May 24, 2007

Lessons from Startup School

In his VentureBeat article, Mark Coker provides an interesting roundup of "the more compelling tips given by several tech industry luminaries — including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Gmail creator Paul Buchheit, Sequoia Capital venture capitalist Greg McAdoo — at the Y Combinator Startup School event.

Zuckerberg: He said it’s important to hire mostly coders, even in the marketing department, so if they want to change something on the web site all they have to do is log into the back-end and change copy on the fly.

Levchin:
For user interface, Levchin told the audience to measure how their visitors interact with the sites. Slide.com tracks mouse clicks, mouse overs, abandonment rates, the funnel, and more. Levchin and his team mine the data for intelligence that helps guide future iterations of the site.

For channeling the user, Levchin says founders must step inside the minds of their target customers. In Levchin’s case, he says he must imagine himself as a 15-year-old girl with attention deficit disorder who’s looking for digital bling to dress up her MySpace or Zanga web page, while at the same time she’s chewing gum, talking on the phone, instant messaging with five friends, listening to music, and twirling her fingers through her hair.

Levchin cautioned his techie audience to keep their customers in mind and not go overboard with technology for technology’s sake. He pointed to the early social networking site, Friendster, which lost critical momentum when it ran into scaling problems because of a “cool” feature that calculated friend trees, and caused page load times of up to a minute. MySpace.com, by contrast, was successful because it cared less about technology and more about the user experience.

Partovi brothers:
The brothers warned founders to maintain a razor sharp focus on their company’s primary purpose. Ideas are a dime a dozen, they said. Founders should pick one thing and do it well. They cited eBay’s acquisition of Skype as an endeavor that could spread the company too thin, and distract it from its main auction business.

They said companies must make hiring a top priority, and should cultivate and protect their company culture. Perhaps just as important, founders should learn to quickly fire bad hires, because a single bad hire can poison morale.

Kapor:
Kapor also stressed the importance of creating a great company culture. He said founders set the culture, and it’s important to understand every action or inaction of the founders sends a message to employees. Hire great people, embrace diversity and resist trying to fit every employee into the same cookie-cutter mold, he said.

Kapor, who once worked at Valley VC firm, Accel Partners, advised entrepreneurs to tread cautiously with venture capitalists, and to understand where their interests are aligned and where they diverge.

Venture funds typically invest in a portfolio of 30 companies. They expect one or two big winners to supply the majority of the portfolio’s returns. Kapor says this can lead VCs to pressure their portfolio companies to go for the home run and risk striking out completely, when more sensible logic might dictate swinging for a single or a double instead.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder & CEO of Venture Intelligence, the leading provider of information and networking services to the Private Equity and Venture Capital ecosystem in India. View sample issues of Venture Intelligence India newsletters and reports.