Sunday, April 30, 2006

Startup School

A great way to spend a Saturday. Time spent at the startup school was totally worth the $14.50 ($7.50 on the Caltrain ticket and $7 on the Häagen-Dazs ice-cream while waiting for the train back home) spent. The event featured a stellar list of speakers.

The day started with Joe Kraus who founded Excite and Jotspot. Unfortunately, I missed the initial few minutes of his talk given that 1st Caltrain arrived in Palo Alto station only at 9:00 am or so. I say unfortunate because it seemed like one of the best talks of the day. It read like a list of top 10 things to keep in mind while starting a company. He talked about how entrepreneurs should never pass up an opportunity to dip their hands into a cookie jar (a metaphorical reference to networking opportunities). In the case of Excite, the cookie jar grew larger and larger until Kraus found himself in a board room with this guy. Apparently Khosla picked up the cell phone in the middle of their conversation to order a $10K hard drive and went on as if nothing had happened (“Its as if he had parted the seas for us”).

Page Mailliard was next. Listening to her speak, it was fairly obvious why she had made partner at Silicon Valley’s premier law firm (having taking Google public, they’re now helping YouTube with their copyright issues). She made the legalese that is involved with starting a company approachable (and more importantly, interesting). She dwelt quite a bit on the conflicts of interest that arise when someone decides to quit their day job and work on their startup full time. Tip: Don’t take on a co-founder who currently works for Micro$oft (“They own everything you dream about at midnight”).

Mark Fletcher of Bloglines had some tips on architecture choices. Use DNS RR over load balancer (avoid a single point of failure). AT&T in Redwood City is a reliable hosting service with solid uptime. HP-Procurve stuff (Good). Seagate ultra SCSI drive (bad). Ann Winblad’s talk had waaaay too many management clichés for my taste (“magic quadrant”, “patentable breakthrough technology”, “secret sauce”, “Michael Porter”). It might have resonated with a B-School audience. But not this room of Mac wielding geeks whose one need is to understand how to translate code to $$$. But she did come up with some great quotes, though (see below). George Willman followed with his version of Patent Law 101. Not much that’s new if you’ve sat through one of these before. I did learn one new thing I did not know about before. Business processes can be patented. This can help better explain some of the recent trouble that Blockbuster has been having.

Tim O’Reilly’s (“The guy who has turned our bookshelves into zoos” as a friend of mine put it) talk was on marketing. Quite appropriate from the man who helped come up with the terms “open source” and “Web 2.0”. He quoted Jim Barksdale of Netscape as having said “find a parade and get in front of it.” In other words, don’t promote your product. Instead, promote the concepts it relies on. Interesting stuff. Paul Graham – The best thing about his talk was also the worst thing -- It sounded like one of his essays :) Analytical, got thepoint across, but if you listen to it instead of reading it, he kinda reminds you of this guy at times. His thesis? (1) “Dost thou love Life, then do not squander Time, for that's the Stuff Life is made of.” – Ben Franklin (2) A startup involves doing the most amount of work in the shortest period of time. (3) Starting a company amounts to respecting life (From (1) and (2)).

Caterina Fake’s talk had a different format. The questions were voted on at reddit. I was definitely disappointed though that she never got around to answering the question of if its really a bad time to start a company. Avoiding controversy aint fun. Om entertained the audience as only a desi can. Nothing geeks dig more than a guy who pulls no punches. He dwelt a bit on his definition of what disruptive technology really is (something that causes a change in behavior –, flickr, etc). He did get around to answering my question (“I have a very simple filter. If you don’t get my attention in five minutes, you never will”).

Chris Sacca’s speech was a plug for why Google is the best place in the world to work at. The guy closed out the day with a pitch for the need for minimalism in product design (do one thing really well – the same thing was emphasized by Caterina as well in response to a question as to why YouTube did not prompt Flickr to go after video).

“Its easier than ever to start a company (cheap hardware, free software, cheap labor), but its no easier to start a business” – Joe Kraus

“Your best leverage is another termsheet.” – Page Mailliard on negotiating with VCs

“Is the need real? Is it a vitamin or a painkiller?” – Ann Wiblad on product ideas

“Companies are bought, not sold.” – Ann Wiblad on founder expectations

“An invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it started.” – Tim O’Reilly quoting Ray Kurzwell

“A feature is one quantum of making a user’s life better.” – Paul Graham

“If your product is finished, there are two possibilities (1) It is finished (2) You lack imagination. Experience suggests that (2) is 1000 times more likely.” – Paul Graham

“The median user visits your website, his finger poised over the back button.” – Paul Graham

“Paul (Graham) says its not about the money. Everything in life is about the money! Goddammit, its America!” – Om Malik