, great, but they know their company best.
I am not anyone but myself, or the next anyone. I'm not trying to be the next Fred Wilson, Josh Kopelman, Marc Andreeson, etc. I am creating a lifestyle and a firm that works best for my strengths and how I want to spend my time, and who I want to spend it with. I am not trying to build a big firm, employ a lot of people, or manage the most money possible. I just want to do my thing for as long as my investors and the future founders I have the opportunity to back will let me.
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