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Entrepreneur Lessons From Outside the Valley: Lesson #1 Net-WORK it!

March 17, 2009

WHAT: Be a really good networker.

Unless you plan to start a business sending mail bombs to people, you’ll need lots of company – partners, advisers, colleagues, and customers.

Antoine grew Sandbox from a spark he saw in one of his earliest network-building experiences:

The first time I realized the power of networks was when I was 16. I attended a meeting of high school student leaders from neighboring towns and areas. It was unforgettable – the atmosphere generated by a group of very engaged young people getting together. It actually led to things – bars that were opened, huge student parties that we organized.

Sandbox started because we wanted to harness the energy from an exchange between people, and make it broad and international.

Switzerland is a tiny country with lots of borders, lots of languages, and millions of smart people. As one result, Swiss kids like Antoine deeply understand that to thrive is to build connections across all this variety.


1.   Remember that it’s an exchange, so exchange something! If you’re asking for something from someone (contacts/expertise/services), don’t forget to share your own contacts/expertise/services. Don’t have any? YES, YOU DO. Think harder.

2.   Figure out how to speak people’s language. Do you speak other languages? Literally knowing another language helps you to better connect with people. Very helpful in networking (and in love… remember the otherwise unsexy, but multilingual, barrister in A Fish Called Wanda that a very busty Jamie Lee Curtis nonetheless lusts after?)

3. Look pretty, and smile. Have you ever inched away from an extremely slobbish-looking individual while taking public transportation? You probably didn’t feel inclined to say hello to that person or give them your contact information.

Antoine is a good-looking young man, and he smiles. This is like a facial handshake when you’re meeting someone for the first (or even hundredth) time. We’re physical beings and the more we can embrace and maximize this, the more others will be attracted to us and want to know what we do/think/have to offer.

These strategies worked well for Antoine, and the guy started a company based primarily on the power of networking.

I’ll be test-driving them and sharing my results on Twitter.

DO THESE THINGS. Entrepreneur Lessons From Outside the Valley

March 16, 2009

Silicon Valley-ites are not the only people in the world who know cutting-edge media entrepreneurship. Why, then, do we have such center-of-the-universe attitude about the Valley that’s rivaled only by NYC and its frighteningly die-hard residents (friends in New York, I love you)?

What do you do if you want to be an entrepreneur on the cutting edge of social media and community-based technologies and services, but you don’t live close enough to Silicon Valley to gain entrance into The Club?

antoine-verdonOver the next few days, I’ll be posting lessons learned from a chat I recently had with Antoine Verdon, the 25 year old cofounder of Sandbox Network, an international community and online network of ‘exceptional people under 30’ based out of Switzerland.

Where Are All the Kickass Women in Entrepreneurship?

March 10, 2009

When I tell people about this blog, they inevitabley know someone that they’d like to refer to me, which I take to be proof of how fantastically entrepreneurial we Americans (or young people? or Silicon Valley-ites?) are.

Nine times out of ten, that someone is a guy.

Granted, these guys have great stories, and diverse too, so I’d never want to turn them away. But, where are all the kickass women in entrepreneurship?

Carla Bruni, one of my fav un-PC, kickass woman artist-entrepreneurs.

Carla Bruni, one of my fav un-PC, kickass woman artist-entrepreneurs.

To clarify starting a home business selling Mary Kay is NOT entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is defined by risk-taking, unsensible fearlessness, and constant renewal.

Women, I’ve noted, are exceptionally risk-averse. They succeed in school because school rewards excellence in rule-following. They plateau in jobs because the work-world doles out the biggest rewards for calculated, but fearless, risk-taking.

I could go on about the dearth of women in grad schools, spending lots of money for a fancy hideout from the storms of worklife, or the number of women in their twenties who are still living off of their parents, or how many Ivy-educated girls are looking earnestly for a rich man to marry. But, that’s for another post.

For now, I just want to find awesome, kickass ladies who will make me shake in my boots, so I can tell their stories on this blog.

By the way, this is a challenge.

Bring it!

Love What You Do. Just Don’t Forget Your Revenue Model.

March 9, 2009

In college, we learned about social entrepreneurs, the people like crazy Bill Drayton of Ashoka, who are transforming the nonprofit landscape by infusing their projects with a decidedly entrepreneurial flair. Most were nonprofits, very few were primarily businesses that, secondarily, happened to be in the business of ‘helping people.’

Sutanto Widjaja knew he wanted to stay in business, but also recognized that he’d never stick it out unless it had personal significance to him.

“I believe my idea will change something or do good.”

To Sutanto, this meant either healthcare or education. His first startup, Sutro Biopharma, launched technology to reduce the manufacturing costs in the biopharmaceutical industry. Sutanto’s idea was that inefficient processes, coupled with outrageously rising healthcare costs, comprised a challenge that had to have a solution. After four years of draining his own pockets – a true show of commitment and great way to attract smart, but poor, partners – Sutro Biopharma recently received $25 million in venture funding.

Ok, now what’s next?

Coming from a traditional, education-loving Asian family (like me!), Sutanto knew he’d want his next venture to have something to do with education.

Get Accepted
“I was raised to value education very highly. If you’re willing to try hard, and get a good education, then they’re are plenty of doors that will swing wide open for you. That’s the idea behind”

For Sutanto, the considerable intellectual challenge and moneymaking potential of a good start-up still weren’t enough.

“I want to be engaged for a long time. I want to wake up every morning knowing that I’m spending my time fruitfully and productively.”

He has a point. If you’re not personally into it, you’ll never live through the valleys.

Money, Money, Money

Now that we’re done feeling good, let’s all recall that it can’t be all valleys. There are many sexy, high-profile companies in the media every day, burning cash and still trying to figure out their revenue model. Like the really pretty party people in high school, they may be hot enough to marry rich and do OK, but, just in case, they should still go to college, get some kind of career going, and figure out their own, independent revenue model.

Sutro Biopharma sells technology to the pharmaceuticals industry. charges users for access to expert-level content on college preparation and admissions.

Be Random

Does my eclectic background hurt my career, as my traditional, worrying Chinese mother constantly informs me? Depends on the career.

I’ve never been cut out to be a company lifer, or a surgeon, or a corporate attorney (though, after hearing about those swanky interships, I wished very hard).

Luckily, entrepreneurship of any kind – including blogging – values a random, wandering background that pushes you to tie lots of different things together.

Sutanto’s background includes semi-conductors, wine, a dotcom, biopharmaceuticals, college counseling, hedge fund management, financial consulting, electrical engineering, computer science, and VC work. Impressive, but random, and just exactly the kind of role model wandering, pondering people like me need.

If you ask him, that’s exactly the right cast of characters to turn a life into an epic.

Want to Hear Someone’s Story? Now Taking Suggestions (and Juicy Details Too)!

February 18, 2009

While I’m busily producing my next Ask the Entrepreneurs post (hint: just interviewed another amazing special someone whose story is being written up this very instant!), I’m also happily taking suggestions.

Whose story do you want to hear? And what are your most pressing questions about their success?

Write to and I’ll make it happen.

Serial Entrepreneur Mukund Mohan Welcomes Your Skepticism (And Might Hire You For It Later)

February 3, 2009

mukundTalking with Mukund Mohan for thirty minutes was like drinking an entire french press full of Philz Canopy of Heaven.

That is, it left me feeling decidedly buzzed, and wondering how any substance could pack so much energy.

Fitting that his newest venture is called Since hitting the shelves last week, this unique DIY PR service combines the fun and flirtatiousness of social media with the numbers-crunching seriousness of Google Analytics.


Mukund’s your typical Silicon Valley everything-preneur (in French, literally, everything-taker…) who has a voice in every social media outlet, three or four viable project ideas bubbling up daily, this little BuzzGain company that he’s co-founded, and even his own ‘personal’ blog where he writes about such tedious ‘personal’ details as theories of global economics, market-watch on certain major mobile handset makers, productivity tips, and a world of other, widely useful topics.

Also, did I mention that he’s really really nice? And articulate? And donates a quarter of BuzzGain’s profits to children’s education? And likes the SuperBowl?

Lucky for me talking with amazing, excellent people only makes me hungrier. Otherwise, I might not have gotten out of bed today.

What I Learned From Mukund:

1. Welcome strong reactions.

“A while back, I told [a competitor] about my idea and he said, outright, “‘Oh you shouldn’t be doing that because we’ll just crush you.'”

When you’ve got an idea that you’re semi-serious about, do like Mukund and shop it around to lots of people who may not like it, or who are potential competitors. It’s emotionally counter-intuitive, but professionally genius.

While it feels good to hear affirmations all day long, every day, it’s actually NOT HELPING YOU! Most of the time, you’ll learn MUCH more from all the shit-talk you get from the opposition (and the competition) than you will from your lovely, and loving, mother. More on how Mukund did this below.

2. Check your ‘tude.

“Being an entrepreneur is about 99% attitude and 1% skill and everytihng else. You have to have determination and passion to get to where you want to go.”

So far, there isn’t an exact scientific consensus on this, but we’ve all heard that many types of success are borne from 99% attitude and 1% skill and everything else. At least, this is what people like Mukund and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (my Ashtanga yoga superhero and guru to thousands) say.

It seems to work! Naturally, it’s MUCH harder to acquire attitude than it is to acquire skill. Don’t think so? Try standing in line for the bathroom for 45 minutes all the while telling yourself you’re having a great time — and BELIEVE it. It’s hard, maybe damn near impossible.

But, if you hear enough stories about how EVERYONE else thinks that standing in line for the bathroom for 45 minutes is a total blast and something they might even pay to do, then that can affect your attitude. Ask the Entrepreneurs, and conversations with people like Mukund, are attitude adjusters.

3. Write it down.

“That document is going to be something you come back to over and over again every time a customer doesn’t want to even take your call because they think your product sucks.”

If you’re like Mukund, or like me on coffee, you might have hundreds of snippets running loose in your head. How do you know which of these are good and which are junk?

Like other discerning people, Mukund has personal criteria against which he evaluates every snippet to see if it’s worth his time and mindspace. Here’s where the writing comes in. He argues that it’s not enough to simply have your criteria in mind, but that you actually have to see the words in front of you on a screen or on a piece of paper.

Later, when you have a core idea that you know you want to develop, you have to write that down too. Mukund even suggests over-documenting, if it means you’ll have a record, in print, to come back to every time someone tells you you’re crazy (again) and it’s not because you were drunk at a party or throwing bottles in the gutter at 7th and Market.

Mukund was one of the most self-aware people I’ve met, and he had lots of very specific, entrepreneurial tactics that he was able to share in a way that I could understand and apply to my own questions.

Our conversation was rich with these tidbits, and you can digest them in full, below.

Can anyone be an entrepreneur? Even corporate drones? Even the very inexperienced, or the overly experienced, the entrenched people?

There are two sets of people you’ve mentioned, the fresh grad, and the entrenched industry expert. Being an entrepreneur is about 99% attitude and 1% skill and everything else, and so it really doesn’t matter what your background is. You have to have determination and passion to get to where you want to go.

Is determination inborn or can it be learned?

I don’t know that. I’ve seen a lot of people from both camps, so it’s probably a little bit of both.

I talk to a lot of people who are afraid to strike out on their own, even just in commenting on a blog post, and they ask me, “Can I really do this?” All that asking makes me wonder, CAN they really do it? I don’t always know what to tell them.

My personal take on this is that the only thing a person really needs in order to be an entrepreneur is determination. You’ll hear a lot of “No’s” but you should be willing and able to dust yourself off.

Do you have any examples where you’ve heard “no” but stayed determined?

Yeah, I can think of many! Here’s one example. There are about three or four companies who are already doing something that’s on the fringes of what we do. I spoke with one gentleman, a very smart guy, someone I would actually have loved to hire at any point. A while back, I told him about my idea and he said, outright, “Oh you shouldn’t be doing that because we’ll just crush you.”

He gave me a bunch of statistics, a lot of very convincing analysis, and was just brutally honest. For me, hearing rejection was not a big deal because at that point I had about 17 or 18 ideas in my head and I was trying to figure out which one to go for.

But, when I heard his reaction, I thought, “Oh ok, well, if you’re INTERESTED in crushing me – based on this idea – then that means there’s all the more reason to do it.” He said, “Ok, it doesn’t make sense, but go ahead and do it. You won’t listen to what I have to say, but that’s fine, just see for yourself.”

My thinking was, if this person thinks that this idea is something worth putting seven or eight people behind, in order to compete against it, then there’s got to be something to it.

As it turns out, that company is now really struggling through the downturn, moving closer to the deadpool, according to some. I spoke with the guy just last week after the BuzzGain launch, and he asked me, “When you guys get to the break-even point, would you maybe have a position for me?”

Anyway, the key is, you WILL get a lot of people, regardless of whether your idea is good or bad, who like it a lot, as well as a lot of people who totally hate it and are skeptical, not only about the idea, but about whether or not you can do it. The idea itself is not the main draw for me, because people get lots of ideas. Most of the time don’t think that it’s an ‘idea,’ or don’t think it’s good enough to do something about it.

So, you had 17 or 18 ideas in your head, and you actually decided to go with the one that was basically spat on by an admired player in the industry, the guy who said he would ‘crush you.’

Well, they weren’t in my head, I’d written them down. I have about seven criteria against which I evaluate every idea. I take all the ideas and I put them to paper, and when I was talking to this gentleman, I was actually reading from my list.

His reaction was just another data point for me to consider amidst the the rest, like market factors and some others.

What are your criteria?

Well, they are very personal – everyone’s should be very personal, but I’ll share with you a few.

1. I wanted complete flexibility in how and from where the service or product could be delivered.
2. I wanted to work with friends.
3. I wanted to make enough money to be able to give 25% of our profits to children’s education in the Philippines, India and China. So, in other words, it had to be a business with decent enough profit margins that we could give money to charity, and still make enough money for the business to do what a business needs to do.

It turns out that BuzzGain was the one idea with the most impact on all criteria.

Why the focus on children’s education? Anything besides personal interest?

At the time we were working on this idea, someone shared with us a report on children’s education. The report said that the most vulnerable time in a child’s education is when it becomes a liability to their parents to educate them versus putting them to work. That’s between six and thirteen years old. It really struck us, and we decided that we wanted to make a difference on this, somehow.

So that was it. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that way.

Is this something you bring up when you’re pitching to potential investors, clients, or partners?

We don’t mention it, we don’t make it a central part of our story. At the end of the day, the customer is looking for the value propsition that you can deliver for them. If you’re delivering on that, and you happen to be doing good things also, then that’s positive, and they feel even better about doing business with you.

We don’t really talk about it because we want to make sure that the value proposition of the company stands on its own. If we’re doing good for the world, we feel good about it, but the customer doesn’t have to. They are a customer of ours because they believe that our product can generate value for them.

Ok, last question. What do I do if I just have an idea, and nothing else yet? What are the first three steps to get going?

1. Talk to a lot of people. People who might understand the space of the idea itself. Ask them, “Is this worth doing?” and try to get lots of reactions.

2. Document what you’ve heard. A lot of people skip documentation, but you’ve got to write it down very clearly and say, “This is the reason I’m doing it.” That document is going to be something you come back to over and over again every time a bug comes up, or every time someone says “No,” or “This is the worst idea,” every time a someone doesn’t want to fund you or a customer doesn’t want to even take your call because they think your product sucks.

The document is going to come up to remind you as to why you chose this thing. I’ve had a dozen ‘entrepreneur’ moments where I ask myself, “My god, what the hell was I thinking when I started doing this?” You’ve got to be able to go back to that document and say, this is the reason why I’ve chosen this.

3. Put together a team. Once you get the idea ready and written out, then you’ve got to get together a team. Maybe it’s one person, or a few people. Then, you enhance the idea you started out with.

Thanks Mukund! I now have a HUGE and wonderful to-do list!

Troupe Entrepreneurship! Ambitious Choreographers Storm L.A.’s Dance Scene, Together

January 26, 2009

Entrepreneurship is a tough lonely road with a big old pot of gold at the end of it.

Ally, flying solo?

Ally, flying solo?

Is that so? What if I don’t want to tough it out, or be lonely, and what if I want rewards all the time? Yes, I’m spoiled and demanding, but maybe it is possible to have your cake and eat it too.

Ally Voye and her friends Julia Ferguson, Sarri Sanchez, Eva Wilder and Maya Zellman decided that a group of entrepreneurs working together was better than one leader and a bunch of followers, so together they started IN/EX Dance Project.

In a metropolis like Los Angeles, there’s so much of everything and everyone – vegan southern Nepalese cuisine? You got it. Troupes of multi-talented Russian gymnast/Cirque-du-soleil/actors-turned models? They’re around somewhere. With so much diversity and vibrance, it’s hard to be confident enough to strike out on your own and perform for such an impressive and discerning audience.

For Ally, who loved the highly creative choreographic work she did in college, getting herself – and her friends – out there was the only way to experience the ownership over her work that she had so enjoyed while at UCLA.

It’s hard to be a successful choreographer in L.A. It’s less hard to be a dancer, using your body as a tool to perform someone else’ creation. Ally never stopped dancing after graduation, but she knew that she wanted to return to the business of creating her own pieces and showing them to the city. IN/EX have developed a unique and sell-able angle because, unlike most choreographers in L.A., they create their pieces as a synergistic group, rather than as individuals.

Nope, the group's got her back.

The group's got her back.

With not too much money and not too much time, it took some serious enterprising to get their first big show out the door and, as an extra kudos, a lovely little mention in the L.A. Times.

What I learned from Ally:

1. Entrepreneurs can come in twos, threes, fours, or, in this case, fives. During our conversation, Ally continually mentioned the benefits of having four creative brains working together. Their group dynamic added to the overall creativity of their work, and also gave them a unique angle over other choreographers in their area. Choreographers don’t typically work in bunches like IN/EX, so these women smartly leveraged their special, synergistic brand of dance art to distinguish themselves from the competition.

2. Prove you want it with a little sacrifice. If you can prove it to yourself by sacrificing your time and some of your own dough, you’ll have a much easier time proving it to the people you’re going to hit up for money later on. Practice space is critical for choreographers – without it, it would be like a photographer trying to do shots without lighting. Ally and crew did not get their dance practice space for free. They procured the space thanks to Ally’s connections at a school where she works as a dance and art teacher, but there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. All members had to pony up medium-sized sums from their savings or earnings. No one is an i-banker in this crowd, so the rent DID represent a significant sacrifice. However, when they started fundraising to pay for their performance space later on, it was an easier sell because the girls had proven their ownership and commitment to the project.

3. Start small. Really small, like getting a group of friends together to dance. What you produce, if your goal is to produce anything at all, doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. In fact, it’s better if it’s not so that you can get used to the idea of practice. Dancers know this well – if you’re out of shape, or out of practice, you won’t impress anyone with your shapes and moves, and you’ll definitely not end up as anyone’s star choreographer. It’s ok – no, fantastic – to start small, and restart after you fumble, and restart again after that. The key is not the success that might come, but rather the starting. I love this Paul Buchheit (FriendFeed co-founder and Gmail pioneer) blog post on the idea of starting lots of things – even if all of them flop.

4. Don’t rest on your laurels. When I asked Ally what was next, she had an answer right away. Working towards another show. These women are not planning to ride the wave of Successful Production No. 1 till the dawn of the next decade. Their first show’s success only made them want more, sooner, and bigger.

When I’m stagnating with my own modest exercise routine, or with writing another Ask the Entrepreneurs post because I’m afraid it won’t be as good as the previous, I think of Ally. The image of her and her friends practicing until 10 pm on weeknights when they’ve got jobs and boyfriends awaiting simultaneously intimidates and inspires me. It (almost) never hurts to have a little feu aux fesses!


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