Sick Start-up Syndrome

While managing DSX Labs for the past year, I have come across a variety tech start-ups in South Florida, mainly because we were running tech start-up pitch events in Boca Raton at The Greenhouse.

They range from 1 guy with just an idea to 3 people with a full blown app or website. They can have 100 years of combined experience or none at all.  We had a few 15 to 17 year olds interested in starting their own tech company.  There have been 1 or 2 where the entrepreneurs were in their 70s

Out of the 100 start-ups we met with, there were common patterns you could immediately identify.  These patterns can be success related or potential failure related. I call them patterns because they appear over and over again.  This is a generalization. I am being specific about a start-up.  And you know that generalizations could be wrong.  So this is just opinion.

Here are my list of start-up syndromes you need to look out for.  It’s like looking at your body in the mirror.  Some symptoms are obvious, some are not.

No Strategic Advantage
I have run into this myself.  You get going in some specific tech start-up direction.  You have a product.  You have built out some serious code!  Yet, you or you and your partners can not come up with a strategic advantage vs. a competitor.  Face it, you are building a commodity product at this point!

How To Fix: If it is early on, you can pivot or change something slightly that makes you competitive.  But pivoting will take some serious pain and some capital.  It may not be possible. You have to have a compelling reason or value proposition for customers.  Find it immediately.  Sometimes it is right in front of you and you are ignoring it.

Tech Svengali Has Taken Over The Show
This I have seen many times.  The actual business owners have been mesmerized and persuaded by some tech guy to let him make all the decisions. Yet, either he or she is not really all that he says he is or really has no clue what the market wants.  The tech Svengali may actually have their best interest at heart for you. But they are not you!

How To Fix: Sadly enough, if this has gone on too far it could be the death of the start-up.  Start-up owners need to be in charge of their ventures and give it direction.  The solution is often to let him go and if it is too late, it could be time to shut down the operation.

Money Looking For A Place To Spend It!
Sometimes in some rare cases, there is a partner or a person with a boatload of personal wealth looking to hit the next one out of the park.  They are looking at Facebook and saying “hey I can do that!”  But they are forgetting one thing; they don’t know anything about tech, or their knowledge is cloudy because they themselves are not the demographic they are serving.  So they spend like crazy, hire tons of people and find themselves in a pickle.

How To Fix: My recommendation to these want to be billionaires is stop being the owner and start being the investor when you have the capital. There are a good 20 ventures in south Florida right now that could use $50k and have a great start-up that needs capital.  Instead of spending $300k on your “idea” (which is just an idea) become the investor and invest in 6 start-up ventures. At least then you will have 6 lottery tickets and not 1.

One Feature Does Not Make A Solution
I have had a bunch of start-ups come to me with a concept that is simply a smaller piece of a larger puzzle.  For instance, I have heard of a few improvements to dating businesses.  So the start-up concept is a small piece of what dating sites do, and can’t really be a product unto itself.  Or another good example is a site that just does nice 3D products for sale.

How To Fix: Typically I would recommend that the start-up goes back and rethinks the whole idea.  Just a small part of something bigger is not enough.  One way to fix this is to pivot into being a B2B software provider. So instead of selling 3D products yourself, your start-up provides the technology for other e-commerce companies. Different market, but then you can focus on a narrow feature you offer!

Nobody Is In Charge
A single person building a start-up without a partner or team is an issue. What is a bigger issue is a group of founders with nobody actually in charge.  When they ask you, the consultant, to be in charge and be the decision-maker, you know they have bigger issues than you can really deal with in one session.

How To Fix: One of the partners has to be the CEO.  There has to be an ultimate decision-maker.  If you can’t make that decision, then maybe the start-up should end now.

Can’t Describe What You Do
I have had this problem myself several times.  It is a common problem. Why does this happen?  My answer to why it happens to me is if you spend a year or longer on a start-up you start to lose you way (and you mind) and you end up changing the business around,  You get lost as to what you ultimate do. This is especially true if you are pivoting or evolving to something else. And we are always evolving. What is your service and can you describe it?  If not, you have to recognize the problem and fix it.

How To Fix: Best to meet to mentors and advisers and figure this out.  I had a great question asked of me recently about my start-up. That question was “What Was The Aha Moment?”  At that moment I went back in time and thought carefully about that moment. This is the moment when you first had the idea.  Sometimes that moment describes the problem you are solving and ultimately putting together a solution statement solves that problem.

That’s it for now.  I could add a hundred of these items to this blog, but I am publishing anyway.  Maybe there will be a part II.

Have a great day!

How To Respond To New Ideas?

Recently I had to remind my long-term speed dating partner Vince (Pre-Dating.com), after covering a new concept that my team wants to try, that we are “old” guys and that we really may not know much of anything when it comes to deciding what is a good idea or bad idea.  Let me first preface the word “idea”.  When I refer to an “idea” in the Internet space we are mainly referring to a new business, a new website, a new mobile app, hardware, a new start-up company, or a new conceptual technology thingy that actually does something.  Actually the words he used were “But I know what I like”.  And those words to me don’t mean anything because what we like or think we like may only lead us to a big mistake.  Trust me, what we like will not exactly work for everybody, or even a small group of the mass market.

What WE Like May Not Mean Anything

To work with entrepreneurs with new ideas, you have to leave your ego at the door and be an open book.  So, when a few weeks earlier a young entrepreneur with a new concept wanted to sit with me and discuss his new Web & Mobile App, after hearing his pitch I  sat thinking to myself, “Wow, this is a dumb idea, this marketing plan won’t work, and this logo and business name does not work for me.”  So what did I do?  I sat there and just bit my tongue.  Just because I think it is bad or wrong, does not mean I am correct.  I may be right, but it may not matter.  The question is how to dish out the mentoring and get them to a point that you are helping and not being a jerk.

The Weekly Meetup & Mentoring

At least once a week an entrepreneur or a person I meet at Caffeine Spaces wants to sit with me and discuss their app.  It may be just a concept not yet on paper, or a full blown application especially if it is in the Dating space, Social Networking, Education Space or areas I have been exposed to.  I always take the meeting.  And I have to force myself to sit and listen.  This is not easy, because those who know me, know that I typically cut people off when they are talking and just start saying my own ideas.  I have to cut that out and buckle down to get the gist of what they are trying to get across.  Listening is really mentoring.  Giving some rational tactical advice on Next Steps is the answer.  Everybody is in a certain stage of development.  If they don’t have their one page Exec Summary or a Pitch Deck, that is where they need to go next, especially if they want to raise capital or just bring on partners or customers.

Small Steady Improvements

I also had to remind Vince that an idea is just an idea.  Conceptually any idea can be developed into a lasting entity or business, especially if the concept is tested.  Vince had this one business venture we talked about where he had failed to gain critical mass, and we discussed a little bit of why it failed.  He felt his “vision” had not been accepted by the market.  Basically it was a $400 bootcamp about how to start-up a company.  It was in fact a $20,000 value over 2 days, like getting an MBA shoved in your head.  He had lost a lot of time developing this concept creating the materials and felt people were not willing to pay for the whole shebang.  Well, the issue was simpler.  He did not have to spend 6 months on creating a monolith and start-up people don’t want to spend $400, they have a hard time parting with a $1.  So he should have tested the concept and broken it down into small pieces and gotten a web page up and running and just made small improvements finding his way towards success.  That is how you have to approach this business.

“Investing in the Internet is similar in a way to investing in a farm”

Read this great quote by Technology Pioneer Yossi Vardi.  Essentially you have to look at Internet related ventures like you do farming.  I have to remind all the people I meet with new ideas to think like this and to sell themselves this way.  90% of the results of our Internet ventures will take 3-5 years to show results.  And of that amount, many may fail, but many will start to come to their own if we continue to make those improvements and pivot and correct the mistakes we made at first.  It will always take time.  The start-ups that were overnight successes showed some progress, but event those are on a 3 to 10 year time frame till profitability and success.

South Florida Venture (Improbabilities)

There is a disconnect in South Florida between venture capital and new start-up ideas, that are not experienced in larger cities around the country with a great Start-up community.  And event he angel/venture guys around are not willing to wait.  They need to show results now, and always want results to be on the table.  Real dollars, real traffic and real databases are how we speak and work in South Florida, and that means there will never be a Tumblr, a Twitter or a Google produced out of South Florida.  You need the patience and the capital up front.  We are forced to make immediate decisions on how our businesses are built in order to bootstrap everything, and when you get some financing it is a dribble if you are lucky.  This is hopefully changing.  My answer to a lot of young guys are great idea, maybe you should move to New York or San Francisco.  Would love to change that, and things are changing, but not soon enough.