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Lessons Learned from Getting a Ton of Press

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Disclosure: Although this is being published at my personal blog, 99.9% of credit for anything PR related should go to my co-founder, Danny Wong. The other 0.1% for me turning up to the photoshoots.  

If your startpup has less than $100k in runway, is less than 100 days old, and has less than 100 visitors a day, don’t use a PR firm. I don’t think you’ll be able to find a journalist who will tell you they’d rather receive a pitch from a junior media relations person at some PR firm than the founder of the company who lives, eats and breathes the story of the startup. With that said, how do you actually get journalists to care about you.

The Funnel: In a lot of ways, it’s not that dissimilar to business development with clients. For every 100 journalists you pitch, there will be 30 who open your email, 12 who reply to you, 5 of whom you can actually get on the phone with, and 3 who pitch the story to their editor and maybe one, if you’re lucky, who publishes the story. Let me say that if you’re got a 1/100 hit rate, you’re actually doing fairly okay. So before ever crafting a pitch, set up a CRM tool. At Blank Label and our new brand, Thread Tradition, we use HighRise. A CRM tool will help you keep track as you grow your database of journalists to the hundreds and thousands. It’ll help you visualize who is a warm lead so you can follow-up when you have new news, who is based where so you can meet them in person on travel, things you just won’t have visibility over when everything’s in your email.

Transaction vs Relationship: Obviously the earlier you start developing relationships the better but likely you’ll start just around launch of your product. It’s hard not to be very transactionally driven because you pitch, you follow-up, you follow-up and then if they’re not replying, you move on. From our experience, a lot of journalists really don’t like this approach and will likely blacklist you from their contact list. Damn! The relationship driven approach is replying to the journalists columns, dropping them really light emails with feedback on their article and nothing to do with your startup. After a few quality touch points, they will likely either ask you what you do (because they’ll just be curious and click on that link you’ve left in your email signature) or when you finally do drop the pitch, they’ll likely read the whole thing. Of course this takes a lot more time, both on a per journalist basis as well as needing to develop relationships weeks, if not months, before you want a story to go live. A lot of our bigger stories, we first reached out to the journalists 3-6 months prior.

Research: Something that will help a lot is doing your research up-front. This might sound like a no-brainer but read at least three articles of the journalist you’re about to reach out to. And drop a note about one of their articles in the first two sentences of the email, if in the subject line, even better. Research actually should take up 80% of your time doing PR. You’re reading anything in the news related to what you’re doing, e.g. small business sections of LA Times, Chicago Tribune, New York Times; any publication relating to startups, e.g. Entrepreneur Mag, INC Mag, Fast Company; and industry specific publications. You’re learning which writer covers which sections of the publications, they’re writing styles. You’re following them on Twitter. If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. At Blank Label, PR was one person’s full-time job.

Do you have any stories or advice on how startups can power their media relations efforts? Please feel free to add your tips in the comments below.

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Written by Fan Bi

April 26, 2011 at 12:17 am

Posted in General

You and Blank Label

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You’re thinking back to the career fair where the recruiter told you all the great things about the cubicle you’re now sitting in. They told you about the rich history of the company, and the impressive vision to which the company was heading. But neither seem very relevant to what you’re doing everyday. It’s not exactly terrible. But definitely not inspiring. Worst of all, you’re not quite respected. Your manager likes you, and there’s a somewhat nice culture but the actual work your doing just isn’t making an impact on anyone. You think you’re more important than doing work no one really cares about. 

This is how I felt when I was in investment banking two and a half years ago. I liked the high-octane environment, the tight deadlines, and the chaos. And even my manager who an average person would call a grade A ass. But each day nagged at me, I kept finding myself asking “Would anyone really miss the work I did today if I just didn’t turn up”. Sure my boss would get annoyed and he’d need someone to pick-up the slack, but he wouldn’t really care. In fact no one really would. Last of all not me.

I needed to do something more important. Something more meaningful to others, but most importantly to me. If this rings somewhat familiar, or you know someone who might be in this position, the official blurb is below:

Blank Label is a custom apparel company starting with men’s dress shirts. The company has been featured in NYTimes, MSNBC, Forbes, INC Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine to name a few. We plan on being in more national publications in case you like to see your name and face in print.

We’ve been online for 15 months, we’re bootstrapped and pretty scrappy. We’re making enough money to pay a couple of salaries and are now looking for i) a full-time .NET/C# engineer and ii) a UI/UX/IA product designer to join the founding team. You’ll be working alongside our lead architect (remote).

We are not just asking you to take stock as salary, we’re actually making enough money to pay you, and the stock we’re offering is actually worth something! Like most startups, we’re asking you to take a 20-30% discount on your full market rate (other startups just call this “competitive salary”, and it will be 2-4X the Founder’s salary), offset with equity that’s actually worth something. Most important, you should value learning and independence.

You will be working with the Founder in Cambridge Co-working Center on 1 Broadway in Kendall Square

Written by Fan Bi

March 11, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Posted in General

Boston Lost the Sex Battle

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Healy Jones recently wrote a great piece on 8 Tips for Building An Internet Company Outside of San Francisco. If you’re in Boston and starting a company, you should read it. But if you’re under 27 and thinking about starting a company, it’s not going to keep you in Boston. I recently was invited to dinner with some local consumer web CEOs and we largely talked about how Boston is falling behind (or failing) to retain college grads interested in startups. Boston has an image problem. It has no sex appeal.

Jules Pieri of Daily Grommet talked about how her son (soon to be rockstar college grad) wants to work on products he can tell his friends about, or even better, that his friends are using. Now far more than ever, young startup folk want to get into startups because it’s incredibly sexy. Caused largely by Wall Street’s failure and Zuck’s incredible success, young people want to get rich AND famous doing startups. But as Niraj Shah said, Boston sucks at promoting itself, ergo young people don’t think you can get rich and famous doing startups in Boston. There is no PG or YC, there is no NYTimes, there is no Fred Wilson, no TechCrunch. Who outside of Boston actually cares about Boston?

Boston will continue to bleed talent. It’s not just the ThredUP’s, OnSwipe’s, RelayRides’, WePay’s, etc it’s also the hundreds and thousands that go to Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, that probably won’t come back to Boston to start their companies. Of the dozen or so close friends of mine (all under 27) working on startups locally, I expect 75% of them won’t be in Boston within a year. Of the other couple of dozen young people in the ecosystem I’ve met in the last few weeks since I’ve relocated back, they say they are largely here for personal reasons. The best quote of last week’s dinner came from Bill Warner who said Boston first has to admit there was a problem, and then go and try to fix it. I still don’t think most of the establishment thinks there’s a problem with losing the next generation of risk-taking, passionately driven entrepreneurs.

There are going to be a couple of things that will reverse the trend and get Boston sexy again;

1. Gemvara and SCVNGR need to have huge exits. Credit to Highland for backing a couple of young guys (23 and 19 respective when HCP invested). These will create mini mafias (this has actually already started to happen), where others have tasted the drug of success and want to replicate it for themselves.

2. BostInno really needs to get bigger and better. There needs to be a publication that largely focuses on new and shiny tech startups that provides said startups its initial early adopters.

3. Young smart folk need to be encouraged to leave companies like VistaPrint, Microsoft NERD, TripAdvisor, Constant Contact, etc after a few years to break out on their own. There’s already a large support network through events that these people can already engage in so now it’s really just cultural.

Best of luck Boston, I’m rooting for you 😉

Written by Fan Bi

March 7, 2011 at 12:14 am

Posted in General

3 Suggestions for Boston Start-up Community

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Away for a year and only back for a week, three quick suggestions:

NOTE: My main interests are in consumer and very young entrepreneurs,  so apologies if it leans heavy that way.

1. Get behind BostInno

Social Network the movie will do amazing things for young people starting companies for the next decade. It captures the imagination and shows the possible. In Silicon Valley, every young person knows someone working on a start-up. It ignites the imagination and describes the possible.

Media does this. In San Fran, they have Mike Arrington and Om Malik, in New York they have the publishing empire. When you have quality content delivery about startups, the ecosystem gets excited. Of course it’s a chicken and egg because you need quality startups to write about, but without the content distribution, awareness and corresponding excitement and chat, this so called renaissance will happen a lot slower.

2. Facilitate intros between like company founders

Is there a list of consumer startups at a similar stage, do they talk to each other? I chat with a handful of Boston consumer founders, all in the 1-3 years since launch, less than $10mn in rev, and these along with my advisor conversations are some of the most enlightening and thought-provoking parts of my week. Are there any verticals that have done something like this well; e.g. is there a small but extremely tight group of e-commerce start-up entrepreneurs, do lead marketers between different SaaS companies share notes? Would love to hear suggestions or how-to’s of whether any actual start-up groups. Is there much peer learning happening?

3. Have more parties

So having just got back to Boston, I ask around what events people are going to. Everyone talks about the Dart Boston party. Having been to so many Boston events where the 35+ people avoid the under 35s, and probably vice versa, Dart has clearly identified a need for this (especially given their party is completely sold out, had to move venues due to over-capacity and I had to go to the black market to get myself on the list). I hope everyone turns up for it, that’s there’s plenty of drinking, and there are many stories of “how did I get home from that”.

Boston, it’s great to be back. Rock on.

Written by Fan Bi

December 3, 2010 at 5:25 am

Posted in General

Because My Parents Are Immigrants

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We get almost weekly pings from venture investors. It’s usually Associates trying to “help”, i.e. generating deal flow and doing market research, and most of them find us because of the press we’ve received, e.g. 2x New York Times, MSNBC, BusinessWeek, 2X Mashable, 3X ReadWriteWeb, etc. We usually talk about i) how the idea came about, ii) whose in the team, iii) what the vision is, they’re ticking their boxes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had on the checklist, “Does he have immigrant parents”. Before I go any further, I have to flag that there is obviously a whole gamut of variables for success, but I do believe there is an advantage in having immigrant parents. It goes beyond just working hard, because, in fact that’s actually the easy part. These are the four reasons why:

1. Chip on they shoulder

Of the couple of hundred of my friends whose parents are immigrants more than 80% had some level of serious bullying because of their ethnic background growing up.  Still with that same population, over 90% were regularly provoked by their parents for most of their up-bringing comparing them with their other ethnic friends i) who had better school grades, ii) were better at an instrument, iii) played more instruments, iv) got into a better university, or v) got a larger scholarship. Between the school ground bullying and the chastising by the parents, the large majority of children from immigrant backgrounds have large inferiority complexes. They then turn to objective social criteria, e.g. name brand investment bank, graduating from MIT, $100mn exit, as a medium to act as their proof point.

2. Being forced to think big

Sticking with the population as above, around 10% of my ethnic friends have some kind of stupidly insane ambition, I would argue that’s a lot higher than social mean. Jack Ma, the CEO of the Alibaba Group which is currently at a rough valuation of $20bn across Alibaba.com, Taobao, AliPay and AliSoft, recently said on the Charlie Rose show that he would deem it a failure if Alibaba Group didn’t grow to be bigger than WalMart or Microsoft, because they were of the previous generation, and he represented the new generation. This mirrors the up-and-coming generation of immigrant-children in Western countries, many whose parents have already experienced wealth. Especially in Asian culture, there is a large driving force in a child’s up bringing which circles around the “you must have a much better life than I, create more wealth than me, provide more opportunities for your own children”. So if you already have a successful doctor as a father or your parents run a profitable small business, the bar goes up, a lot.

3.  Do things most wouldn’t

So this is probably the most controversial of the lot. Of the 500 interviews, autobiographies, podcasts of entrepreneurs’ stories, 10% of them state obviously that in the early days they were forced to make choices that were ethically gray for the survival of the company, and another 10% strongly insinuate it. When you’ve escaped war or poverty and you’re used to surviving on the brink, you are forced to do certain things which most people of comfort wouldn’t. Growing up in an environment when your parents are struggling to put food on the table, you watch actions which are ethically gray but also mean being fed. Over time you develop a tolerance that may translate to be willing to go the extra yard.

4. Growing insular community

Untrue of my parent’s generation, second generation immigrants have a high propensity to find other ethnic friends. The majority of my friends growing up in Sydney were from a non-WASP background, of that 40% where Chinese. I’m not going to make a case for or against whether broader Western society is inclusive of people of ethnicity, I certainty think it is in a lot but far from all. Meanwhile something interesting has developed where second-generation immigrants are becoming more inclined to show inclusiveness just because your ethnic. I often see obvious cases where people are more likely to help me just because I’m ethnic, probably more commonly because we’re both Chinese.

Written by Fan Bi

October 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Posted in General

What is the 7 Links Challenge?

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Doing some research for a new content site we’re starting at Blank Label Group,  I stumbled across a Problogger article on the 7 Link Challenge. For those unfamiliar, Problogger is a blog about blogging, more specifically it’s written by Darren Rose, the Melbournian (Australian) on how he makes six-figures a year from blogging. The article is an idea to publish a post with these following 7 categories:

My First Post

Literally titled My First Post, it was written and published a little over a year ago, in August 2009. Reading it, I can’t help but chuckle. I used to post at a content site, College Mogul, but slowed down because of the editorial limitations. I intended this post to be a provocative voice of truth and meaning, I would post 10 items in the first 20 days, and then slowly … I found myself running a start-up.

The Post I Most Enjoyed Writing

This was a really tough decision. Reading over my past blogs, I had a lot of fun reviewing my Mass Technology unConference last year, mostly because Bill Warner put on such an awesome event; I did a similar recap of my visit to TechCrunch 50, including a photo with conference organizer JCal;  I vainly want to point to Events to Hit Up in Boston because it was before Startup Digest‘s real move into Boston or even Greenhorn Boston existed, albeit both awesomely quality publications; but the one I truly most enjoyed actually writing had to have been my start-up visa story. It was off the back of my first real publication review (thanks Wade Roush, I’ll never forget you!) and it was a story that I was really passionate about telling.

The Post Which Had the Greatest Discussion

Now I’m not going to pretend that this blog has a following of any sort but a post I did a couple of months ago about where Blank Label, and I personally, might relocate included some interesting comments. Having started the idea for Blank Label in Shanghai, working on the business planning in Sydney, then doing most of the early execution and launch in Boston, then returning to Shanghai post-launch, I was ready to consider relocating again (yes I’m that restless). Commentators had some interesting suggestions for places I might consider, including one I never ever would’ve thought of.

A Post on Someone Else’s Blog That I Wish I’d Written

Given the title of my blog is Life of FBi | Non-Tech Start-up Founder, it would give some hint that at least half of my articles intend to be about founding a start-up being non-technical, but I’ve never really written the killer article about what a non-tech founder does at a tech start-up. Spencer Fry did. He’s the young founder of  Carbonmade, a platform designers use to show of their work. He wrote a comment on Hacker News that received 164 votes, and to put that in perspective, that’s the 10th most popular comment of all time. A big statement for one of the most respected start-up news sites. His article was an elaboration on his comment, titled What’s a Non-Programmer To Do?

My Most Helpful Post

My most recent piece is a reflection of the biggest lessons learned, specifically for a non-technical founder knowing nothing about online marketing, nothing about e-commerce, nothing about web technology, and a lot less about business than I thought. It’s a harsh reflection of a lot of young ‘business guys’ who think they have a lot of value to add in start-ups and that just being absolutely untrue.

The Post With A Title I’m the Most Proud Of

It’s Not All About The Sex

The Post I Wish More People Read

Two themes you might see running across this blog are the start-up visa, and young start-up founders. Obviously if you know me at all, you’ll know those two pertain to me very directly.  This is a post that I really hope all young, aspiring entrepreneurs get to read, especially those, who like I found, are not getting what they need out of institutionalized education. The article derisks taking time of school, weighing up the pros and cons. Disclaimer: I almost tell every student I meet to drop out of college.

What did you think abou the 7-Link Challenge, did you learn something interesting, do you plan on doing the 7-Link Challenge on your own blog? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Written by Fan Bi

September 21, 2010 at 9:42 am

Posted in General

You Don’t Need Advice, You Need Numbers

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You are introduced to start-ups and entrepreneurship, you get recommended one of Guy Kawasaki’s books  or TechCrunch to read. You start to understand the difference between B2C and B2B, and if you’re really with it, the pros and cons of subscription. You start dropping start-up jargon the same way you would rap lines in the late 90s. As you read more you move beyond just start-up ideas and broader news to get into the meatier stuff. You start reading Steve Blank and learn customer development, you read HackerNews and engage in a tech community. You call yourself a start-up gangsta. Of course you haven’t actually started anything yet.

You slowly start working on a start-up, you’re lucky enough to be in the Valley, Boston, NYC or Colorado and you get access to advice. Without them knowing, you refer to them as advisors. You might even be foolish enough to call them your Board of Advisors. The advice is fairly high level, teaming, raising money, business model, where else you can get more advice. It’s mostly abstract but still more useful than reading books or blogs that by nature is even more general.

As you launch your product, more people are willing to talk to you. It’s actually pretty interesting how this happens. It’s like when you launch your product, you’ve suddenly been let into this club and you just got put on the list. Now you have more advice than ever, which would be good if it wasn’t all so contradictory. Marketing decisions, product decisions, you hear something on Monday and then the opposite on Wednesday. You start to realize that these are merely all just data points. Not all data is made the same but it still all goes into a melting pot that is your brain. F***, now you’re more confused than ever.

Being a non-technical founder in an online retail start-up means that I don’t actually do much ‘actual work’. I listen, to the team, to customers, to people who drop advice. This advice part is important, especially if you’re a first-timer, especially if your team is full of first-timers. What kind of advice you get is especially really important. The case I was trying to make above is that as you progress as an entrepreneur, you need more tailored advice, and more specific.

A signal of a really quality advisor is someone whose willing to look at your numbers. I’ll share a couple of experiences with Blank Label. Dan Marques, Director of Marketing and Analytics at Gemvara, has spent time helping us set up goal funnels in Google Analytics. He has made us think about search volume for key words we were optimizing around and which long-tail terms were worth going after and which weren’t. David Hauser, Co-Founder of Grasshopper has helped me think through traffic and sales metrics, where they were, how we thought they were going to change, where were we going to double down, which new channels should we invest in. James Reinhart, Co-Founder of newly funded ThredUP, has been incredibly focused on getting me focused on break-even numbers and gives me the most disappointed face ever when I can’t come up with the shirts per day we have to sell for the break-even spend that week.

We’re really, really lucky to have such great people helping us. And you can be too. How have we done it? Be incredibly humble. Even if you’re game-face and arrogant on the court, be incredibly humble off the court to your coaches. They just know a lot more about a lot more things that you. Don’t be afraid to ask. We’ve asked help from a lot of people, not everyone is willing, and that’s okay. Just hang onto the ones who are, and be extremely good to them.

What kind of help are you getting from mentors and advisors?

Written by Fan Bi

July 13, 2010 at 10:19 am

Posted in General