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What I learned Visiting Silicon Valley

by Jack Simpson
Startup Catalyst Collage

Back in 2017, I had the amazing opportunity to be one of 20 young Australians selected by Startup Catalyst to receive a scholarship for their Future Founders Mission to Silicon Valley. On this trip I had the opportunity to visit dozens of tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc and learn from senior people within these organisations. At the time I was constantly jotting down little notes, and I thought I’d take some of them and write them up as a post now.

Topics

Ideas

  • You’ll have more tries if you pick a market right. Really challenge yourself to imagine if there’s a lot of customers who will be willing to pay money. You can get things wrong but if you guess right about the market size then there will be acquisition options. Be realistic about growth and market size
  • Customer discovery is important: make sure you meet a need and the market is big enough to support your business.
  • Don’t get too emotionally attached to your idea/business and let it become your identity – being too attached can lead to you making bad decisions.
  • For every yes you get, you’ll hear no at least 100 times. When getting started, people will reject you many times. You need to learn not to take it personally, just keep trying.
  • Execution is important but so are exploration and discovery.
  • If you just have one machine learning algorithm you don’t have much, people with more money or data can kill you. It’s how you use machine learning to make your product better, stickier etc or if you can build up more data than anyone else and sell that data. It’s more how you can use machine learning to make your product better than machine learning in itself

Raising Money

  • Core of the pitch: strong team + big market + plan for going to market + unique compared to what’s out there + getting customers
  • Don’t be afraid if someone doing a similar idea to you has raised money – it validates your idea. However, you’ll want to tackle it head on, bring up competitor, say which VCs have validated, why you could be just as big/bigger and why you should get that much money or more
  • Having a good team is the minimum standard. You need to discuss exactly what you’ll do with the money, when you’ll earn it back, grow etc
  • Work with 20 investors and see who you like the best- you want to work with the right business partner
  • When applying for an incubator, you need to show there is a large market and revenue opportunity.
  • Need to build, validate, sell. Raising money lets you skip a few sales cycles and get further along.
  • Funding is easy to blow – be disciplined but also use the money when needed.

People and Networking

  • Use backchannels to suss out what people are like who you are considering working with
  • Be non-transactional – too many people just want to connect immediately for their own gain.
  • First 6 months after moving to an area like Silicon Valley: go to as many events as possible, then narrow down to just the ones that align with your own interests.
  • Your network is your net worth

Time management

  • Use agenda items in meetings, instead of one-hour meetings set a specific timeframe e.g. 25 or 50 mins
  • If you’re not driving your day, someone else is
  • Write down your plan for each day, but don’t structure too much as that can eliminate the opportunity for meetings/discussions that arise. Need to be flexible
  • Important to have balance: meditate, try to be healthy, avoid burnout, have friends outside of the industry, learn to put down the computer

Building

  • Important to only build out 70% of product before exposing it to customers – if you make 90%+ then you’ve waited too long and can’t adapt as well
  • Work with early adopters to make the product as good as possible as quickly as possible
  • Roadmap is essential: need to know where you’re going. e.g. build MVP in 3 months, selling and raising in 6, then kill or continue
  • Prioritise features based on data and gut feeling
  • Do retrospectives every 2 weeks: spend day seeing what they did well, how tracking according to roadmap
  • You get requests all the time from customers, you need to figure out which feature has the most leverage for your customer base
  • Think about building software from a product perspective, not just writing scripts to fix things – understanding production is good for your engineering career
  • If your system requires heroics, you have designed it badly. Heroes solve problems by working harder, more hours, and doing manual tasks rather than automating
  • Leverage open source tools so you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. In a week you can link APIs together and have a prototype developed.
  • Open source allows you to attract and retain world-class talent – it attracts people already contributing to these projects, and means that people who join your company may already be familiar with some of your code

Hardware

  • If designing any hardware: expect it to break
  • Good design is being able to respond and fix easily. Get data from the device and figure out problems quickly. Design for debugging.
  • Log the past x hours of activity of a device to see what usage was like when figuring out mystery bugs or people misusing devices and potentially getting injured.
  • For some products you may need a way to diagnose issues before sending a faulty product back (e.g. shippers want to know if it’s a battery problem and if it’s dangerous)
  • This data also lets you make better products for people in the future
  • Hardware is expensive: don’t underestimate how much it will cost and don’t be afraid to raise money.
  • Partner with a respected manufacturer (not worth skimping)
  • Certifications, servicing, monitoring, training etc make expanding to other countries difficult.
  • Expand to new regions via international shipping and then service via post – expensive but lets you test the market without investing in infrastructure in the country.
  • Price and cost are 2 different things: charge the price people will pay. Always try to remove cost. Distributors and retailers take a big cut of the price, so factor that in in addition to the cost of parts and service.
  • You can use retailers as an awareness mechanism for your product

Culture

  • Goal isn’t to do everything, it’s to create an environment where your people are empowered to do anything.
  • Culture is everything, as CEO you own it
  • Have one global culture even if you have multiple offices
  • You need to be deliberate about what values you have and the company culture you want to set
  • Our product team is coming out with products I [the CEO] don’t know about, but that’s the culture you create
  • Successful teams: high level of curiosity, tenacity, resiliency, bravery, diversity. Pattern recognition requires different backgrounds
  • Try to identify bad hires as quickly as possible and remove – can be toxic for teams otherwise
  • When things go wrong, have a culture of blameless post-mortems – collaborate on writing it up and share it widely so no team experiences the same mistake again

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