Blog by Steve Seow:
On March 16 in Seattle, I partnered with Luis Aburto, CEO of Scio Consulting (a local Azure consulting group) to host Startup Conversations. Pitching in with organizing the event was Red Russak of Startup City with the exquisite space sponsored by Seaton Gras of SURFIncubator (GeekWire story).
About Startup Conversations
Startup Conversations was an expression of our commitment to partner up with the entrepreneur community to provide value back to the community. In this case, this event was about creating a casual environment that fosters candid conversations between startups and the institutions and other influential entities, such as investors, incubators, etc., that support these startups.
Startup Conversations, startups met with investors, incubators, and other influential in a casual setting.
A good way to think about the format of the event is the following: most events center on a unidirectional communication from speaker to audience, with very little time devoted to Q and A at the tail end. Startup Conversations, on the other hand, is all Q and A, with only a few guiding themes, allowing an “organic” exploration of topics that the community cares about.
Meet the I’s: Investors, Incubators, and Influentials
Luis and I were very fortunate in securing a very good mix of professionals to serve as panelists. We had representatives covering angel investment, incubation and accelerator programs, and even the local media. Here’s the list of I’s:
Mike Crill CEO, Atlas Accelerator
Seaton Gras Founder, SURFIncubator
Rahul Sood Founder, VooDooPC
Chris DeVore Founder, TechStars & Founders Co-op
Rebecca Lovell CBO, GeekWire
Adam Stelle COO, Startup Weekend
Yi-Jian Ngo Managing Director, Alliance of Angels
A total of about 50 entrepreneurs attended the event. (Some showed up without registering, thus the approximation). About 20% identified themselves as ‘Creatives’, about 25% as ‘Engineers’, and 60% as ‘Business’.
The conversation started with my asking the panelists what are the biggest “fails” (more specifically, things, words, actions, etc. that they have witnessed that any intelligent startup shouldn’t try or repeat). This kicked off a great discussion by both the panelists and the audience. Here’re the some of the key topics of discussion:
An animated discussion…
One of the first topics centers the hackneyed use of the term ‘hockey stick’ in pitches, typically shown visually showing exponential growth of revenue over a short period of time. The general advice here was not to use the term. Mike Crill related how a startup used a similar term in their pitch – “money volcano”. Others related similar accounts of “fails”.
I pointed out to Chris DeVore that on TechStars Demo Day every team seem to use the term ‘disruptive’ and if that may have become the buzz word to use in pitches. This triggered a great discussion around overused buzzwords. Rahul Sood pointed out the danger in a startup proclaiming that they are in ‘stealth mode’ in the context of “we’re in stealth mode, so we can’t tell you what we are doing but we need your funding”. This triggered discussions on other red flags. Later we turn that around and discussed red flags on the investor side that startups should be wary of.
Chris Devore (2nd from left) talks about his and TechStar’s perspectives
on the high-caliber startups that he has worked with.
A member of the audience asked about how to go about finding co-founders and how one should go about assess how much equity to grant a partner. Seaton Gras mentioned this following tool: http://foundrs.com/calculator/index.php. There was a great discussion around pattern matching to find the right partners and many related finding business partners to marriage. Enough said.
We briefly touched on how most I’s view the choices and directions in technology stack, etc. The general agreement here is that investors care about the growth of the company they invested in, and not any specific technology stack unless there is a salient business reason that proves otherwise.
Congruence between Domain expertise and idea
Another question from the audience surround whether a startup should take on a project that touches a domain in which the startup has no expertise. The ensuing discussion proves that there is no consensus. Many pointed out that it is common sense not to jump into unknown territories. Others cited several success stories of founders taking on totally unchartered domains.
Startup Conversations was a great success and an informal poll towards the end of the event strongly indicated that the attendees want such an event again, likely at a quarterly cadence. We are projecting a sequel of Startup Conversations in the middle of the year!
(From Left to Right) Luis Aburto (co-organizer), Chris DeVore of TechStars and
Founders Co-op, and Seaton Gras of SURFIncubator