Last year I took Stanford’s Technology Entrepreneurship Venture Lab course which covers the process technology entrepreneurs take to start their companies and methodologies pioneered in the Silicon Valley. It started with two assignments and went full force into a four month project. Now, that’s almost the same time it takes to launch a startup!
At the time, I had experienced shipping releases for Office 2007 and Bing and was managing the globalization project for the Windows 8 Store. In spite of all the product development experience behind me, I was blown away with Chuck Eesley’s iterative approach. Chuck started teaching this course last year and is the Assistant Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. The course started with 37,606 teams and making it to the top #10 was no small feat . Our team did it!
In October, I moved from Seattle to Chicago and changed roles from a Technology lead in the Windows 8 Store engineering group to being a Startup Technologist out in the wild with startups. Today, my typical week includes holding office hours at coworking spaces, meeting entrepreneurs every day, judging elevator pitches, debugging code, connecting startups to resources and a big bag of goodies through Microsoft’s entrepreneurship program
So, why am I telling you this story?
Well, over the past few years, I have identified five things that differentiate smart and sexy startups from the average Joe startup. This helps me dedicate and focus my energy on the hot and happening rock stars. Helping those who are committed to their own success.
Here’s how you can transform yours into a smart and sexy startup to shine through this crowded landscape and maximize your success.
Build a rock star team
Shying away from the comfort of casual and loose, these startups prefer a tight ship. A solid, committed and diverse team helped us reach the top 10 teams on Stanford’s venture lab. Our team delegated in alignment with strengths, balancing the art of leading and following with trust. Our initial meetings were all about getting in sync and challenging each other respectfully to create high quality outcomes.
For example, Solomo connects customers and businesses via social, mobile and local solutions and based in Chicago. They have a tightly knit, well balanced team that came together in 2011.
Create a cancer drug, not candy! Then, make it viable.
As one of the top teams at the end of the Technology Entrepreneurship course, my team at Stanford’s venture lab pitched to a VC in the Silicon Valley. The feedback we got was, ‘Build a cancer drug – a product that people need; not candy – a nice-to have product’.
This doesn’t mean you solve for world hunger or create the next Twitter.
It means you create a solution that is best at one thing, solves a real problem and addresses a gap in the market. As you research for problems to solve, look for solutions that reduce time, cost lesser and save effort for your customers while maintaining a barrier to entry in the market. Our team pivoted several times before landing on our final value proposition and that is ok.
Elevate Digital from Chicago revolutionized advertising through its interactive digital kiosks and created a solution for advertisers, marketers and consumers and wrapped with a pretty bow!
Find the right support system to doll you up inside out
Angels, VCs and top accelerators such as TechStars Chicago help build connections and get businesses off the ground. The sassy startup also keeps an open mind to everything else. Large technology companies such as Microsoft support entrepreneurs via the BizSpark program that provides technology, marketing and funding resources. Media companies for startups such as Tech Cocktail routinely invite entrepreneurs to deliver key notes and promote networking. Venture challenges and business plan competitions held at universities are great to connect with the community and make the right connections.
No startup succeeds on its own and a smart, sexy startup always needs experts to glamorize and succeed.
Take for example, SkyVu from Omaha. The SkyVu team partnered with WildBrain Entertainment to bring its Battle Bears mobile game to Hollywood and is expanding to a full season TV series, action figures and toys.
Win the hearts and minds of customers
A stellar startup is always on the lookout for strategies to widen its sales funnel and consistently explore ways to connect with customers including but, not limited to social media. Embracing new technology ecosystems across Windows 8; exploring ways to gamify and reward; connecting consumers to experts are just a few ways that startups are engaging the end customer.
You will never hear from your customers if you don’t leave the building! Meet your customers in person. Listen, feel, observe and absorb their feedback into your product where it makes sense. Identify a target segment that works best with your mantra.
Emerging startups such as Georama from Chicago, engage their fan base via travel trivia each day. This has led to 11,000 likes from 150 in three months. The well-known Quora has redefined search and answers by connecting users to people they admire and respect.
A startup of substance works hard to create a strong business model
Keeping marginal costs low and activating customers at scale is a balancing act mastered by the successful startup.
Dwolla from Iowa, creates a mobile payment solution that side-steps credit cards and links directly to bank accounts taking 25 cents for every transaction, and is already moving 30-50 million per month on its platform.
If you understand the lifetime value of customers and tally it against the high-heel cost of customer acquisition, and if you can iterate with limited data points, you’re setup for nothing but, success!
The key is to test out every hypotheses and be open to the trends of change with a clear focus.
This post is part of my blog posts at Inc-Well NBC Chicago