Things I Learned at Denver Startup Week

Denver Startup Week was a fantastic time. I find myself reinvigorated, centered, and focused. The following is a list of things I learned, or am reminded of, while attending Denver Startup Week. Hopefully this will give you some inspiration too.

Validating Ideas:
  • Your first product never survives first contact with customers.
  • Get the product in peoples hands. Its the only way to learn.
  • Early on, you don’t have enough users to A/B test. Learn from talking to your first users.
  • Run marketing experiments to see if you can even get people to your website. What is there does not matter much early on.
    • Test your personas, their drivers, the messages, and the channels.
    • Then try to get them to respond to your calls to action.
Getting your first users:
  • Be scrapy. You are trying to learn.
  • The best first customers realize they have a problem, have envisioned a solution, and are actively looking for a path forward.
  • You need to talk to your first customers in order to understand your market’s problems and how to solve them.
  • Say yes, do things that don’t scale.
  • You are allowed to fire a client.
Engineering Teams:
  • Some of the best innovation comes from the engineers. They know what’s possible with the technology. Customers don’t generally come up with the leaps.
  • Communication needs to flow both ways. Engineers want business context, businesses want more clarity. Both sides need to invest more time in understanding the other side, its context, motivation, and needs.
  • Pair new hires with someone who a little ahead in skills or tenure, rather than an expert.
  • Take an engineer to customer meetings. About half will likely be interested to. There will be great learning for all, though most engineers need time and mentorship to adjust to the new communication styles and patterns.
  • Don’t outsource, they are not invested in you. They have to find a next client while still working with you.
  • Most startups can’t afford junior engineers or specialists, they need generalists who can help them find product/market fit.
  • Hiring engineers is hard, it’s their market today. Don’t be afraid to use an agency. (I’m unsure about this one myself as my gut tells me the best engineers dislike recruiters)
  • As important as their technical skills, ensure there is a history of teamwork and collaboration.
Sales Teams:
  • Hire salespeople who’ve not had the easiest time in life.
  • Ambi-verts (not extra or intra) do best because they are better at ceding the conversation to listen and taking control when the time is right.
  • Asking for a higher base is a red-flag. Asking for higher commission with lower base is a green-flag.
  • Have regular meetings with the front line, they are the ones mainly talking to the customer.
  • Make sure the sales teams know your mission, vision, and values. You’d be surprised at the answers you’d get if you haven’t ensured this.
  • Selling only works when you truly believe in a company and product.
Culture:
  • Overused term, especially with hiring. We are seeing the emergence of echo-chambers.
  • Instead, hire for value fit. You actually want a diverse culture, they function better by all measures.
  • Culture will change with growth and maturity. This is OK and why value fit is important.
  • Satisfaction with manager has the highest correlation to employee happiness and engagement.
  • Hire only great managers, they are the keystones to removing the inefficiencies and maintaining culture.
Design and UX:
  • Hire a generalist first. Someone who can do a good enough job at many things and can change course with a startup.
  • Good design from the get go is important, don’t be a perfectionist.
  • Get organized at the start with your brand assets: guidelines, style guides, and a shared / interconnected system for your designers. This enables consistency, streamlined workflow, consistency, and changes which propagate through the organizations brand assets.
  • Consider embedding designers with engineering teams, definitely involve them during a projects entire life-cycle.
  • You need qualitative research in addition to quantitative, watch your customers use your product. Involve the engineers.
Innovation:
  • Have a portfolio like mix to your Roadmap. Do your actually activities reflect the balance in your roadmap?
  • Leaps in innovation often come from engineers and their familiarity with the technology’s possibilities.
  • Large companies are increasingly relying on startups and other external sources for their own innovation.
  • Expect to throw away more than half of greenfield projects.
Growth and Revenue:
  • Customers are the best, only only sustainable way, to fund a company.
  • You need different types of people at different phases of a startup. Accept this and don’t be sad when people leave or need to be let go.
  • Perks are difficult to discontinue. Give those which also align with business goals, such as breakfast from 8-9 to encourage earlier arrival to the office.
Fund Raising:
  • Don’t, unless you have to. Why do you want to give away your company?
  • It changes your company and relationships. A liquidity event is now a requirement.
  • Funding is an accellerant, not a band-aid.
  • The rights of previous investors can change with each new funding round.
  • Don’t worry about how much competitors raise, they may be burning cash in a barrel. If you are capital efficient, you can raise less money and deliver more, while giving away less of your company.
Book Recommendations

So what am I doing now?

I am going through “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steve Blank. It’s like a workbook for startups who need to do Customer Discovery, Validation, Creation and Building. The focus will be on finding a solution to developer productivity and enablement, through containers and Kubernetes, that has many, many benefits to the overall organization and its goals.

You can find some of the videos and slide presentations on the Denver Startup Week website.

What will you be doing next?