Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Funders and Builders Chat at Momentum VC

Momemtum VC has got momentum (pun intended) in San Francisco's mobile startup community.  I attended their fireside chat last week at Digital Garage's DG717 to hear how mobile startup founders get stuff done.  The two founders on hand shared insights on how they built their success stories.  I'll assemble their observations into some stream-of-consciousness mashups with my own thoughts in the mix, followed by some very insightful thinking straight from a venture capitalist.

If proximity terminals are to be compatible with analytics solutions, they also need to accept real-time data from other sources.  Such tech is useful in more than just badge and barcode reading; it can adapt to retail with commerce going mobile.  Retailers are very interested in using data from in-store video feeds.  Motion capture and facial recognition software are already in the pipeline for retail POS enterprise data.  Techies, make sure your mobile hardware has enough room for software that will push data through all of these streams.

I agree with these sharp mobile founders that entrepreneurs sometimes lack the emotional skills to succeed in large corporations.  I had too many bad experiences with bureaucratic types myself to ever go back to their way of thinking.  I like watching entrepreneurs launch into the creative tension of making something brand new.

The people in the Bay Area mobile startup community obviously know each other and frequently work together.  This builds a bench strength of capable serial entrepreneurs.  One founder said his job is to assemble a team that acquirers want to retain.  I would add that not every acquirer will go for the whole team in a buyout if they only want key people in an acqui-hire.

The sales team needs to be motivated by money, because that's a startup's only real metric.  There are multiple ways to monetize data and IMHO the founding CEO should compare each potential stream's NPV to set the sales team's initial priorities.  One founder said he liked an energetic sales team but their energy can grate on the nerves of the startup's technical people.  A strategic marketing plan generates a sales script that keeps the sales team faithful to product characteristics.

I was not aware that Traction and other portals are now connecting freelance content marketers to brands that need specific campaigns.  I was aware that marketing narratives must be compelling but it's hard to reach the "suspension of disbelief" phase without an iconic brand that carries an emotional connection.  Apple is probably the standard for such disbelief; people keep paying premiums for their incrementally improving product releases.

I learned a new acronym:  FOMO means "fear of missing out."  This fear of being disconnected from digital culture probably drives demand for those overpriced incremental improvements I mentioned above.  Startups whose marketing embodies FOMO have an edge, and I suspect investors who match patterns will seek that edge.  One founder recommended a Paul Graham essay on pattern matching; I couldn't find it right away but it's probably buried among Paul's tons of wisdom.

One additional participant was venture capitalist David Blumberg of Blumberg Capital.  The dude was super-sharp and relentlessly positive.  IMHO some entrepreneurs who become VCs share very  unique traits . . . transformative vision, lots of imagination, and divergent intellects conducive to pattern recognition.  They also have really charmed lives.  Doors just magically open.  David related numerous instances where his career took an unexpectedly successful turn when he was in the right place at the right time.  His upbeat attitude probably had a lot to do with other people's willingness to open their minds to his ideas.

David noted how software startup cost barriers are now lower than ever, and freemium mobile startups who keep their back-end service costs low can make that business model work.  His take on the 2001 dot-com crash was that bubbles happen when greedy investment bankers throw easy money and their own DNA into tech startups.  I often wish I had experience with investment bankers to see just how badly they pollute things they touch.

I don't know whether David read Paul Graham's thinking on pattern recognition, but he said something about it that opened my eyes.  If business models are more important than tech, then VCs use their pattern recognition abilities to compare those models.  Recognizing product cycle length, required support, and other factors are patterns that reveal the future.  They also leverage the business domain expertise of the startups already in their portfolios to perform due diligence on other startups.  He closed with the "six T's" categories VCs use when evaluating a startup:  Theme, Team, Terrain (market and competitors), Timing (go-to-market strategy), Tech, and Terms.  Wow!  That is some major insight into VC pattern recognition ability.  Thanks, David!

The tension between tech-focused engineers and revenue-focused marketers is as old as the tech sector.  It came up several times in these conversations and I've heard it expressed in different formats before.  David summarized it with a joke:  "How do you tell the difference between an engineer and a marketer?  Engineers don't know how to lie, and marketers don't know when they're lying."  The serious role of the CEO is to ensure the engineers produce something marketable and that marketers stay on the script that keeps them honest.

I'll make one more general comment about the San Francisco startup scene.  I've noticed that a lot of incubation co-working spaces have some pricey amenities.  Designing things like art, terraces, and other ornate extras into work spaces raises the incubator's cost.  Anything non-functional that raises a cost also raises the startup's hurdle rate.  The discount rate VCs apply to tech startups is always extremely high, and it makes little sense for incubation sponsors to raise it even higher by adding costs to commercial real estate.  I like startups that operate on a shoestring because I take a dirt-cheap approach to everything in life.  I can't imagine succeeding any other way but some broke San Franciscans are determined to live premium lifestyles.  Momentum matters more when it comes at a bargain price.

Full disclosure:  I have a tiny sweat equity stake in a mobile startup.  That entity is not involved with Momentum VC at the present time.