My Lessons from Pitching for the Lang Fund

The culmination of the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program at Columbia Business School is the opportunity to pitch for the Lang Fund. The Lang Fund is convertible debt to help the few who are selected start their business. The first step to win some of this money is the Columbia Entrepreneurship Showcase which occurred on Monday.

As a strategic decision, since I am starting a consulting firm, I decided to treat this not as an investment pitch, but as a sales pitch. I was in front of alumni, angel investors, and all around well connected people. I also have some very impressive peers. Knowing I was probably not going to win some capital, I was hoping to at least win a client referral.

Here is the feedback I received:

- Pros: genuine, trustworthy, passionate

- Cons: No business model, not scalable, waste of our time

I agree with this feedback completely. As a sales pitch, more than anything, I am glad I came off as genuine and trustworthy. That bodes well for my 1-on-1 sales pitches in the future. I also did not focus at all on the business model or scalability, so I am not surprised to find that I was dinged for those.

I do want to address the investor mindset, though. As part of this business, I am honest about my flexibility in where this business grows to. I could:

- Productize part of the service and become a SaaS company

- Grow it as a large digital marketing agency

- Focus more on the educational aspects and build an educational hub

- Be acquired and work as a marketing manager at a startup

I’m just starting out and I don’t know which of these options are most likely to present themselves. I like one or two of them better than the others, but, frankly, I would be happy pursuing any of these directions.

This flexibility is anathema to the investors. The Lean Startup model teaches us to be flexible as we start out. That is what I am doing. But, I can see the other side (because I’m nothing but reasonable) that even if flexible, I should still have one passionate vision  I’m driving towards even if I’m OK with the other realities. So lesson learned, I will pick one of these directions to prioritize first.

But I am sorry if I wasted anybody’s time. I have worked on my venture as hard as any of my peers and I believe I deserve the chance to showcase it. You are there to judge who is most worthy to receive funding. Or, as I see it, you are there to help the startups that CBS produces. 

I appreciate the feedback. Time to start selling and get to work.

Twitter #Music App Review

After checking it out, I don’t think I’ll ever use it. Why?

1. I have no interest in following artists’ twitter feeds. I follow one musician, Kanye West, and mainly because I find him to be an amusing crazy person. I really dont care about the opinions of any other artist. This greatly reduces the power of the “Suggested” section.

2. You can only hear one song per artist and you have no control over what song plays. I think this may be because of DMCA rules or whatever agreement they cut with the music studios.

3. I don’t have a Spotify Premium or RDIO account so I can’t hear full songs

4. The “Popular” section only proves to me that when you aggregate the music preferences of a large crowd, crap rises to the top. At least Spotify’s popular chart has some indie and hiphop skews to it.

5. Most importantly, it doesn’t replace any other music app I use today. I use Music.app for my personal collection. I use Pandora or Songza when I don’t feel like listening to something specific and don’t want to think about what to listen to too hard. Spotify is great when I want to listen to something specific I don’t own. Theoretically, #music gives me access to new artists, but as mentioned before, my “Suggested” section is sparse and not well targeted.

I contrast this to Turntable.fm’s Piki app which they released last week. It has a similar idea about discovering what friend’s and tastemakers listen to so you can discover new content. But the app gives you much finer control over specific song recommendations in a very light-weight way (doesn’t encourage me to also follow the artist). It also helps connect me to people with similar taste which the #music app doesn’t do. The biggest problem with Piki is that there’s not enough users yet. But at least it’s actually solving a problem.

I think the #music has their work cut out for them.

Chicago Startup Resources

After I graduate Columbia Business School in May, I am moving back to Chicago. I think Chicago is the perfect city to start my new consulting business, Full Stack Marketing.

In preparation of moving, I’ve been compiling a spreadsheet on Chicago startup resources. This includes VC firms, incubators, and popular meetups. I wanted to share what I compiled with the internet in case somebody else wanted to know the resources available in Chi-town. I’ll be keeping this updated regularly.

Startup Single Metric Framework

   Single metric strategy framework:  
    To define the one metric above all to focus on for your startup, you must first define your business model and then your business stage. In other words: how do you make money and where in your product lifecycle are you? 
 Once you know this, you can identify the square in the framework that’s right for you, which will pinpoint what metric you should be focusing on. 
 What metric are you focusing on for your business?

Single metric strategy framework:


To define the one metric above all to focus on for your startup, you must first define your business model and then your business stage. In other words: how do you make money and where in your product lifecycle are you?

Once you know this, you can identify the square in the framework that’s right for you, which will pinpoint what metric you should be focusing on.

What metric are you focusing on for your business?

Networking

Here’s a great way to network that I just learned courtesy of Professor Duggan who teaches Napolean’s Glance at Columbia Business School: 

The first thing to note is DO NOT DO THIS TO GET A JOB. A job may come from your networking, but you are genuinely doing this to meet people and gain knowledge.

Come up with one question you want to know more about in the industry you’re interested in. Then email somebody you want to network with in that industry your question. When they reply, thank them, and then ask if there is anybody else you can ask that question to.

In a short time, you’ll become very knowledgable about a topic and one of these people will notice (it might be 30 people later, it might be 50) and offer you a chance to interview. From their perspective, if they have a team that needs a spot and you appear knowledgable, they may connect the two.

Again, do not do this looking for a job. Do this because you want to learn more. People don’t like being used for job opportunities, but most are willing to answer questions.

Feedback on the Greenhouse Application: An Open Letter to the Lang Center

The Entrepreneurial Greenhouse program is the Master Class for entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. It is a second-year second-semester class that is the culmination of the entrepreneurship track and the class where your venture is meant to finally take off. Admission is exclusive: you have to pitch before a panel of judges and be chosen to be selected. All in all, if you’re serious about entrepreneurship, Greenhouse is your goal.

When I applied to CBS, I wrote that my goal was to get into the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program with a non-profit education start-up. Amazingly, I didn’t waver from my goal and I also attained it by getting into the Greenhouse program (albeit with a different venture).

The moment is much more bittersweet than I expected it to be. I chose Columbia Business School mainly for the impressive people. What disappoints me is that some of my peers who have fought the entrepreneurship battle with me were not chosen for Greenhouse. I think we are all worse off for not having their opinions and expertise in the room with us.

You could accuse me of bias, and you wouldn’t be wrong because these people are my friends. But when someone receives their non-admittance to Greenhouse as they’re talking to Angels about funding their beta product, something is wrong. When the students who, arguably, created Steve Blank’s favorite venture during the Lean Launchpad aren’t selected, I feel something is off. When the leaders of Lions Lab are denied…well, you get the picture.

I could spend another 500 words complaining about why this happened. However, that’s not constructive and it won’t get these people into the class (although I wish it would). Instead, I’ve decided to provide the Lang Center with feedback on the Greenhouse application process. Every year it seems as if people who legitimately deserve - almost obviously to their peers - to be admitted to the Greenhouse are denied. It’s my goal to stop, or at least reduce, this occurrence. Consider this my unsolicited and honest feedback.

The product vs. the founder

We’re constantly being told by venture capitalists that most of the time they invest in people, not products. Being that the Greenhouse pitch emulates a VC pitch, why are students not being judged similarly?

Much like an incubator, the Lang Center is incentivized to develop and fund the students who are most likely to be successful. In time, these successful entrepreneurs will return money to CBS through invested equity and donations to the school. This is why the lens of judging students based on who they are and what they’ve done has it’s advantages. The best indicator of what a person is likely to do in the future is what they’ve accomplished in the past.

To the Lang Center’s credit, they do look for a signal of commitment. However, I would argue they do not do give it the correct weight in the application process. From what I’ve been able to discern, after a student pitches, they are given a “yes”, “no”, or “maybe” decision. “Maybes” are then reviewed further by the faculty and administration on how committed they are to their venture and entrepreneurship at school. The problem is that this happens only in the “maybe” case. A signal of commitment is only considered 1/3 of the time!

I argue that in the future, all students, even those receiving “yeses”, should be considered on this attribute. This would reduce a potentially bad “no” decision from a room of judges who do not know the entrepreneurial background of the student. It could also mitigate a “yes” from advancing if the student was not serious about his commitment to his venture and, say, had a full-time job offer in hand.

Judging the judges

I believe the Lang Center is mostly getting it right with its diversity of judges. Based on observation, it appears that they attempted to place at least one faculty member and one young alumnus in each room. This is along with the older alumni who have greater liberty to show up mid-day on a Friday and very generously donate their time. These three groups are definitely where we should be pulling judges from and together create a strong judging panel when the mix is correct.

If we think of the pitching process again like pitching to VCs, then the part of the equation that is missing is that students are not given the opportunity to know who the judges they are pitching to beforehand. The judges in the room are given bios, business plans, and even our pitches before they ever step in the room. However, we are not given the same luxury.

I pitched my digital marketing certification company. With only seven minutes to pitch, I could have saved significant time if I knew the judges have some level of expertise with digital marketing. Likewise, if they had no experience, I could be more persuasive by explaining the ecosystem and acute need for my product.

Further affecting our persuasiveness is that judges are not grouped by vertical. This, again, would save precious time and allow us to be judged by people versed in our domain. It would make judging fairer.

Having pitched for the Greenhouse both last year and this year, I see this problem manifest the most with B2C ventures. The CBS alumni for the most part have a (surprise!) finance background, and they use this lens to judge our ventures. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it lends them to be more knowledgable about and biased towards B2B products. It’s hard for them to understand the need for a new television based social network app because they are not the target. Grouping judges by vertical and having more young alumni in rooms would reduce the bias against B2C ventures.

The last thing I must stress is just as we respect the judges, they must respect us. The judges are giving of their time, leaving work, traveling up to Morningside Heights, to sit through not-the-most-exciting process in the world. I think it is incredibly generous of them and they have my utmost respect. For their part, I think most of them are respectful to the students pitching as well.

But this year I experienced something I did not last year: judges walking in during the middle of my pitch. Having talked to others, I was not the only person this happened to. This is incredibly disrespectful and distracting. I also believe it is unfair to be judged by anyone who does not hear the totality of a pitch. I’m not convinced it was intentional, but they were not told to do otherwise. In the future, alumni should be instructed to wait outside the room if the door is closed.

Process, process, process

The last two weeks of my Fall Semester were incredibly stressful and sleepless. In addition to other school work, I slept about four hours a night to complete my business plan by Friday at midnight on November 30th. Even pulling late nights, I still didn’t finish it until 10 PM that Friday. I put in this time because I wanted to get into Greenhouse.

This time requirement is a great filter for potential applicants to the Greenhouse. Requiring a business plan, financial documentation, and a pitch is presumably enough work to keep students how are not serious from applying.

After completing my 16-page business plan, my judges would have a week to read and become familiar with my venture. They could ask me tough and challenging questions due to their familiarity with my business. Not once did I get the sense that any of the judges knew of my venture before I started pitching it. Had it been read, it would help mitigate the product versus founder problem. The judges would understand the both the product and founder better having reviewed the documents.

The problem with the submitted documents not being read is that there is now the opportunity for the system to be cheated. Again, these documents are an important filter. Once students have reassurance that they can write 10-pages without rigor because they won’t be reviewed, you loose a screening element.

I would also like address the confusion surrounding our pitches being submitted a week before our actual presentations. Like many of my peers, I took that intervening week to practice my pitch and make it as good as possible. In fact, I emailed every student who was potentially applying to pitch with me so we could all make our pitches better. The problem is that the rules said we could not update our pitches over the week. This seems counter-productive to the aim of the whole process. While in the end this point was moot because we were apply to bring in our presentations on a flash drive, this process needs to be corrected for future years.

I suggest giving students a cut-off of noon on the Wednesday before the pitches. This prevents the need for every student to spend precious minutes setting up their presentation on the computer, while still giving them a couple of days to perfect their documents.

Iterate the Greenhouse Application

The lean startup method teaches us to use customer feedback to iterate products so that they achieve customer satisfaction and growth. Clearly there is a huge demand for the Greenhouse class judging by the number of applications submitted. Yet the resources of the teaching team are limited, so a process has to determine who ultimately takes the class. No process is 100% fair, but I believe this one has room for improvement. It is my hope with this feedback, and forthcoming solicited feedback from other students, next year’s Greenhouse class will be even better and no truly deserving student will be left outside the Greenhouse’s doors.

Open Foursquare

People have asked me if I like foursquare and what do I use it for. I love foursquare and use it all the time. I check-in, but mainly use it for unexpected deals and getting tips on the best dishes to eat at restaurants. I find Yelp’s novels not great for quickly picking food, especially since it can be rude reading through paragraphs at text when you’re with guests. While I do not seek deals out when choosing places to visit, deals do keep me loyal to foursquare and are unexpected bonuses whenever I check-in.

I am very bullish on foursquare and very impressed with how they used their app as a way to source data, taking years to get to this end-point they were obviously planning for a long time.  If foursquare starts monetizing and succeeds, this will be another great argument for venture backed capital in general.

We All Know It's Hard - Work/Life Balance

I have all the time in the world right now. I am sitting at my desk at home right now because I do not have class until 2:15. And that class is a five minute walk from my apartment. I have all the time in the world. Then why am I up until 1 or 2 AM every night, even on weekends, doing work?

Rand Fishkin wrote a great post on work/life balance that I felt compelled to respond to. I credit him for being so open and honest about both his personal and work life. I don’t know many other professionals that will admit they has a terrible vacation with their wife where they fought often. It’s quite obvious the sense of their discomfort was that he couldn’t let go of work. He’s the CEO of a startup and he is vital to key decisions.

This is what I’m deftly afraid of but am currently walking right into as I start my own company. The work will only continue to build. I think we have a decent balance now where I take some time off in the evenings after she gets home from work and she gets most of the weekend too. She’ll go to bed and I’ll return to working. It works…for now.

Quickly approaching is marriage and, quicker than I’ll ever imagine it, kids. The funny thing is I just met with one of my professors at Columbia Business School and he told me not to focus on anything more than 3 months down the road for my startup. Yet I’m focusing 3 years down the road for my personal life. My tao is that I’ll worry about things when I can effect them. The best thing I can learn now is to be disciplined in my time and create this structure before my life gets more and more chaotic.

Does this mean limiting work to 60 minutes in one day each weekend? I really hope not. That doesn’t work for me at all. (Don’t let my fiancée see this rule). But hopefully I can continue to evolve the structure I’ve built while working with my fiancée to bend it to make everybody happier.

That said, any work/life balance hacks are appreciated. What’s that thing in Harry Potter called where he could rewind time and be in two places at once? I want that.

My RSS Feeds

Here is what I keep in my Google Reader to stay fresh with the though leadership in tech, digital marketing, and VC:

I welcome any other great blog recommendations I should be paying attention to.

Recommended Read: Make Something People Love

I read this ebook this week by the guy who created reddit and hipmunk. It’s a pretty simple message but it’s amazing how easily it can get lost in the world of startup. We create startups to solve a problem and make everybody happier. So if happiness isn’t built into the core of the company, I guess you’re just doing it for money. And every user will be able to figure that out.

I love SWAG. (According to Michael Scott that stands for Stuff We All Get) I wear startup t-shirts almost everyday. I’m free advertising. Why don’t we have t-shirts to give to users? Why aren’t we giving away stickers to them?

And if users are happy, I’m happy. (I’m also happy with a free t-shirt)

I recommend clicking the link above and buying the ebook.

Learning from Great Content

I love what Vulture is doing right now with it’s release of their interactive 100 Most Valuable Stars features. They’re getting a week’s worth of really great content out of it:
Monday - Methodology
Tuesdays - Predictions for next year
Wednesday - Deep cuts
Thursday - ???
Friday - Profit

Great content strategy that we can learn from. New features we roll out should be informing our content and point users back to our site.
100 Most Valuable Movie Stars: Robert Downey Jr. & More »
Vulture devised a formula to decide who matters most in movies – and you can adjust the stats to make your own list, too.