Blog: 2011 Summer Speakers

Jun
16
2011
By Avery Faller

Who: Leonora Valvo
Company: etouches

Leonora Valvo HeadshotThe internet has profoundly changed the business world, not just with the explosion of tech startups, but also, at a fundamental level, in how companies are structured.  In the past it was often necessary for companies to hire employees who could work in the same office; today, free tools such as Skype have made international communication affordable and efficient, enabling a new class of remote workers.  Earlier this week Leonora Valvo spoke to the YEI Summer Fellows about her entrepreneurial career and how she successfully turned a services business into a software business.  Her current company etouches, which helps companies manage events, has employees based in several countries to meet the needs of her global customer base.  

Virtual Workers and the Company Culture

etouches LogoVirtual workers offer many advantages to a developing company.  Often their salaries are lower than an equivalent on-site employee’s would be, and their skills can be better matched to company needs with geographical constraints out of the picture.  On the other hand, virtual workers present some unique challenges, such as dealing with multiple time zones and instituting a corporate culture.  At etouches, Leonora has developed methods to effectively work around these problems.  Every morning at 8am EST, the heads of all the branches and departments have a video call to discuss that day’s updates.  Since etouches is a global company, there are people from Connecticut, Washington D.C., Sweden, the UK and Australia on the call.  The employees feel connected as a company despite their physical distance because they “see” each other every day.

Leonora also has a strict policy in place for hiring: No one gets hired without meeting her either in person or through a video chat.  This is important to ensure that employees will fit into the culture of the company, even if they won’t be in the same room.  And, when employees come to the American offices, they stay at Leonora’s house to make them feel like they are part of the family.  “It’s a little like a dorm,” she said, half-jokingly.

The Takeaway

Working with employees in multiple countries presents a unique set of challenges, not the least of which is cultivating a distinct company culture.  Hosting daily video  meetings via Skype with your employees is a good way to help them feel connected and updated on the company’s condition and progress.  Personal touches like letting employees stay at your house can be a memorable and rewarding way to inspire employees with your enthusiasm for the company.  Overall you will have to find your own solution to the problem—every company is different—but a good rule to remember is that just because an employee isn’t in the same room as you, doesn’t mean they have to feel like an outsider. 

Read More
Jun
13
2011
By Avery Faller


Who: Gilman Callsen
Company: mc10

Who: Bruce Judson
Position: YEI Entrepreneur-in-Residence 

When starting your venture, should you line up a team or go it alone?  Two of last week’s speakers gave views that at first seemed opposing, if not ultimately mutually exclusive.  Gilman Callsen (YC ’08), who heads up business development for mc10, a company creating high performance semiconductors that are flexible and stretchable, spoke to the importance of quickly building up a strong team, while Bruce Judson, author of Go It Alone! The Secret to Building a Successful Business on Your Own emphasized how far one can grow a business before hiring anyone else onto the team.

Bruce Judson: Proof of Concept

Bruce Judson Headshot

Working alone on your venture can give you insights into the nature of your concept.  Bruce highlighted the importance of fast proof of concepts, especially when it comes to internet ventures, which can ultimately save you the time, money, and frustration that comes from trying to make an untenable idea work.  In order to get your product to market as quickly and efficiently as possible, Bruce encouraged entrepreneurs to make use of the many services that are available for free or for a small monthly fee on the internet.  Why reduplicate these services if they are not part of your core product?  Thus by working alone you are forced to concentrate your time and effort on the core of your business, which you must define and understand. 

Go It Alone

Working alone also forces you to be a master of time management.  Although external services, such as Google Analytics, Mixpanel.com, and ClickTale.com, can save you minutes, Bruce pointed out that it is easy to get stuck in the endless cycle of servicing your services, and there is a difference between working on your business and working in your business.  “Be aware of what is essential and what is good enough,” Bruce said. “Don’t get caught in perfectionism.”  In that regard, be aware of how long it takes you to do day-to-day tasks.  Constantly ask yourself if you are using your time well. Does that design really need to be changed from red to yellow?  Does that bug in your code really bother people that much?  In this manner you can quickly advance your company from concept to market testing as an individual.

Gilman Callsen: Human Capital

mc10 logoAlthough internet ventures are relatively easy to test, real world products are often not.  It may take years and millions of dollars before a medical startup even has a prototype.  In that situation, Bruce’s fast proof of concept model doesn’t really apply.  Instead, an intelligent strategy can be to concentrate on building up a strong team that will work cohesively for many years.  This is aligned with Gilman’s strong belief that “it takes a village” to successfully build a company.  How do you go about attracting the best technical people to work with you, especially if you are not a technical person yourself?  Gilman believes that the best way to get other people to join your team is to truly believe in what you’re doing.  “Enthusiasm is infectious,” Gilman said, “but be honest.  People respect honesty.”  

Gilman Callsen Headshot

When it comes to meeting people, Gilman encouraged the Fellows to be outgoing and use the networks available to them.  He described how student entrepreneurs, like the Fellows, held a distinct advantage in their efforts to build their businesses because most people are open to meeting with or giving advice to students free of charge, whereas most advice in the real world is not free.

The Breakdown

Although their messages may appear to be in opposition, in my opinion Bruce and Gilman are just reiterating similar themes for differing audiences.  Bruce made the case for initially “going it alone” on an internet venture, allowing you to test the venture’s concepts early to ensure that you are working on a useful and realistic product.  Gilman emphasized the importance of building a strong team early on—and in regard to companies working on physical products, it is often logical to want to focus initially on building strong teams that are technically competent and whose members complement each other.  

Bruce and Gilman’s advice wasn’t mutually exclusive though.  Both told the Fellows of the importance of concentrating on big concept ideas over details and paperwork.  And although Bruce’s catch phrase is “go it alone,” his framework allows for entrepreneurs to outsource parts of their company that are not crucial.  Perhaps the most important point that they both strongly agreed upon was that an entrepreneur’s most valuable asset is his time.  “Companies don’t run out of money,” Bruce pointed out, “they run out of time.”

Read More
Jun
09
2011
By Avery Faller

Who: Sandy Jen
Company: Meebo.com

Sandy JenBuried deep beneath the shell of their public image, entrepreneurs often battle an all-consuming self-doubt.  This doubt can affect everything from their product to their marketing strategy.  And although doubt can sometimes be a force for good, ratcheting up your level of productivity and the quality of your output, in the face of constant failure and rejection, how do you know when you’ve hit on something big? 

Recently, Sandy Jen, cofounder of Meebo.com, spoke to the YEI Fellows about her career path and the choices that she made that led her to the world of entrepreneurship.  Beyond general advice on running a growing company, Sandy talked to the Fellows about when you know you’ve hit on the idea.

The Conception of an Idea

Sandy decided that she wanted a change of career while she was working as a programmer at a hardware company in the early 2000s.  Considering the tech bubble had just burst, Sandy was happy to have landed a job—but she soon realized that she didn’t want to spend the next twenty years of her life working on things that none of her friends could understand. 

Sandy, along with fellow programmer Elaine and business school student (and Yalie!) Seth, decided that they wanted to build a startup.  They met once a week for two and a half years, iterating through a number of ideas.  Their first attempt at a product was an online backup site.  Sandy and Elaine had coded a large portion of the site and they were nearing completion when they did a gut check and they realized that none of them were truly passionate about the product.

Their second attempt at a product was a downloadable file sharing application; however they recognized that more and more, computer applications were headed to the web.  Additionally, students and people at work were often unable to download new programs to their computers.

Their third product was an online socialmeebo Logo messaging “home base,” so to speak, where customers could login and chat with friends on any messaging platform (AIM, Facebook, Google, etc.), no download required.  Elaine and Sandy both quit their day jobs to work on the site, which would come to be known as Meebo.com.  As Sandy remembers, they forgot to tell Seth that they had quit their jobs for two weeks because they were working so hard on the site.  This was a product that they felt passionate about.  They wanted to work on it full time. 

Sandy Lecturing

The Takeaway

Sandy’s story is a healthy reminder that not all ideas are going to pan out—however it also showed that one failure need not mean the end for a team.  Although the gut check will not ensure that your product is commercially viable, it will ensure that you are passionate about your product. After all, if you’re not passionate about your product, who will be?

Read More
Jun
06
2011
By Avery Faller

Who: Jordan Goldberg
Company: stickK.com

Jordan Goldberg HeadshotHave you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a successful entrepreneur?  Jordan Goldberg, CEO of stickK.com, allowed the summer fellows to have just that opportunity as he recounted his experiences in entrepreneurship.  stickK.com is a self-empowerment site that allows users to achieve their goals through contracts, incentives and peer-monitoring.  During his talk last Friday Jordan enumerated the many mistakes that he has made along his path to success.  “I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what not to do,” Jordan said.

Ten Products Are Not Always Better Than One

One point that Jordan emphasized was don’t try to have your company do ten different things, because ten other companies will come along and specialize in every one of those areas.  He pointed to the examples of Google.com (a search bar) and Twitter.com (140 characters) as companies that were models of the one-product approach.  Although they are now both branching off to offer other services and products, their original successes stem from offering the best solution to one simple problem. 

Jordan offered stickK.com’s B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) models as examples of how having two products can split your attention.  Originally stickK.com focused on the B2C market, but in recent years they have added B2B on top of that because originally, Jordan believed that B2B would just be a dashboard added onto stickK.com’s core consumer product.  However, as Jordan engaged with businesses to build out the B2B product, he realized that they would need to massively customize the B2C version to suit the businesses’ needs.  As a result, Jordan feels that stickK.com has had to de-emphasize the B2C product over the past few years to develop the B2B suite.

Don’t Outsource Your Product

For web companies, Jordan stressed thestickK.com importance of the tech team.   Your first hire should be a CTO if you don’t already have one.  Make sure that your CTO is enthusiastic about and has a vision for your product.  Also an important factor to consider when hiring a CTO is that he can work in the same room as you: Don’t outsource your product!  “You need someone you can sit next to,” Jordan said.  Building your product in-house makes communication easier and clearer and working in the same room as your development team can speed up the build process and improve the final product.  Jordan also pointed out that business co-founders needed to treat developers with the proper respect, saying, “Engineers are not a commodity, they are talent.”

The Takeaway

Concentrate on building one product or feature, and build it really well.  Keep the product simple and develop it for a big market.  Don’t outsource the development of your product and don’t be afraid to make some mistakes early on (“If you put a big BETA sticker on your site, people will forgive small defects and bugs,” he says.)  So, once you have a working product, even if it’s not 100% perfect, get it out there, because there is no substitute for a reality check.

Read More
Jun
02
2011
By Avery Faller


Who: Ashok Vasudevan
Company: Preferred Brands International

Ashok Headshot

“Every business should be global,” Ashok Vasudevan, CEO of Preferred Brands International boldly stated at the start of his talk to the summer fellows yesterday.  Throughout, he spoke to both the practical and abstract sides of running a business using Preferred Brands International and its child company Tasty Bites as examples.  Ashok emphasized the importance of a strategy that identifies a megatrend and drives the need in building a business that will be relevant both today and 15 years down the line.

Strategy

Ashok broke down the process of building a business into three parts: Strategy, Process and Execution.  “Strategy,” he said, “is an integrated set of choices about what an organization wants to accomplish, where an organization will play, and how it will play.”  Strategy does not necessarily depend on certain people, but rather can be built into the DNA of a company from day one.  That being said, everyone in a company should understand a company’s strategy.  Ashok has implemented a practice at Tasty Bites where department heads carry around a “Tasty Bite Spice Card” at all times.  Much like a Balanced Score Card, managers write down their branches’ annual and quarterly goals in one sentence or less in addition to their branches’ goals for three years out.  Ashok believes that this helps his employees stay focused on the companies’ strategy both in the short and long terms.  

Tasty Bite LogoA good strategy can take advantage of valuable resources which are created by the convergence of three trends in a market: a scarcity, a demand, and an appropriability, which intersect to form the “Value Creation Zone.”  In Tasty Bite’s case, there was a scarcity of products in the markets of natural foods and special dietary needs.  Most vegetables came frozen, diminishing their taste, so Tasty Bite worked to develop a series of pouches which enabled vegetables to have an 18-month unrefrigerated shelf life.  At the same time, the demand for specialty foods has risen dramatically in America in the past 10 years.  This is due to two trends: more and more teenage girls are becoming vegetarian and at the same time Americans are eating more cuisines per week than any other nationality.  The appropriability of these fast cooking meals is also on the rise.  As more women in America joined the workforce the average time spent cooking a meal dropped from 48 minutes in 1995 to 12 minutes in 2011.

By recognizing this series of converging megatrends Ashok was able to develop a product that would be successful its first year and whose need would continue to make it successful over the coming decades. 

Ashok Lecture 1

 

The Takeaway

Building off of the practical examples and abstract theories that he discussed throughout the morning, Ashok stressed that the best businesses are based in the real world.  “Concentrate on building the business and not the business plan,” Ashok said, pointing out that although a business will flow into a business plan, a business plan will not flow into a business as the real world can strongly influence a product.  So while it is key to have a vision and a strategy while building your business, make sure that you build a business that is based in reality and not just on paper.

Read More
Previous  Next