As the fundamentally important debate over women in technology and entrepreneurship rages on (most recently sparked by what Paul Graham said, or perhaps didn’t say), I’ve been intrigued by the comparatively higher proportion of women who seem to be starting companies in one of my areas of predilection: hardware (broadly defined: open hardware, Internet of Things, wearable computing, 3D printing, etc.).
I don’t have much data here, other than my anecdotal personal experience, both as a VC and as the organizer of Hardwired NYC. But, without having to rack my brain for more than a minute or two, a bunch of names of great female founders and/or CEOs in the general hardware space comes up, including, in no particular order:
And there are many more (both in the U.S and globally), which is exciting.
The question, of course, is why hardware would be an area of particular focus for female entrepreneurs. As a category, hardware is broad, lends itself to all sorts of products, and as a result feels pretty gender-neutral.
Could it be that there are more female role models in hardware, since it is often said that role models are particularly important to female entrepreneurs ? It doesn’t appear that way. Sure, women have run some of the biggest hardware companies in the world (Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman at HP; Ursual Burns at Xerox) but it’s unclear how much of an inspiration they would be to early stage tech entrepreneurs, and more importantly, a number of software or internet companies have been run by women as well. Perhaps more relevant are female entrepreneurs like Limor Fried, who under her “Lady Ada” moniker has become the closest equivalent to a celebrity in the hardware alpha geek world (and beyond, through her appearance on the cover of Wired in 2011).
What’s interesting is that hardware lends itself particularly well to new entrants – there’s been a big gap in innovation in hardware in the last 10 or 15 years (with some notable exceptions like Apple), and as a result there’s a “missing generation”, and plenty of opportunities for new entrepreneurs to become leaders in what, in some ways, feels like a brand new field.
Curious if anyone can think of an explanation?
Regardless, and to the extent this is indeed a trend, it is particularly exciting and promising, and we should collectively think about how to accelerate it and extend it to other areas of tech entrepreneurship.
Got some great feedback on Twitter, and while my initial goal was not to be comprehensive here, thought it could actually be helpful to start a running list of female hardware founders – perhaps it can become a good resource. Here are the people that were recommended to me, who else should I add? (please add in comments)
|First Name||Last Name||Company||Location|
|Jeri||Ellsworth||Technical Illusions||Bellevue, WA|
|Anastasia||Leng||Hatch||New York, NY|
|Christina||Mercando||Ringly||New York, NY|
|Ezster||Ozsvald||Notch||New York, NY|
|Gauri||Nanda||Toymail||New York, NY|
|Lisa||Fetterman||Nomiku||San Francisco, CA|
|Laura||Berman||Melon||Santa Monica, CA|
|Amanda||Williams||Fabule Fabrications||Montreal, Canada|
|Alexandra||Deschamps-Sonsino||Good Night Lamp||London, UK|
|Becky||Pilditch||Bare Conductive||London, UK|
|Jane||ni Dhulchaoinfi||Sugru||London, UK|
|Ana||Burica||Teddy The Guardian||Zagreb, Croatia|
I recently got a chance to participate in a panel focused on opportunities in hyperlocal at the 2013 StreetFight Summit, along with Ben Siscovick. Since they recorded it, here it is, along with a couple of pics.
The rise of Berlin as an entrepreneurial center is not exactly news, and a number of U.S. VC funds or angel investors have been active there for a while. My overall impression, however, is that many U.S.-based entrepreneurs and investors have only a fuzzy idea about what is going on over there, and arguably in Europe in general – a missed opportunity in my opinion, and perhaps one of the several reasons why Europe is still a largely underserved opportunity in terms of venture capital investment. The globalization of entrepreneurship has been one of the key trends in our industry. At this stage, there’s enough evidence of global success stories coming out of Europe that smart U.S. investors should be routinely investing in the area, despite the traditional issues associated with early stage investing in Europe (multiple markets, multiple languages, tax and regulatory issues, different attitudes towards risk/failure, etc.).
From that perspective, I thought it might make sense to share notes (very much in note format) from recent travel to Berlin (among other reasons to speak at Data Days, a fun event) and a number of conversations with Berlin-based entrepreneurs and investors in other contexts. This is meant to be a “beginner’s guide” for outsiders like me, not the ultimate reference on the topic.
Overall, there’s plenty of reasons to be excited about Berlin. While some claim that the real action has already moved on to other locations (like Istanbul), the Berlin tech ecosystem is still early, and in many ways trailing other emerging global tech centers like London and NYC, probably by a few years. The fundamentals, however, are encouraging, particularly considering that the government (very active both in London and NYC) has been largely absent from the development of the Berlin ecosystem, so pretty much everything that has been happening there so far has been driven by raw, grassroots entrepreneurial energy.
Many thanks to Christophe Maire (currently CEO of Txtr), Jess Erickson (General Assembly Berlin), Koen Lenssen (Tengelmann Ventures) and Saskia Ketz (SumAll) for reviewing this post.
Solid supply of technical talent
Increasingly solid community infrastructure
Angels, seed investors, founder collectives or micro VCs
The November NYC Data Business Meetup was focused on “vertical-specific” applications of big data – startups leveraging the big data stack to offer new solutions to specific industries, such as finance and government (Recorded Future), the legal industry (Lex Machina), energy (DataMarket, although it offers data sets for other industries as well) and sports (numberFire).
Here are the videos:
Christopher Ahlberg, CEO, Recorded Future:
Josh Becker, CEO, Lex Machina:
Hjálmar Gíslason, CEO, DataMarket:
Nik Bonaddio, CEO, numberFire:
I have been very intrigued by the recent emergence of “data driven” firms, aiming to use data to reinvent venture capital.
While they certainly review various data points and metrics before deciding to invest in a startup, as of today venture capital investors largely operate based on “pattern recognition” – the general idea being that, once you’ve heard thousands of pitches, sat on many boards and carefully studied industries for years, you become better than most at predicting who will make a strong founder/CEO, what business model will work and eventually, which startup will end up being a home run. The trouble is, the model doesn’t always work, far from it, and many VCs end up making the wrong bets, resulting in disappointing overall industry results. Could VCs be just like the baseball scouts described in Moneyball, who think they can spot future superstars because they’ve seen so many of them before, but end up being beaten by a cold, objective, statistics-based approach?
Enter several firms trying to do things differently:
Since I’m a big fan of anything data-driven (decisions, product, companies), the concept resonates strongly with me. Predictive analytics have been successfully used in various industries, from retail to insurance to consumer finance. Other asset classes are highly data driven – fundamental and technical analysis drive billions of dollars of trade; hedge fund quants spend their lives building complex models to price and trade securities; high-frequency trading bypasses human decision making altogether and invests gigantic amounts of money based solely on data. In this world where everything gets quantified, why should venture capital be an exception?
However, as much as I like the idea, I believe venture capital doesn’t lend itself very well to a model-heavy, quasi “black box” approach. The creation of a reliable, systematic predictive model is a particularly challenging task when you consider the following obstacles:
In addition, it would be interesting to see how startups react in the long run to investors who are interested in them mostly because they scored well on a model, as opposed to spending extended time getting to know them. Unlike public stock markets, venture capital fundraising is a two-way dance, and startups often pick their investors as much as their investors pick them.
However, while I have my doubts about using data models as valid predictors of the overall success of an early stage startup, my guess is that there are still plenty of interesting insights to be gleaned from the data, and that forward-thinking VC firms could gain a competitive advantage by actively crunching it – my sense is that very few firms have done so at this stage.
Interestingly, there are some good data sources and emerging technologies out there that could be leveraged as a first step, without engaging into a massive data gathering or technology development effort:
If anyone is aware of other efforts around crunching data relevant to VCs, or other ways VCs have been used a heavily data-driven approach, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Three days in, Brewster, the new personalized address book, has become an instant classic for me. Perhaps I lucked out, but I didn’t experience much of the delay in processing my contacts that many others reported – I had to wait about 90 minutes which, while not ideal, was fine. Everything since then seems to have been working like a charm – the de-duplication and reconciliation of contacts across social networks, in particular, was beautifully done, and that’s not a trivial data problem.
I have always liked the concept of a personalized, always current address book. In a way, it is sort of like the old Plaxo idea, which was probably before its time. There were various startups that tried to fix the address book, including Sensobi (that eventually was acquired by GroupMe). The next iteration of the social concept that I’m aware of is Everyme – at least in the initial vision the founders had for it when they were at Y Combinator in the Summer of 2011. I was a bit bummed when it pivoted (or evolved) to become a private social network.
I really like that Brewster came out of the gate very “feature-rich”. While I’m all for MVPs and generally agree that “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”, for something like this, I think the founder(s) made the right call to wait until the product was ready before launching. At this stage of the game, anything that sounds like yet another hyped up app, and asks me to connect all my social networks when I first log in, etc. had better deliver some real value quickly for me to give it a real chance, and that was the case here. As the founder Steve Greenwood has apparently been mulling over this concept for many years, the temptation to release early must have been strong, particularly as it sounds like several startups are working on related concepts, including for example FullContact, but from my user’s standpoint, it was well worth it.
A few other aspects of the product (and its launch) that I like:
– I like that Brewster was clearly thought through as a data product – while the “Favorites” tab has an emotional and aesthetically pleasing aspect to it (depending on how attractive one’s friends are, at least…), the rest of the app is very data-centric: the “Lists” tabs has some interesting automatic categorization (I have 171 friends who are ‘Managing Director”, apparently, does that mean I’m old?), while the “Search” tab is awesome, with good suggested searches and the ability to uncover all sorts of interesting common interests across my contact list.
– While everything is automated, I like the fact that the product made me work manually to create my list of “favorites”. That actually increased my personal investment into the product, and makes me less likely to discard it.
– I really like that Brewster did not use any of the tired “virality” tricks that have become so common place. No automatic posting on my Facebook newsfeed; no “Sent using my Brewster address book” tag line in emails, etc.
– I was impressed with the email I got to announce that my account was ready, personalized with pictures of some of my key contacts – great way of delivering a unique experience before I even started using the product in earnest.
The data privacy issue (and the fairly dramatic reactions to it) are of course a concern. I’m actually surprised that I don’t care more about it, personally — I guess I have gone pretty far down the path of accepting some privacy risk (as long as it’s not banking information), in return for getting a lot of value from the product, which I feel is the case here. But obviously many people will feel differently, and this could sink the company entirely, if not properly addressed.
One functionality that I don’t find as impressive, at least as of now, is the “Updates” section — what it has surfaced so far (birthdays essentially) is not particularly interesting. What would be really cool, eventually, would be an integration with Newsle, to get news about your friends. Oh wait, add to this an integration with Cue, as well. All built in natively into my iPhone address book and calendar. Ok, so, maybe that’s a bit much to ask. In the meantime, Brewster is already one of the most interesting apps I have seen in a long time.
It’s been a few days now since their acquisition was formally announced, and I continue to be fascinated by the Buddy Media story. But what fascinates me is less the company itself and all the things that make it great – and instead the fact that its success tests the conventional wisdom of what makes a venture successful. Rightly or wrongly, investors, prospective employees, the press, and anyone who tries to predict the highly unpredictable fate of startups, tend to default to some common assumptions about what’s going to work and what isn’t. The Buddy Media story challenges that conventional wisdom in some interesting ways:
1. NYC is not a good place to start an enterprise software company
It’s a bit ironic that, for all the talk about NYC being a media and eCommerce hub, the largest acquisition in five years would be an enterprise software company.
2. It takes forever to build a successful enterprise software company.
It took Buddy Media less than 5 years from start to success, including an initial pivot.
3. To build a successful enterprise software company, you need technical co-founders, or at least a technical CEO
Buddy Media’s CEO is a serial entrepreneur with two degrees in journalism. Buddy Media’s COO is a serial entrepreneur with a background in business development and marketing and a degree in economics. The other co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer is a digital branding and marketing expert with a degree in Broadcasting and Mass Media.
4. Selling to marketers and advertisers is a really tough business.
Fortune 500 marketers and advertising agencies are indeed a tough audience – long sales cycles, often low budgets, a preference for homegrown solutions, a reluctance to buy what others in the industry purchase: not easy. But the Buddy Media success shows that it can be done, with the right execution: build the best product in your category, focus on sales, make friends in the right places, hire some key people from agencies, and work really hard.
5. Be really careful with strategic money
Buddy Media took a strategic investment from advertising leader WPP, which ended up substantially accelerating their business.
6. Service companies can’t become product companies
After an initial pivot, Buddy Media had to turn themselves into a service company to survive the 2008 economic recession. James Altucher has a really interesting post on Techcrunch that describes this phase. Somehow, they were able to gradually build a product offering.
7. The best founders are young and single
Two of the co-founders of Buddy Media are married. On top of that, they have three children. While there are famous examples of homeruns started by married founders (Cisco, VMware, etc.), in my experience, behind closed doors most investors think it’s a terribly risky idea. The Buddy Media story shows that where there is will there is a way: founders with family obligations can still endure the rollercoaster lifestyle of the startup world.
If you’re a startup founder, a day will come, generally sooner rather than later, when you have to deal with a big company – whether that’s a Fortune 1000 company you’re trying to sell something to, a large advertising agency you hope will drive some advertising dollars your way, or a media company you want to strike a partnership with. You may have been successful “selling” your vision to a group of angels or VCs and raise some money, but selling to a large company (and in “selling”, I include all forms of partnerships and other business development efforts) is a different animal altogether. For the last three years or so, I’ve been on the big company side and have heard many startups pitch a business relationship. The following tips – some trivial and slightly tongue in cheek, others more substantial – are based on patterns and issues I’ve seen over and over (presented in no particular order of priority).
1. Read a few sales books. Our startup culture very much celebrates product people (those who, like Steve Jobs, are able to create “stuff that people want”), and tech talent (the people who actually build the product). Some iconic founders of the previous decades may have been sales people (Larry Ellison being one example), but sales seems to have fallen out of favor as a key part of any founder’s skillset – you’ll hardly ever hear any VC express a strong preference for CEOs who have a strong sales background, the way they rave about technical CEOs. One consequence of this is that many startup founders (especially the younger ones, but not only) come equipped with incredible product savvy, but seem to have spent very little time learning how to sell. Selling to a large company is not just a question of presentation, it’s also about navigating a complex organization and being able to qualify an opportunity –I find that startup founders often fail to ask some basic questions about budgeting cycles, decision process, etc., and end up not being able to truly appreciate whether they have a real opportunity or not. The good news is, there’s tons of literature out there. Sure, many sales books have cringe worthy titles, and none of them are perfect, but after reading a few of those, a number of important principles emerge. Worth investing some time reading a few.
2. Hire a sales person. This flows from the previous point. No question, founders should be the initial sales people at their startups: there’s no better way to get market feedback and fine tune your value proposition. But I’m often surprised by how long startups wait before bringing in their first sales (or “biz dev”) person on board. I’m all in favor of building viral buzz about your product through blogs and social media, and using other innovative techniques to increase your inbound leads. But in many cases, all those techniques only take you so far, and at some point, particularly if you sell to large companies, you’re going to have to go through a series of in-person sales meetings. Like for most things in life, experience helps, and in my opinion, a combination of an experienced sales (or biz dev) person and a product/tech founder proves very effective in a meeting with a big company.
3. Play down the startup vibe. Sure, Zuckerberg wears sandals in business meetings (at least in the movie), but for almost everyone else, there’s very little upside to showing up in a hoodie and sneakers at a meeting where most people are going to wear ties and business suits. The startup tech world may have its own, idiosyncratic rules and codes, but when it comes to selling to a large company, it’s back to reality. Those people don’t read TechCrunch every day (if ever), and they will have most likely no idea who your hotshot investors are. Do yourself a favor and don’t show up looking like a college kid, because in large companies, recent college graduates are the people at the very bottom of the totem pole, not the people you invest a significant amount of time and resources doing business with.
4. Do not play with your phone during the meeting. Ever. Can’t tell you how often this happens. It typically goes down something like this. Three founders or team members of the startup show up at the meeting. One ends up being the lead presenter and fielding most of the questions. Another one says something every 10 minutes or so, and looks bored and disengaged the rest of the time. The third one spends the entire meeting playing with their iPhone (and I’m not talking about taking meeting notes). Guys, seriously? Remember, people will rarely call you on it, but that doesn’t mean you got away with it.
5. Come prepared. This should be obvious, but it’s not, and if you are truly well prepared for a meeting, it can be a major differentiator playing in your favor. Unlike an investor pitch, a pitch to a big company is not about you and how awesome your product is. It’s about how you can help the big company solve a specific problem. You should come in knowing everything you can read about the big company, and have ideas about where and how you could help. If you show slides, insert screenshots of the big company’s products in your deck. Your demo should be using examples relevant to the big company, or at a minimum, to whatever industry the big company operates in. If you truly want to make an impression, build a simple demo just for the meeting. Regardless, your demo should work – send the link to your host in advance to make sure the demo is going to work from within the firewall. If this is a key meeting for you, you should spend days, not hours, prepping for it.
6. A sales meeting is not a mentoring session. Again, something I’ve seen a few times – your big company hosts may be really friendly, they may show genuine interest in hearing your story, and they may have experience that is very relevant to your needs and challenges. Listen to their feedback and ideas if they offer them, but remember that you’re in a sales meeting. Resist the temptation to ask questions about how they were able to solve specific problems, or what they’d do if they were you, etc. Overall, one of the things they’re trying to establish on their end is that, while you’re a startup, you’re already pretty solid and it’s generally safe for them to work with you. Asking this type of questions is not going to help.
7. Be patient. Getting stuff done with a big company takes time. Most people understand that, but they often attribute it to the fact that large companies have more processes, approval layers, lawyers involved, etc. That is certainly true. But the more fundamental (and scarier) reason for it is that large companies typically care about whatever business deal you’re discussing a lot less than you do. Entering into a business relationship with a startup rarely moves the needle for them, at least not in a substantial and immediate way. They can have a genuine interest in working with you, but they rarely feel true urgency. Of course, from the startup’s perspective, it is frustrating because that deal can be a make or break moment. Most techniques you may use to create a sense of urgency are likely to come across as a gimmick, and should be used with caution. Recognize that reality and plan accordingly.
8. Don’t beat a dead horse. Being patient doesn’t mean that you should wait around forever. For some reason, large companies, just like some VCs, rarely actually say “no”. If there’s a fit, it should be fairly obvious after a couple of meetings. If you’re going from meeting to meeting with different people each time, if getting people to return your calls feels like pulling teeth, or if they mention how working with you may make sense for a big project that they’re going to start next year, it’s unlikely anything substantial is going to happen for you anytime soon. Learn to recognize when the opportunity is not going anywhere, and move on.
9. Don’t forget the biz dev guy (or gal). You’ve probably heard (or experienced) how things work before: your first point of contact at a large company will typically be their business development people; while it’s perfectly fine to start with them, you’ll want to quickly find an internal champion, preferably someone who has P&L responsibility and real decision power. The twist I would add is this: don’t drop the biz dev person once you’ve found your champion. The person you thought was going to be your champion may not turn out to the right person, they may get too busy, change jobs or lose interest. The biz dev person is your long-term ally within the large company, because their performance is often measured internally based on the number of opportunities they bring in that end up with an actual deal – so their interests are aligned with yours and they’ll want to make you successful.
10. Be careful with big company politics. Like any human organization, large companies are fraught with politics and as an outsider, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to play them right. So stay away as much as you can. Be transparent, keep everyone in the loop, don’t make comments about people, don’t take sides. Don’t shop around from department to department in the hope you’ll find someone who’ll bite, unbeknownst to all the other people you’ve met with previously. Don’t suggest strange things like making intros between employees of the same company (in most companies, they can pick up their phone). Invest time in getting to know your contacts at the big company, and make them look good in front of their bosses.