Life of FBi | Non-Tech Start-up Founder

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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

3 Lessons in 12 Months as a Non-Technical Founder

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It is honestly a little scary to think that 12 months ago, someone came across a tweet, that linked to this very blog, that led to an email exchange, that six weeks later launched www.blank-label.com. Zee and I had our first conversation in September last year, and with Alec (who designed the site) and Danny (our marketer) built and launched the site on October 31, 2009. I was still in my Babson dorm room at the time.

I like the familiarity of talking to young, first-time non-technical founders of tech start-ups. I’m often reminded of three characteristics we all share, that we often all fail at.

1. We know nothing about technology yet we think we can control programmers

Reading TechCrunch or HackerNews doesn’t mean you understand technology (referencing here specifically to consumer web tech). I wish I had read Don Rainey‘s 8 Lies Developers Tell You before I started any of this. That’s in no means a dis to the programmers I’ve worked with on Blank Label, but more a reflection of things you should generally be aware of going in.

There are some strange dynamics: you have to trust your developer(s) but can’t trust them completely, your designer and developer may only sometimes get along, you have to be patient with the development but also enforce frequent time pressures. Something I’d highly recommend reading is 37 Signal‘s Getting Real. My favorite quote; “Fix time, flex scope” in reference to launching a web app.

The best lesson I’ll give is be extremely empathetic: things always take longer, there is no quick fix, and there will always be bugs. There’s nothing that ticks of a programmer more than a ‘business guy’ who doesn’t get it.

2. We know nothing about tactics or strategy yet we want to call ourselves the ‘business guy’

So at the very least if we’re the ‘business guy’ then we should know how to set the short-term tactics to set the path to the milestones of the broader strategy right?

Granted I’m an undergraduate dropout, but unless the two dozen Harvard MBA students I’ve met are the ones in the bottom quartile, you don’t know tactics or strategy until you actually have real experience in acquiring customers and building product, whilst simultaneously managing money and building your own team. You know much less than you need, and worse, much less than you think.

This is an area where you can really use the help of experience. It is with regular conversations with advisors analyzing business metrics and customer development that you can really gain some insight as to what the next steps of your company should be. And remember, you’re decisions will almost certainly be wrong, and that’s okay. Just make sure they don’t kill you.

3. We know nothing about being a CEO yet we love to think of ourselves as the CEO

There’s been a bit of buzz around the blogosphere around what a CEO’s role should be. Fred Wilson kicked it off with What a CEO Does and Mark Suster followed up My Life as a CEO (and VC) with a really quality piece.

So as a titan of industry, I thought I’d chime in. When I’ve had moments to myself in the past 12 months, when I haven’t been working on day-to-day operations or spending time communicating with my remote team, I’ve asked myself, am I really being a CEO? If I know less about technology than our programmer, and less about customer acquisition than our marketer should I just be the operations guy rather than the CEO.

Something surprising that I’ve learnt is when you build a team, you get instant kudos from the team, even though you’re not sure why. A few things you can rely on are your charisma and leveraging the CEO title to speak with business development partners or potential investors, i.e. bring the big bacon home once a month. But you get even more respect when on daily basis you do a ton of homework and connect the dots between what your selling, how you’re selling it and how people are responding to it, i.e. bring bread to the table everyday.

Written by Fan Bi

September 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Reasons Why Northeastern Will Win in Start-up Education

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This post has been brewing with me for sometime, probably as long as 12 months, so bear with me as I try to pack a lot in. It’ll include a few different elements, my experience at Babson and what that taught me about entrepreneurship education, the on-going Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, and why students interested in entrepreneurship should take time off school. My point is to tie it together and conclude Northeastern University has got it right, and why it will be the winner out of this much-claimed Boston innovation renaissance.

1. What Babson taught me about entrepreneurship education.

I’ve dissed Babson a lot. Probably extremely unfairly. My history with Babson is I studied abroad for Spring and Fall semester 2009, I was offered a lot of opportunities there, and I took them. I know I’m not being grateful enough, but here’s what disappointed me. There is this claimed number 1 in the U.S. in entrepreneurship stuff. And to me, it just didn’t live up to the hype. Less than 10% of undergrad students were really passionate about start-ups. Of that, most of them identified entrepreneurship very closely with scalable start-up which they identified very closely to consumer internet start-up. Yet this was so far from the education on small business marketing or  Fortune 500 strategy cases. Dharmesh Shah once told me that you need two types of people in a start-up, someone who can build it and someone who can sell it. So for consumer internet that’s someone who can build web apps and someone who understands online marketing. This was not what I learnt at Babson. Maybe I’m wrong and it wasn’t their responsibility.

2. Silicon Valley vs Boston

For the three people who read this blog you’ll know that I’m deciding where to relocate myself and the company in the upcoming few months. So naturally I’ve been paying quite a bit of attention to this Silicon Valley vs Boston debate, on the merits of each entrepreneurial ecosystem. Silicon Valley is clearly king for consumer web, Boston is trying  a lot of things and has a ton of smart students. With all this stuff that Boston is doing, I’m sure you’ll see a lot of younger people starting companies, because it’ll be a part of the culture (I’ll do a later post on my theories on why young people found companies, and how to get more of them doing it). And hopefully many of them will stay in Boston rather than just going to Silicon Valley and New York. Boston is a good place to be if you’re young, especially if you’re still in school as there are probably more opportunities for you than ever before.

3. Why students interested in entrepreneurship need to take time off school

What I also discovered whilst I was at Babson was because I was on study-abroad, I was on something called pass-fail, i.e. it was a binary result, i.e. getting 51/100 was as good as 100/100. What this essentially meant was I had time to pursue a start-up idea which would eventually lead to Blank Label. My friends at Babson were jealous. Hey, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? Teachers got annoyed, how come you never turn up to class and work on your start-up all the time? The answer, I didn’t pay $50,000 for those classes and I just needed to pass (which I didn’t really have to do since I dropped out anyway). I’m not as extreme as Caterina Fake’s I’ll fund you if you’re dropping out of school argument, but I do believe that time away from the class is just as important, if not more so, than time in the class.

Why Northeastern will win

1. They are an actual university with multiple schools of training and if they can get the cross-polliation right, they’ll develop people who can make it and sell it hanging out in the one place.  And from my few friends at NEU, I agree with David Cancel in that NEU students are far from entitled (can’t be said for many of their Bostonian counterparts) and they have something to prove. Start-up founders always have something to prove.

2. A lot of the work is already being done for them. Boston is reinvigorated, and pissed off that Y-Combinator then Facebook and more recently WePay are heading over there. There is something brewing and it’s a good time to be a student in Boston. I’m thinking Dart Boston, Stay in MA, Innovation Open House.

3. They force students outside the classroom. It’s institutionalized in their co-op program, and now they’re letting students work on their own start-ups for a semester (plus potentially a summer) at a time. That’s huge.

And what’s more, they have the leader of the youth movement, Jason Evanish, as a recent alumni. I rest my case.

Written by Fan Bi

August 2, 2010 at 7:02 pm

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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

Now LeBron’s Made His Decision …

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Location, Location, Location, one of the most-used cliches in the English language. I assume it’s probably somewhat important. Now that LeBron has made his choice, the nation (i.e. my girlfriend and my mother) awaits the next big decision, where will Blank Label relocate for 2011. The contenders:

Stay in Shanghai

For relatively cheap the bulk of the team currently resides in Shanghai. Just like it was cool to spend summers in Silicon Valley in the late 2000s, we thought it’d be cool to move the team to Shanghai for the summer of 2010. And for the most part it worked. Fewer distractions, besides Alec our Lead Artist discovering that he has yellow fever, has helped. We can live off less so the company can pay smaller stipends. And with those stipends, we can afford a decently nice apartment, a driver, a clearner and a good time at clubs once a week.

We’re pretty removed from any kind of start-up community, the pollution makes you feel like you’re smoking a pack a day, and there is a language barrier. It’s still pretty easy to access to our advisors with weekly video calls and we still get investment interest because we’re domiciled in the U.S. All in all, it’s a pretty good life but we’re probably not getting pushed by being in the right ecosystem.

Return to Boston

Boston is where Blank Label went from idea to launch, and then a little bit more. It’s where most of the core team originates, it’s where our first customers came from, it’s where we have a feel integrated and a part of the start-up community. There are inevitably personal ties, close relationships with other start-upers, and where we have our best base of investor interest. We think we have good access to young talent and are excited about what locals are calling an innovation renaissance. It’s probably where we feel most connected and most comfortable.

It lacks the sex appeal of Silicon Valley or New York and there still seems to be very few young founders getting backed by institutions. Nightlife ends at 2pm and the public transport is just horrendous if you don’t live in and immediately around the city. There is a lot of activity happening, especially for a sub-30 crew, but don’t know how much of it is converting to rockstar young entrepreneurs, i.e. an ecosystem that is motivating and contagious.

Move to the Valley

Everyone who we know in the Valley says this is a done deal. There is no decision. We’re young, we’re consumer internet, it’s the Valley all the way. And nevermind we’ve not connected, people are throwing out some big name introductions if we do a trip out there. And even though we know more VCs in Boston, we have more proactive interest in the Valley without having ever visited.

But the place is expensive, there are never guarantees of raising money, and competition for talent, or at least retention, is a pretty big issue. And no one in the team has actually been to the valley. I’m probably going to spend two weeks out there later this year to get a feel of the place.

To entrepreneurs who have relocated or have thoughts about this, please feel free to make my decision for me in the comments =)

LeBron has made his decision, maybe we just follow him to Miami.

Written by Fan Bi

July 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized