Archive for April, 2010

How to ask for advice from busy CEOs

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

I’m at a fascinating point in my startup journey. I am still growing my company, I don’t think of myself as a success yet. Not until I’m wildly profitable or I’ve been acquired for a suitable amount will I think of myself as ‘successful’. So far, I’m doing alright, and am on a good path, but I won’t declare myself a ‘success’ just yet.

So it always surprises me when fresh young startup folk, trying to get their startup off the ground, come to ask me for advice. I’m one of you, really, and it freaks me out a little to see this look of admiration and respect from these people. Really, do you want to take advice from *me*??

Then I start talking, and I realise I do actually have some advice that is pertinent. I now do know a lot of people, have learnt a lot by doing a lot of stupid things wrong, have been exposed to the machinations of other fabulous startup folk, and am friends with a lot of Angels and VCs… so it seems there is a degree of value I can give to those just starting out.

The problem is, I’m still growing my own company. I’m working 15 hour days, most weekends, I don’t take a lunch break, I avoid all non-essential meetings. My number one priority is making my company a success, and second to that is ensuring I stay sane and vaguely healthy and don’t piss my close friends and family off too much. My time is VERY precious, its my number one resource. I pay a cleaner, I catch cabs everywhere, I live as close to work as I can… anything I can do to earn a few spare minutes a day to dedicate to work or my sanity/friends/family.

So, when I get asked by these newbies for help, I am torn. On one hand, I was given so much support, advice and tutelage by advisers and other startup folk when I first began. I knew nothing, and was so blessed with people that taught me and were patient with me and answered all my questions. All they wanted in return, I am sure, is that I give back to others at some stage. I believe in this ethos, about passing things on, and I am a passionate advocate of the startup community, in London and internationally.

However, there is something else that those advisers and startup folk wanted in return, even if they didn’t consciously think this. And that was: evidence that I was willing to put myself out as well, that I was willing to work hard, not take short-cuts, and give back to the community myself. And perhaps, that they saw that I had what it took to be an entrepreneur, and were willing to invest in me. Although I didn’t know very much at the time, I was determined to make it, and I threw myself into learning everything I could. I read every tech blog I could find every day for months and months before I even started my startup; I knew everything that was happening in the scene, all the important opinion-formers, all the key startups, all the basic advice on how to pitch and get funding. I read books and business blogs. I went to every talk, meet-up, event and conference I could. I worked hard and demonstrated I was willing to work even harder. This was not something I wanted to try, this was something I clearly wanted to do more than anything, and I had dedicated my life at that point onwards to make it happen. And I tried to be an interesting and fun person to those who gave me advice. This last one is possibly the least understood, but probably one of the most fundamental. Newbies have nothing to offer advisers and more seasoned startup folk, except being an interesting engaging person to be around. So they should do this well. They should contribute to the community with their energy and commitment and effort, and be fun people to hang out with. The London startup community is unbelievably entertaining, and its because we don’t always talk about work, but we party, drink, dance, travel and hang-out together as friends as well. You may not have much to offer in terms of knowledge and experience, but you can be a damn fine person to hang out with, and that can often be contribution enough.

So, when I get well-intentioned and polite emails asking me to give up part of my day to teach a newbie about how I got funding, I am torn. I love to help, but will I compromise the success of my company, will I risk my sanity, or will I give up my very very rare and precious time with close friends and family, for someone that perhaps just wants a shortcut or an easy way to success… I just won’t take that risk. If the person were someone personally recommended to me by a good friend who put their reputation on the line and asked me to spend time with them, then I would as a favour to my friend. And if the person put in a solid effort, became a part of the community, and gave a part of themselves to increase the vibrancy and fascination of the industry, and consequently became a friend of mine, then I definitely will help. I do both these things all the time very happily. But will I give an hour of my 15-hour day to someone I met for 2 minutes at a conference, that I have never seen before, and just wants me to give them a short-cut with no clear cut requests for what they want to know… however much I want to help and be polite, I just can’t work any harder than I do or risk the things that really matter to me, for this kind of situation.

So, newbies: please don’t take this as a rejection, but as a challenge and hopefully an inspiration. If you are to make it as an entrepreneur, you will be beset by more challenges and hardships that you can possibly imagine, and no VC will ever invest in you unless you can prove you have the tenacity, ingenuity, and passionate willingness to roll your sleeves up and make things work for you, not by asking for charity, but by being so appealing and engaging that people offer to help you because you are so much fun, and so easy to help.

A good example: one newbie I met at a conference this week sent me an email that was short, polite, and asked two very clear questions about funding. I was able in 2 minutes to reply with useful advice. I’m more than happy to do this. CEOs of startups are fucking busy and stressed people. If you want their help, frame it in a way that makes it easy for them to help you, or that makes it a delight for them to help you. Asking very clear and defined questions via very short emails is the way to do it. Sending them the story of your life and then asking them to take an hour out of their day so you can ‘pick your brain about general funding issues’ will never get a response. Not because they are rude or don’t care, but because they genuinely don’t have the time to help everyone that asks them, and they filter based on who is ultimately going to be a friend, valuable to the community, or who shows they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur themselves by being clever in how they approach busy people.

The way to get me – I go to a regular start-up events, but I work long and hard, so want to chat to fun interesting people when I go to these events. If I meet someone fun and interesting and easy to talk to, and they throw in a very clear question or two about something I can help with, I’ll help happily. If you come referred to me through a trusted friend or adviser, I’ll definitely help as well.

So, newbies, be entrepreneurial in your approach to learning how to become an entrepreneur, else, sorry to say this, you probably won’t make it as an entrepreneur yourself.

Kicking things off again

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

Its been a very very long time since I have written in this blog. The last post was such a fitting place to stop, that it felt almost criminal to sully such a poetic ending with a banal next post.

However, much has happened in the last 14 months. My company has gone from a startup that literally *just* survived bankruptcy to a company now that employs 27 people and has thousands of clients all over the world. We have completed two rounds of VC funding in that time, and have gone from being unknowns to being featured in Wired, the Financial Times and TechCrunch many a time. I’ve gone from being a very hands-on product/sales/testing/operations person to having to learn to delegate and now focused on strategy, international business development and leading and motivating a diverse group of people. I find myself more satisfied and excited than I ever have in any professional capacity, but also working harder and more intensely than I would have ever thought healthy.

So, I thought it might be time to resurrect this ol’ blog of mine, and continue to share some of my thoughts, learnings and experiences.