My new blog

April 11, 2012

I’m really excited to announce that I’ve been asked to be a contributor to! As I’ll be posting there roughly once a week I’ll probably not be posting much here; if you want to follow my writing keep an eye on my twitter or subscribe to my blog at Forbes.

Like me, Forbes Magazine is Scottish! It was founded in New York City by B.C. Forbes in 1917. Bertie emigrated to the US in 1904, and grew up in Aberdeenshire, before working as a journalist for a Dundee newspaper. He remained editor in chief at Forbes until his death in 1954; decades later and it’s still a family enterprise with Bertie’s grandson at the helm.

Here’s a link to my first post:

Startup Success: Throw Away Your Business Books

Silicon Valley – Week 8

December 19, 2011

Garden Court, Palace Hotel, San Francisco

This was my last full week in the bay area before heading home for Christmas and New Year. I’m looking forward to going home to see friends and family, but I’m looking forward even more to coming back here in January! I’ve made tremendous progress with Teamly since moving here and I expect 2012 is going to be a great year.

A few highlights from this week:

I visited Plug & Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, which is one of the oldest and largest serviced office spaces for startups in silicon valley. They specialise in helping international startups relocate here, and soften the landing through mentoring, educational events and access to executives-in-residence. Their main building has approximately 1000 people in it, and like all coworking spaces in the valley they’ve been getting busier and busier this year, reflecting the boom.

There’s lots of great events in Silicon Valley, so choosing between them all is hard. Thesedays I only go to those that are educational, rather than just a random networking event. One of the two events I went to this week was a great 2 hour workshop on “Guiding UX principles“. UX is one of those things that’s hard to put your finger on, but this was taught with 10 principles, and some great examples of good and bad UX.

In an example of Silicon Valley serendipity, I was doing some work in a cafe in Palo Alto, when I recognised another founder at the next table in a meeting. It was Ben Mappen, founder of Leanlaunchlab, a web service which helps you through the lean startup process. That includes customer development, the business model canvas, as well as keeping your board, investors and advisors up-to-date with your progress. Ben has a great story of how Steve Blank pitched him the idea! If you’re running a startup I’d encourage you to register for the beta.

Finally, a little plug for Percollate, which is a British startup I’m advising that launched this week. Percollate helps marketers find relevant customers fast on twitter. It shortens the discovery process at the start of social media marketing campaigns, saving hours of tedious legwork. With Percollate you can identify Twitter users with a greater probability of becoming customers, so run a more targeted and cost-effective campaign.

I’m planning to write up a blog on the plane home about my thoughts on my first 2 months in silicon valley, comparing it with London, and separately, a little guide to my favourite spots in Palo Alto, so look out for those!

Happy Holidays 🙂

Silicon Valley – Week 7

December 13, 2011

The Price for Fast and Fluid Panel

I was lucky to get a free ticket to attend Gigaom’s Net:Work Conference, which had some interesting panel discussions including one on the rise of co-working, as well as keynotes by Aaron Levie of Box (how to build enterprise software companies that don’t suck) and Tommy Ahlers of Podio (who answered the previous question by saying that you let the users design the software themselves). Aaron was on great form and Tommy delivered a great talk, along with a cool scandinavian-style powerpoint deck.

I was also delighted to meet the founder of one of my favourite networking tools, Letslunch, for lunch, of course. Syed Shuttari launched the service in February this year which allows people to set their availability for business lunches, and then receive matches. It’s a great way to meet people you ordinarily wouldn’t run into, and expand your network. I’ve met some fantastic people through LetsLunch and count at least two as good friends.  One of the things I like about it is that lunch is a great way to really get to know someone. The problem with regular networking events is you typically only talk to people for a few minutes before moving on and so you only meet people superficially.

Finally, I attended an evening event hosted by SecondMarket at Founders’ Den on the topic of equity for employees. It seems that everyone finds this issue rather confusing and employees rarely seem to know where they stand. All the panel agreed though that the well publicised controversies around Skype and Zynga are very rare.  The advice to management was: be completely open and transparent, and educate your employees so they know where they stand.

One of the panelists was Philip of Linden Lab (makers of Second Life), and on the subject of transparency and openness I was seriously impressed at what he did when he was CEO to get feedback on his own performance:

Every quarter he sent out a survey to all his employees:

1. Should I still be the CEO?
2. Am I getting better or worse at the job?
3. Why?

The results of 1 and 2 would be published, and he’d read all the answers to number 3. I think that’s a great way to keep the CEO grounded, and whether you’re running a company with employees, or a non-profit with members, the CEO should be listening to all constituents. Boards of directors can be very cosy and it’s sometimes difficult for people to be honest in that situation, but unedited anonymous feedback from rank and file will tell it like it is!

Silicon Valley – Week 6

December 5, 2011

Wonderful weather this week with temperatures reaching 20° C or 68° F in Palo Alto and glorious sunshine!!

As well as great weather I had some excellent meetings and attended some awesome events:

I’m learning to code and there’s some excellent resources here to make that easier, including San Francisco Ruby Group. They organise regular beginners hack nights where volunteer mentors are on hand to talk you through a specific coding lesson. Another group, Hackternoon provides a weekly Sunday afternoon meetup for people of all levels to get together and help each other out. I attended both in the last week and was impressed with the helpfulness and atmosphere at both.

Another must attend meetup group in the valley is Hackers & Founders, which this week had an awesome presentation by Rand Fishkin, founder of SEOmoz. Rand gave a fantastic, high-energy, entertaining and enlightening talk on inbound marketing, a topic which is apparently often ignored by startups.

Finally, this weekend I attended the inaugaural AngelHack in San Francisco, a hackathon event where business people, designers and developers pitch ideas, form teams and build a prototype within 24 hours. Startup Weekend is the global leader in these types of events and I really enjoy them, for the learning process and the chance to work with new people. If you’re contemplating a tech startup and have no experience of developing a web project, attend one of these events – travel if you have to. It will be absolutely worth your while, you’ll learn lots.

Finally, before AngelHack kicked off, along with recent Scottish ex-pat, Finbarr Taylor, I managed to have breakfast with the team from Moviecom: Gillian, Kevin, Dave and Laura were paying a flying visit to Silicon Valley before going to LA for the Red Herring Global 100 Awards ceremony, where Moviecom’s been shortlisted for an award! It was great to see Gillian, she’s an inspiration, having  worked tirelessly and with enviable enthusiasm through different iterations of  Moviecom. Congratulations to them for where they’ve got to so far and I look forward to seeing what comes next!

“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” – the startup world’s motto

December 1, 2011

“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” is actually the slogan of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, a members organisation in Scotland and London for ambitious, growth orientated entrepreneurs from any sector, but it applies very nicely to the world of high-tech startups where I’m now immersed.

In a nutshell it means entrepreneurs helping and sharing with each other, and as we’re entrepreneurs, doing this ourselves, rather than relying on outside support.

According to the Exchange, only around 5% of privately owned businesses have the entrepreneurial drive and desire to grow and scale up, and it’s those kind of entrepreneurs that see the benefit of, and join up as members of organisations like the Entrepreneurial Exchange, and its international equivalents like EO and YPO. By comparison, in the world of tech startups, probably something like 95% of entrepreneurs are seeking to create something of scale, (and to do it in within just a few years).

The interesting thing to me – and why I feel so at home in the startup world – is that there is a pay-it-forward culture, an ethos that winning is not a zero-sum game, and that we can all learn from each other. It’s baked into the whole community.

(An example: Steve Jobs was mentored by Andy Grove of Intel, and then years later – setting aside some grievances over Android – he returned the favour to Larry Page of Google.)

The Entrepreneurial Exchange’s key objectives are to:

“inform, motivate, educate, inspire and support entrepreneurs to realise their full potential.

That manifests itself in Silicon Valley and in other startup hubs around the world, where there’s thousands of free meetups where you can be motivated and inspired by, as well as meet other entrepreneurs; you can  read hundreds (if not thousands) of quality blogs from entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers and others where they educate us by sharing their advice and insights, for free; and there’s communities like Hacker Dojo or TechHub where entrepreneurs can work together, support each other and inspire each other.

And ultimately I guess that’s why in this environment there’s no equivalent of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, because we’re doing it by default; it’s baked into the whole startup ecosystem, and that’s why I love this industry.

Silicon Valley – Week 5

November 28, 2011

It was Thanksgiving this week, which is a time most Americans spend with their family, enjoying a long weekend which Thursday and Friday off work. After a hectic few weeks I enjoyed a more relaxed week, with less meetings and events, so got more work done as a result. The day after Thanksgiving I worked out of 500 Startups, and it was very different to a usual weekday, just a few teams working, and I think nearly all of them non-American!

Here are some beautiful “fall” photos I’ve taken in the last week, although yesterday in Palo Alto it reached 19 degrees!

Silicon Valley – Week 4

November 21, 2011

Some of the highlights of this, my fourth week:

It was Y Combinator interviews this week in Mountain View so I met up with a couple of London startups who were lucky enough to make the shortlist. At least one of them got selected as well; lucky them! The day before the interviews GrubWithUs (itself a YC startup) had scheduled a few dinners with Y Combinator alum, which gave prospective candidates the opportunity to find out first hand what the interview process and the accelerator itself is like. It was my first experience with GrubWithUs and I enjoyed it, and I think I’ll definitely go along for another startup themed dinner.

On Wednesday I was at Rocket Space in San Francisco for an event entitled “Common Mistakes Founders Make”, presented by Peter Levine, the newest partner of rock-star VC firm, Andreessen Horowitz. On the way in I noticed someone had scrawled on the noticeboard, beneath the title of the event: “attending too many networking events”. Ha! In fact Peter’s advice largely centered around (hiring and firing) people, as from a survey he’d done of 50 startup founders and VCs, 60% responded they had made mistakes in this area, making it the by far the most common mistake admitted to in his research. I wish I’d heard his content a few years ago, before making many of the mistakes myself. But I suspect, particularly for hiring and firing, it’s one of those things that you only learn by through your own personal experience.

Most evenings I have been attending some kind of event, and on Thursday I attended the launch of the Box Innovation Network at a trendy warehouse in the Dogpatch area of SF. I was really keen to do that as I was keen to hear from and meet Aaron Levie, their 27 year old founder and CEO. (Remember the name because you’ll hear a lot of it in the decades to come). Box began as a college project in Aaron’s dorm room 6 years ago and has now raised over $190M in funding and is growing ridiculously fast. I think it’s a good example of how startups and investors here in the valley think big. 4 weeks in and I am definitely thinking bigger. (Aaron and his co-founder Dylan Smith also disprove the stereotype that all college grads are interested in building is yet another photo sharing app).

Then, on Sunday I attended a Startup “Ice Breaker” where approximately 40 people came together to pitch their ideas for startups, and try and build a team. I’ve participated in a couple of these types of events and they really are a good way to learn about building startups, test your ideas and meet potential co-founders. If you are thinking of doing a startup this type of event should be an essential step.

Finally, on Sunday evening went to see Steve Jobs: the lost interview, which has been showing all week at Palo Alto’s independent cinema, The Aquarius. I’m reading his biography right now, so it was great to see this 70 minute unedited interview in full, and be able to observe his reactions as well as what he said (and did not say) in response to questions. I was struck by the mission he saw was his to fulfil: that creating great products was about improving the world, and making art. He said that in different times his team of A players would have been creating great art, music or poetry instead of building the Mac, and he reinforced what I’ve heard from so many CS grads now, that the ability to program is something that improves your ability to think. The interview was from 1995, and yet he was arguing that software was going to impact every aspect of our lives, and hoping that every child would get taught how to program at school.

Thanksgiving is coming up so expecting a less hectic week this week, and hope to catch up on email, as well as take care of some stuff that’s taken a back seat to all the meetings and events.

Silicon Valley – Week 3

November 14, 2011

Lots of meetings this week, two of which went very well indeed! Particularly enjoyable was meeting a VC for the first time who I had previously only spoken to by phone. We sat outside at Starbucks off Sand Hill Road enjoying the sunshine at 10am in the morning; it was so hot I had to take off my jacket and sat there in a t-shirt. I love California!

As well as lots of meetings I’ve been attending many networking events in the evening, which this week included on Monday, a Startup Grindmeetup featuring an interview with Jeff Clavier of SoftTechVC.

Michael Arrington

The day after I was at Founder Showcase, where as well as a bunch of interesting startups, (my favourites were Xuropa, OpenSignalMaps, Client Magnet and BlueSeed) there was an interview of newly minted VC, Mike Arrington. Unfortunately the emcee couldn’t seem to help himself and didn’t give Arrington the opportunity he deserved to talk. Disappointing.

Then, on Wednesday I was at Founders Den in San Francisco for a discussion sponsored by Second Market about attracting and retaining talent in Silicon Valley. I’m well aware of the challenges of finding engineers here, but even so, was surprised at the lengths recruiters have to go to to find talent. It was said that Google are offering $140,000 base salary and a $40,000 sign on bonus for new Computer Science graduates.

I spent a few days in San Francisco this week, and have grown to really quite like Caltrain, despite it’s shortcomings. I like its single seats, interesting views, and as a Brit, I am amazed at how cheap it is.  Although you don’t quite arrive in the city centre – thanks to Google Maps for Android – I’m quite comfortable travelling across SF on the bus network as well. (Although that’s not such an enjoyable experience).


Finally, on 11/11/11, as well as Veterans Day and Nerd New Year, the Startup Digest crew celebrated their second anniversary. As a former curator I was invited and we had an amazing dinner at one of San Francisco’s best steak restaurants. Chris McCann and Brendan McManus launched Startup Digest just two years ago and since then it has become a must-read curated list of the best startup events worldwide.

Silicon Valley – Week 2

November 7, 2011

During my first ten days I enjoyed the Indian Summer, but as everyone said it would, winter arrived, almost overnight! Temperatures dropped by around 10 degrees celsius within just a day or two, and I even saw some rain.

Hacker DojoThis week I started by trying to find somewhere to work in Palo Alto, but right now there’s no coworking space in the town, so I’ve joined up with Hacker Dojo in Mountain View. It’s cheap for the bay area, and although I’ve only met a few of the 300 members so far I’ve had some interesting conversations. Only two problems with the Dojo: it’s a rather unappealing industrial shed with few windows and it’s not the easiest place to access without a car, but nonetheless, it has good wifi, good people, and lots of space to work.

I’ve been setting up networking lunches with LetsLunch as a way to broaden my network as well as going to some evening events such as 106 miles, Hackers & Founders and The Alchemist Series, to learn and network.

Purely for learning, I went along to one of Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Though Leader Seminars which this week was by Marten Mickos, the former CEO of MySQL.

Marten gave a great talk in front of a completely packed auditorium, and he gave some wonderful insights into the real-world of a CEO:

“Entrepreneurialism is a belief system. Believe in yourself and what you do.” But he added, “You need someone who believes in you, even more than you do, and reminds you you are capable when you have self-doubt”. He talked of walking up in the morning and frequently questioning himself. This is similar to some very successful entrepreneurs I’ve heard talking about their fear of being “found out”.

MySQL was a tiny European company taking on the mighty Oracle, and he gave this advice: “If you are a disruptor you must be bold and make fun of your competitors”, and gave the example of them awarding Oracle “partner of the year” at their annual conference. An Oracle representative had to reluctantly shuffle on stage to accept the award.

Mickos also talked at some length about company culture, and the unique dispersed workforce at MySQL. He really believes in the distributed workforce, and says overall the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. But although a majority of their employees worked from home, “company culture is what drives and defines a business. Strategy without culture is meaningless”. To help bring people together they would do things like hold virtual Christmas parties over IRC.

IMG_7750_2332 Stanford Theater marqueeFinally, worthy of mention was a trip on Saturday night to the glorious Stanford Theatre on University Avenue in Palo Alto. It’s really hard to describe how wonderful this beautifully restored neo-classical cinema is! They even have a Wurlitzer organ and it’s quite a sight to see this and the organist rising from the floor as the curtain came down at the end of the show. He even played the theme tune from the movie we had just seen (Jason and the Argonauts). Link to Silicon Valley: it was none other than David Packard’s charitable foundation which bought and restored the Stanford to its former glory.

Silicon Valley – Week 1

October 31, 2011

One week after moving to Silicon Valley and I’m very pleased and relieved to say that I’ve found somewhere to stay! It’s in downtown Palo Alto, just a 5 minute walk from University Avenue, and even closer to Whole Foods (which takes food shopping to a whole new bewildering level of choice and healthiness). My new pad is also just a few blocks away on the same street from the HP Garage – pictured right – where Silicon Valley was born. Final cool thing about my “in-law” flat is that the previous tenant raised $27M from a well-known VC last month for his startup. Who knows, maybe that good fortune will rub off.

Finding a place to live

Finding accommodation in Silicon Valley or San Francisco is not easy. Like London, competition for rental properties and house-shares is intense. Trawling Craigslist 3 times a day, for hours at a time is not fun. In total I sent around 50 emails, viewed 8 places and was frankly extremely lucky to get the place I did; I saw the ad within an hour of it being posted and was the first to view the following morning – when I immediately took it. [As a side note this is my first time using Craigslist – what a terrible site – now I know why people wish it was for-profit instead!]

Work stuff

Apart from the joy’s of flathunting I managed to take in FailCon, which was awesome because it was people talking much more honestly than is usually the case at conferences; a couple of events as part of the UK Trade and Industry’s Cloud Mission to Silicon Valley, including an evening reception at the stunning Consul General’s Residence near The Presidio; an event with Vinod Khosla doing live office hours on stage (brilliant) and visits to both 500 Startups and Hacker Dojo in Mountain View.

Fun in the Palo Alto sunshine

Today I caught up with Finbarr Taylor, a fellow Scot, and after a nice brunch in University Cafe we visited four YC companies which were having open offices this afternoon. At Comprehend Systems we even ran into Paul Graham and we chatted briefly, where he did his best to encourage both of us to work for Comprehend. Good for Paul to at least try… he’s always supporting his startups!

Great first week, but next week the real work begins!