This post was originally published on the NextView blog, The View From Seed.
Today, we are excited to announce the launch of our new podcast TRACTION. On the show, we’ll explore and share the stories of all the creative, unusual, and clever ways that entrepreneurs find early results.
We’ll talk to founders as well as executives, investors, and journalists, all of whom did something smart or sneaky or downright brilliant to go from zero to one in an important area of their business.
Everyone likes to say that startups should do things that don’t scale. So we wondered – what ARE those things?
Why Does the World Need Another Tech Podcast?
Yes, there are other tech podcasts out there that do a great job talking about industry trends, strategy, and founders’ stories. We find that these are great, and I personally listen to many of them. But we noticed that while the information in these podcasts is interesting, many are often far removed from the actual day-to-day challenges of very early stage founders that are just trying to go from nothing to something.
In Traction, our focus is on the practical things that founders did at the earliest stages when they have almost no resources or credibility just yet. This is about the non-scalable stuff that founders have done to “make things happen” and the “hustle” that actually creates step-function results rather than just wasted effort.
So, given the general topics of most startup podcasts and our goal to be more narrowly focused, here are examples of what we WON’T discuss:
- What’s the latest trend in drones?
- Are we in a tech bubble?
- Should Microsoft buy Salesforce?
On the other hand, we WILL discuss things like these:
- How did a non-technical founding team actually get a product built?
- How do you test demand for a product without having said product?
- How was liquidity built on Day 1 in a marketplace business?
We’ll also throw in some fun stories and rants from some great founders, and put them all on the hot seat with three personal questions at the end with a segment called Alpha-Beta-Scale. And, hopefully, you’ll find the style and sound of the show to be pleasantly different from typical interview-based podcasts.
Is This Practical If The Stories Are Inherently Non-Scalable or Not Repeatable?
The point of these stories and interviews is NOT to create a playbook for future success. Early stage founders end up doing many things that fall outside of any traditional blueprint or approach, and therefore it might not be repeatable again. Taking advantage of an emerging distribution channel or market inefficiency is an opportunity in a moment in time, not today. Using some brute force tactics to get early growth isn’t scalable over time, even if they work early on.
We don’t try to share a playbook because, at the seed stage, there IS no playbook.
Instead, the point of sharing these stories is to stretch the imagination of listeners and to get us all to think differently and creatively about how to approach the challenges of building a very early stage business. The ability to take advantage of unproven things or non-scalable methods is, in a way, the super-power of an early stage founder that large companies just can’t compete against.
Knowing what these might be for your business is the challenge, but hearing stories of others will help you frame your constraints and opportunities differently.
How Do I Get Future Episodes?
You can listen to Traction and subscribe to the show in two different ways:
- Subscribe to the NextView blog, the View From Seed, if you haven’t already. You’ll get each episode as soon as it’s live, plus other content we create — resources like board deck or pitch deck templates, strategies and data for raising seed or Series A capital, and other great stories and tips from founders and investors.
- Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. On iTunes, please consider rating the show. It helps Traction get more traction
And since we’re excited about today’s launch, we’re also giving you immediate access to the first three episodes below. Thanks for listening!
Episode 1: Fred Shilmover, Co-Founder/CEO, InsightSquared — We hear the story of how one of Boston’s fastest-growing SaaS startups began — namely, with a clever tactic that Fred used to earn revenue before he had a product (or co-founders, or capital, or an office, or …) We also introduce our closing segment, “Alpha-Beta-Scale.”
Episode 2: Lee Hower, Co-Founder, NextView Ventures — Lee shares the story of co-founding LinkedIn and getting hired by Elon Musk to X.com (merged with Peter Thiel and Max Levchin’s Confinity to form PayPal). He discusses what it was like pioneering virality- and social media-based products before that was even a thing, and how the climate and technology of Silicon Valley back then was radically different than today.
Episode 3: Ken Chen, Co-Founder/CMO, NatureBox: Ken looks back at how they scrapped their way towards an initial proof of concept — all in a single weekend. They’re now a Series C startup delivering millions of boxes of snacks to customers each year. How did they prove this could work, especially since brand is so important? How do you even build a brand as a startup?
Future episodes include founders, executives, or journalists from: General Assembly, DraftKings, Pando Daily, The Boston Globe, and many more.
Are we in a Bubble? Maybe, maybe not. We are certainly closer to a peak than we are to a trough. You read about it, people talk about it, and it’s reflected in financings left and right.
Sure, companies are imploding or having troubles too. Newly public companies have big first-day jumps, and equally big first-earnings-call collapses. Overfunded startups fail to achieve their promise and people jump ship. But then, you hear about another unicorn, and other mega round, another company that seems to be getting traction when the underlying business seems to be a total head scratcher.
In the midst of all this, you are building your own company, and it’s hard as hell. It seems like there is a bubble, but then, why does it seem so damn hard?
It turns out, outside of a very small minority of companies, what you feel is probably more like what most founders feel. It’s tough out there, and actually that toughness is made worse because of the perceived frothiness of the market. What’s going on? Couple thoughts.
First, if there is a bubble, the frenzy tends to be concentrated in narrow segments. A few years ago, it was largely around seed and early stage financings. Today, it’s concentrated in mega rounds of a relatively small number of companies. If you are in the right place at the right time, the wind is at your back big time. But it’s not the experience for everyone, nor is it the experience of most founders.
Second, the winds seem to be changing very quickly. It’s kind of like startups are all ships sailing in the ocean. There are heavy winds that can propel you extraordinarily fast. But those winds are shifting really quickly. It’s not a strong steady breeze. Conditions are choppy (apologies, I don’t sail so this metaphor may be really off).
Third, valuation is just a number, and a theoretical one. Fred Wilson said it really well in this post. I’d suggest not getting too hung up on the hyper-growth rounds. Look at the companies going public. The public markets are actually pretty rational, and are rewarding good companies and punishing bad ones. A lot of the unicorns think they will be great, independent public companies, and most of them honestly are not going to get there. But great companies are being built, and the public companies are what great companies look like. An old boss of mine put it well – “You’re not as good as you think you are on your best day. But you’re not as bad as you seem to be on your worst day”.
Fourth, keep fighting, and don’t be discouraged or panic. It doesn’t pay to try to time the market. I have no idea if it’s really a bubble, and if so, whether it’s going to end or accelerate. And great companies are built in good or bad times.
I’ve had the apple watch for a couple weeks now and my experience has been mixed. My quick initial thoughts:
- It’s a beautiful watch. It feels great (I have the larger size screen, aluminum case, with the white sportsband). The band feels really comfortable, like the size and feel quite a bit.
- The battery life on the watch is great, but the drain on my iphone so far has been noticeable. I think I’ve lost about 10% of my daily battery life since I’ve been using the watch, maybe more as I’ve started to rely on it a bit more.
- The software is a bit sluggish. That includes both the speed at which the watch face actually activates as you turn your wrist to check the time, as well as the lag as the watch communicates with the phone to process most tasks. I often question whether I’m actually saving time, but I think this will improve as I just get more fluid using the device.
- Notifications are going to be the killer app. But it’s going to take some getting used to. What notifications do I really want on my watch? There is definitely the potential for overkill. Also, when I first got the watch, my notifications weren’t really working at all. After fiddling with it for a few days, I reset the software and it’s been fine since.
- I forget how much social conditioning happens with a new device like this. I’m definitely being a bit more awkward and potentially rude every time I use the watch in a social setting. Not really sure what the norms are yet.
- Goes without saying, but the reliance on the phone is a bummer. I’d love to be able to go for a run with just the watch and be able to stream music, check my location, etc. But for now, I don’t have bluetooth headphones, and you need the phone for maps, streaming, etc. I have to imagine that in the future, this will actually going away, maybe by V3.
As with many V1 products, there are a lot of kinks to work out. But I also had a wonderful, magic moment with the watch a couple days ago. The challenge with the watch is that it has limited input options for text. If you want to respond to a text message, you need to use either voice dictation, or some pre-canned responses like “OK” “Thank you” “Yes”, etc. There aren’t that many choices.
But a couple days ago, I got a text from a friend who was going to stop by my house to pick up something he had left behind. He asked:
“Is it better for me to come around 8, or at 9?”
By chance, I just tapped on reply just to see what I would be abel to do, and the first two suggested, canned responses were:
Woah. I did not expect that. I didn’t think that Apple was analyzing the contents of my texts and would suggest a response based on the context. It was exactly what I needed, it was totally unexpected, and it was completely magical. I know some people may be creeped out by that sort of thing, but I was pretty excited. It was really cool, and a interesting indication of what’s to come.
It’s immensely easier to get a company going successfully when the wind is at your back. I’ve heard a number of different investors say something akin to this, and I totally agree.
Some quick disparate thoughts:
1. Building a company with the wind at your back does NOT mean you aren’t being contrarian. Contrarians can see positive tailwinds when others miss them, or think that markets will shift differently from conventional wisdom. This is something that I’ve actually had a hard time understanding, because I am by nature one who tries to think differently.
2. Building a company with the wind at your back does NOT mean pouncing on emerging trends. I sometimes see founders highlight now their company is in lock-step of big trends, and then point to successful companies that are leading those trends as evidence. That does not make me think that the wind is at your back. Actually, it makes me think that the wind is in your face. If someone else is doing something similar, it probably means that there are dozens of others doing the same thing too, which creates a bunch of different headwinds.
3. Building a company with the wind at your back DOES mean that you spot the underlying shifts/behavior changes/opportunities that will drive future trends. For example, the “1099 economy” isn’t a thing as much as it’s driven by the trends that fuel it. That’s also why I think there is a big difference between having a “thesis” vs. having “themes”. Theses are forward looking, and themes are more about stitching together what one observes about the present.
4. What does “wind at your back” look like? It could be a bunch of stuff. High level things include:
- Emerging new engines for user acquisition
- Demographic shifts
- Underlying shifts in user behavior
- New technologies that make the previously impossible possible
- Regulatory changes
I had a meal with a friend of mine a few weeks ago who had been in a bit of a funk for the last year or so. He has two young kids that take up a lot of time and he does great but emotionally exhausting work (he’s an oncologist). I noticed that he was in a much lighter mood, and I asked him why that was the case. He said that a few months ago (in the dead of winter) he decided to take stock of many areas of his life, big and small, and just make changes. This included both mundane, routine stuff (what he did first when he got out of bed) to work behaviors (where he decided to focus his research efforts) to personal stuff too. It wasn’t so much that any particular change was necessarily better, in fact, some were pretty random. But the point was just to do something different to expose himself to different stuff and shake him out of his funk.
I’ve had a couple phases when I’ve done something similar to varying degrees. I’ve always been surprised by the unexpected benefits of shaking yourself out of your routine, and the new learnings that such changes provide. When I was in high-school, there was a year when I made a resolution to essentially say “yes” twice as often as I normally would. Yes, a scary sentiment for a teenager growing up in a large Asian city, but it actually changed my life trajectory quite a bit.
Recently, I’ve made a bit of a change in how I’m spending my time at NextView. Historically, I’ve been somewhat thesis driven around certain types of markets or businesses. Even though there is always room for serendipity in venture, I had a sense of what I was looking for, and would spend a fair bit of time just focusing on the areas that were of interest to me.
More recently however, I’ve been struggling in this regard. I think it’s because I tend to enjoy digging deep into markets with less froth and attention, and today it seems like there is a ton of enthusiasm everywhere. I’ve been learning about drones and AI recently, but while I have found the areas fascinating, I don’t have a strong thesis about where things are headed and what needs to exist.
So I made a bit of a change the last few months. Instead of focusing on areas or sectors, I’ve been trying to formulate a thesis around people. In particular, I’ve thought about personas of founders or early-stage operators that I think are interesting and am trying to meet as many people as I can that fit so I can expand my own knowledge set. These two personas are 1) deterministic product designers and 2) early stage growth marketers.
Most of the meetings I’ve had have had a very different agenda than my typical meetings. I’m mostly taking the time to introduce myself and to learn. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m developing some unexpected theses that I wasn’t really looking for but I think will make me a better investor and allow me to help portfolio companies better in the future. I’ve also met some terrific people along the way who have been generous in sharing their time and knowledge with me with little in return, and that’s been super valuable.