Co-Founder StartupGiraffe
Experience Designer
Software Engineer

Relationships are More Important then Deadlines

December 28, 2011   -   0 comments   -  

Two years ago we were late on delivering a project, and one of the developers came up to me and told me his launch-critical piece of functionality was delayed… again. Blame it on fatigue (I’d been up for about 30 hours) and inexperience but I made a critical mistake. I got angry. I yelled for a little bit, and in front of other people too.

After the launch the resentment from that individual carried over into the next project.  Until I made a sincere apology to him (and everyone else) our team was essentially dysfunctional.

I learned two valuable lessons from the experience.  First is that sometimes I’m an asshole (I’m constantly trying to improve).  And second no matter how much money or how critical a deadline relationships are never worth sacrificing. Treat the people you work with like gold.  Whether they are clients, partners or teammates, make your best effort to have open and honest conversations (especially when they are difficult ones).

Happy new year everyone!

I’ve got a great idea for a startup, now what?

November 9, 2011   -   1 comment   -  

On Oct 20th, I was invited to give a talk at NYU Stern as part of the Entrepreneurship Speaker Series. Below is a video of the talk, key takeaways and my slides. Enjoy.


Key Takeaways

  • Investment and tech talent is earned not given.  What can you do to further your idea on your own?  How can you validate your idea and demonstrate traction without spending a huge amount of time and effort building product?
  • Pick an idea in an area where you have strong domain experience, know the problems and have the connections to sell.  Look for markets that are big, have growing user bases and have rapidly changing technologies/distribution channels.  Love the problem space.
  • An idea is an assumption.  Turn that idea into a series of questions and figure out what’s the easiest way to find out an answer.  (examples: Skillshare, TheLadders, Zappos, Groupon, Seamless, Dropbox, SinglePlatform).
  • Fake it till you make it, delay complexity (Ghetto testing examples: Aardvark, Zynga)
  • Defining a minimum viable product – What are your biggest questions/assumptions about the product?  Identify those and devise and execute tests.  Will people use your product (and come back)?  Will they tell their friends?  Will they pay for it?
  • Launch Early
  • Don’t do a big launch.  Find a few people who feel the problem you are trying to solve most acutely.  Get them using your product in the way you want them to.  Then expand your audience.  Communicate with them openly and honestly.
  • Personal development: Everyone who is aspiring to be a tech entrepreneur should be: developing a strong online presence, comfortable with html/css/js/hosting/dns, understand online marketing (apply for Google Grants and manage SEM campaign for an NGO), understand web analytics (read Web Analytics 2.0), read The Lean Startup, attend OHours, Meetups, Skillshares.


The first version of your product is going to suck… launch anyway

September 22, 2011   -   2 comments   -  

For most people the idea of launching a half-baked product is horrifying. You’ve been talking up your idea for months, been working crazy hours and even taken money from friends and family. This is the first time people will be seeing what you’ve been dreaming about and you want everything to be perfect. You feel like your entire reputation is at stake.

Unfortunately, you didn’t work with StartupGiraffe and things aren’t there quite yet. The site doesn’t work in IE (which your mom uses), crashes your browser if you click too many things too quickly (which your annoying co-worker has a tendency of doing) and is missing that killer “make my pictures look really old and cool” feature. So what do you? Launch anyway (to a handful of selected people)…

The first version of your product isn’t meant to have mass appeal. It’s purpose is to find out if you are heading in the right direction and see if you are really solving a customer need. The feedback you will receive will far outweigh the effort spent trying to “make everything perfect.”

The earliest stages of a startup focus heavily on product development. Launching early opens up a whole new world of awesome things to do for founders (especially non-technical ones). You can start acquiring customers, doing biz dev deals, speaking with investors, and planning v2 of your site (which will be much more awesome). In short, start demonstrating demand and traction.

Anyone disagree?

Why it’s Important to Share your Startup Idea

September 21, 2011   -   1 comment   -  

We speak with a ton of idea stage entrepreneurs through StartupGiraffe. Many times, people think we’re going to “Zuckerberg their Winklevoss” and steal whatever brilliant ideas they have. Because of this, they speak in generalizations and vagaries (it’s like LinkedIn meets Yelp for Healthcare with Farmville-style gamification). Unfortunately if you don’t tell us the details and motivations behind your project we can’t give any feedback or really figure out if working together is possible. We feel that you should not only tell us your ideas but share them with others too. Here’s why:

Talking is the Easiest Way to Get Feedback

The whole Lean Startup movement is about validated learning. You want to accomplish as much learning, as quick as possible with the least amount of effort. The easiest way to do this is by talking to trusted people.

Validation of the Problem Space

You need to find out if this is really a problem that other people have. While you may think it’s obvious that everyone would want to rate and review their pet food, that might not be the case. Research and fall in love with the problem not your solution. Find people who feel the pain most acutely, they will be the most enthusiastic about describing their troubles and why current solutions don’t suit them.

Developing Relationships with Early Cusotmers

Mark Suster talks about investing in Lines not Dots. He doesn’t want to invest in a single meeting with you, he wants to understand how well you work over time. There is a strong parallel here between getting early customers for your startup. The more you check-in, listen to feedback and demonstrate progress the more likely early customers will advocate and stick with you.

Here’s the #truth. No one is going to steal your idea.

Everyone has their own “Great Idea”

While your idea might seem brilliant to you, until you validate it/show traction/make money, it’s just another idea. Everyone has their own set of problems and set of experiences. In Eric Reis’ new book The Lean Startup, he suggests trying to take your (third) best idea and trying to find someone to steal it. Write blog posts , email product managers at Google and Facebook, go to meetings, tell everyone! Everyone’s busy with their own priorities and ideas, no one has time for yours.

Domain Expertise and Execution Matter

If someone can steal your idea based on a 30 minute conversation your idea is not defensible. Most likely you bring some secret sauce to the table (knowing the vertical really well, knowing people in the industry that you can sell to, etc…). You’ve been thinking about this problem/solution for weeks and months, it keeps you up at night, you get all hot and bothered just thinking of the potential. Anyone who steals your idea will always be one step behind, waiting for you to lead the way while they copy features. Your experience, execution and vision matter as much as your idea.

You will have Competitors

If your idea is based on the convergence of multiple trends (i.e. daily deals, group messaging, check-ins, photo sharing, etc…) there are likely multiple people with the same exact idea at roughly the same time. Regardless if you start to show success you will have competitors. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it validates the space, creates competition for funding and creates buzz/pr/publicity.

Anything I missed? Any reasons why you still don’t want to share your ideas?

The Top 6 Mistakes Idea Stage Entrepreneurs Make

June 30, 2011   -   11 comments   -  

Since the launch of Startup Giraffe I’ve had the opportunity to speak to 50+ idea stage entrepreneurs.  I’ve been amazed at the diversity of good ideas that folks from outside of the startup scene have.  Through conversations with them I’ve realized that many could improve the way they think about launching products.  Here are some of the most common mistakes we see:

Feature Set is Too Broad for a First Iteration

Many entrepreneurs we’ve met want to build products for everyone.  Successful products start by having a tightly defined, niche audience and growing out from there. Products built for everyone serve no one.  If you can’t describe what your product does in one sentence, it’s probably too broad for a first iteration.  It’s great to have a big vision but the v1 feature set should only be a thin slice.

Not Defining Goals & Outcomes

After the product is built how will you measure success?

Do you want to see traction? Make sure you build virality into the product (don’t just tack on social invites at the end).  Make sure you can easily track how/when/why users are inviting their friends.

Do you want to raise a VC round? Talk to VC’s understand the metrics that they will use to calculate whether you are worth their investment.

Do you want to see if customers will pay for the product? Build in pricing up front, start measuring what percentage of your users convert to paid plans.

Building Functionality That Exists Elsewhere

Unless there’s a really compelling reason, most products don’t need to build their own chat, reviews, commenting, messaging, friending or following services.  You should focus on functionality that only your product offers and leverage third party API’s.  Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Thinking of UI Rather Than Tasks & User Stories

Many folks we speak to have done their own wireframes or have a strong idea of what the product should look like visually.  While this is extremely helpful in communicating the idea of the product, a better approach is to focus on personas and tasks.  Who are the archetypical users of your products?  What tasks do they want to be able to accomplish on the site?

I ask folks we work with to rank each feature by priority and how frequently the user will use it.  We then go in and estimate a level of difficulty for each task.  Based on this we can have a great conversation around scope.  Only once we understand the core feature set can we can start defining a minimal UI that addresses all tasks/user stories.

Not Speaking with Enough Potential Customers

Our team has gotten really good at trying to validate market fit before we write any lines of code.  We recommend that you speak to as many potential customers as possible.  Talk to real people about the problem you are trying to address not the solution.  Really try to understand their behaviors and motivations.  Whitney Hess has a great post about conducting user interviews.

Too Much Time Refining Details Rather then Executing

Many of the people we speak to have been thinking about their products for months. They’ve brainstormed every feature they can possible feature they can think of.  They’ve understood their goals and have whittled down their feature set to a true MVP, but yet they are still hesitant.  It isn’t perfect.  Unfortunately, it never will be.  The first iteration should be a tool to test your underlying assumptions and get you to the next level.  It’s a broad stroke that you will only be able to refine through metrics and observations/conversations with actual users.

Of course, there are many ways to get your product off the ground.   These are just our suggestions based on recent experience.  Agree or disagree?  Let me know…

Latest Venture: Startup Giraffe

June 2, 2011   -   28 comments   -  

Over the past few months my two buddies and I have worked on a bunch of different projects.  From StoryStack to to AudioJux (plus a few others), we’ve realized a few things:

  1. We get all fired up about new ideas
  2. We’re really good at building the first iteration or two of a product
  3. We love working on a wide variety of platforms and across multiple verticals.

Today, I’m proud to announce our latest venture, Startup Giraffe: a product development shop focused exclusively on translating ideas into minimum viable products.  In other words, we’ll build the first version of your startup for cash and a small slice of equity.

We’ve started talking to a bunch of non-technical founders, business school students, corporate dreamers, and companies who don’t have the right type of in-house talent. We’ve realized that options for people to get a new product off the ground are extremely limited.  Existing development companies are charging huge sums for builds that are far more complex and time-consuming than necessary.

Our goal is to simplify and expedite the development process for entrepreneurs.  Here’s how we do it:

  1. We work with entrepreneurs to define their minimum viable product, or the simplest product they need to test their market assumptions.
  2. We collaborate with entrepreneurs on wireframes and graphic design
  3. We build the web or mobile application rapidly (typically 2-3 weeks)

Once we have delivered the first iteration of the product, our involvement becomes more strategic.  We offer technical, marketing and product feedback as needed.  With a first iteration in hand, entrepreneurs can then begin: validating assumptions, gathering customer feedback, raising funds and finding a technical co-founder.

I’m excited about this for so many reasons and really believe this fits our teams strengths and interests perfectly.

Got a project idea?  Get in touch at ak(at)amitklein(dot)com.

Deciding Between Startup Ideas

March 9, 2011   -   8 comments   -  

No one said working at a startup was easy. Although we started StoryStack with the intensity of a thousand suns we’ve hit a few bumps along the way. Through three iterations of the product and countless meetings with friends and advisors we’ve realized the product in it’s current form is unlikely to be successful.  We’ve found ourselves stuck somewhere between Informed Pessimism and Crisis of Meaning.  Now what?  How do we turn our passion and drive into productive energy?

We have a smart, resilient team and are throwing around new ideas all the time. Should we succumb to the sweet Siren song of new ideas? Do we stick by our guns and pivot and push forward?  Here are the factors we used to dictate our direction:

Addressing Pain Points –  Is this a product that customers are begging for?  There are a bunch of ways to test this before you write your first line of code:

  • B2B – Find potential customers and cold email them a brief description of your product.  If you find it easy to get decision makers on the phone or in meetings you’re in good shape.  If after your pitch you can get them to commit to purchasing your product when it’s ready, you’re money.  If they love it until you ask them to pay… tread carefully.
  • B2C – Setup a landing page (like LaunchRock) briefly describing your product.  If you have a little cash buy some Facebook or Google ads leading to your landing page and see the percentage of people who sign up (see Zygna’s Ghetto Testing).  If you’re broke: email, tweet and FB message your way to a sufficient sample size.
  • Another good indicator are homebrewed/hacked together solutions for the problem your product tries to address.  Are people stretching the limits of existing products or using multiple products in weird ways to get the same result?  People are lazy, if you make it way easier to do something they are already doing, you’re probably on track.

Strengths of your team –  If you taught yourself to be a your own technical co-founder and don’t have experience building scalable web products, tackling a mass consumer B2C web product might not be the best idea.  If you’re a good sales gal and know how to manage customer acquisition through multiple channels then the company you choose to build should leverage those skills.

The right market –  I loved these two posts from Elad Gil:

As you iterate in a market, you will often find that the initial idea you chose is less important then the broader market you are in.  A great market will always have opportunities in it.  Even if the first idea is terrible you will get to know the market and its needs and build something great on your next try.  In contrast a great idea in a terrible market will often fail. ~ You don’t need a good idea to start a great company

But how do you know if you are in the right market?   Paraphrasing from How Can You Tell If Your Market Is A Good One?

  • What’s changed about the market? Are there cost changes, new distribution channels or technologies?
  • Is the industry and customer base growing rapidly?
  • Is there a lot of interest in the market?

Passion - Even if you have the product that customers would line up for, fits excellently within the strength of your team and is in a killer up and coming market the number passion is still the most important factor.  Startups are hard.  Are you going to be thinking about your product 24×7?  Are you gonna love coming to work even when it sucks and it seems like you aren’t making progress?  Do you HAVE to work on this?

..the best startup you can create is one where you will be constantly engaged in thinking about improving the product, maximizing the user experience, and planning for the future -where you have real passion for making it work. ~ The Passion Gap: Why Foursquare, Groupon, Facebook, And Apple Are Winning

So what are we doing?  The short answer is that we’ve decided to delay the decision.  We’ve temporarily put StoryStack on the back burner and  while we work on a (soon to be announced) social, music product.  We’ll do a small launch next week, quickly reach the area between informed pessimism and crisis of meeting and go through the whole thought process again…

Ten Things I Need For Career Bliss

March 2, 2011   -   3 comments   -  

I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently about happiness as it relates to my career. For my own benefit I’ve listed out the things that would make me totally, 100% satisfied with my working life. I’ve put 2′s next to the ones I think I’m currently achieving, 1′s next to the ones I’m kind of doing and 0′s next to the ones I need to fix.

I need to:

  1. Be totally passionate and in love with what I’m doing (1)
  2. Create products that people really want to use (0)
  3. Work with people who I like and who I’d hang out with even if we weren’t working (2)
  4. Do work that challenges both the creative and technical sides of my brain (2)
  5. Not sit at a desk all day (1)
  6. Feel that I’m contributing in a meaningful way in the strategic direction of a company/product (2)
  7. Feel like I’m getting better at stuff I used to suck at (1)
  8. Be challenged on a daily basis (1)
  9. Have enough time to hang out with my family, friends and dog and enjoy my two hobbies (playin hoops and drinking) (2)
  10. Make enough money to support a modest lifestyle and vacation internationally once in a while (0)

All-in-all my current work situation ain’t that bad, though there are a few obvious things I need to fix.   Sorry for the self-centered post but this helped me, maybe it’ll help someone out there.  What do you need to be career-happy?

Thoughts on Being a First Time Entrepreneur in New York

January 27, 2011   -   4 comments   -  

It’s been just over three months since I moved back to NY to work on StoryStack.  The main reason for leaving India was ’cause I kept reading how the NY tech scene was exploding (and I was sick of samosas… j/k I still love samosas).  So what’s it like being a first time entrepreneur in New York?  Glad you asked:

  • It’s a freakin’ rollercoaster - In our companies very short life we’ve had massive ups and downs.  One day we’ll crush a big meeting, the next a TechCrunch article appears praising a new competitor.  Feeling awesome one day and wanting to burying your head in the snow the next is apparently normal in a startup.  Still getting used to it…
  • The community is surprisingly really supportive – I’ve been following a bunch of internet celebrities for years, reading their tweets and blogs.  In only three months of being back, I’ve met actually met a lot the big guns.  I’ve been amazed at how an email introduction from a friend (and sometimes even cold) will get you a foot in the door.   Each meeting invariably leads to a new introduction and another meeting.
  • There are a lot of ways to meet new is really amazing (great job innonate) and has helped us meet new people regularly.  There’s also a bunch of incubators like TechStars (which although we were one of 30 finalists, didn’t eventually get in), and more then just co-working spaces like Dog Patch Labs, General AssemblyMakeryHive55 and New Work City, that make life a lot easier for entrepreneurs.
  • It can unfortunately be very cliquey – It’s a surprisingly small world and there are a lot of circles.  There’s the companies that made it, the up and comers, the fading stars and the nobodies.  Everyone seems to have an opinion on everyone else and a lot of shit talking happens around people, products and VC’s.  I guess this is natural for a competitive environment but I’ve been surprised at how frequently this occurs.
  • Dedication and passion trumps talent - I’m really lucky to have two awesome co-founders, who I genuinely like, and who work harder then I do.  Having everyone on the team busting their ass ensures that no-one wants to be the one to drop the ball.  Two out of the three of us weren’t very strong programmers when we started, but I’m sure we’ve gotten a lot more done then lazy “ninjas.”

In general, I’m really happy being back in New York and excited about our progress on StoryStack.  If you want to check it out our just released third iteration, sign up on the home page or shoot me an email.

Introducing StoryStack

November 29, 2010   -   7 comments   -  

For the past few weeks my two buddies and I have been coding non-stop and last night completed the first iteration of our product.  Now it’s time to take a step back, get some people using the app and see if we’re on the right track.

What’s the product?

StoryStack lets people create beautiful digital stories together.  Groups or individuals can combine photos, videos, maps, and text to tell rich stories on just about anything – weddings, group trips, cookbooks, design portfolios, and more.

Why are you building this?

A few months back I went on a trip with some of my friends to the Himalayas.   While on this trip we made a few key observations relating to sharing and remembering experiences:

  • Content on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are consumed individually and are therefor lacking depth and context.
  • If four of my friends go on a trip together and post their photos on Facebook, there’s a lot of overlap.
  • Slideshows are old-school, lacking interaction and are generally pretty boring.

How is what you’re doing different from Facebook/Flickr/Picassa?

There’s three main differences:

  • StoryStack is more then just a collection of photos and text you can add maps, tweets, check-ins, polls, videos and other widgets.
  • StoryStack is collaborative, multiple people can combine their content into a coherent narrative.
  • StoryStack stories are consumed from beginning to end creating an immersive, longer-form, contextual experience.

What are you doing next?

The plan for the next week or two is get user feedback and plan the next iteration of the product.  Should we focus on themes and improving the presentation layer?  Should we build in wikipedia style voting features to make this a platform for large events (like weddings and SXSW)?  Is this even a viable product?  We’re not really sure.  We also want to explore an iPad version.

Are you trying to raise money?

Not really.  We think delaying funding as long as possible is the way to go.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in talking to investors.  We’ve been meeting with some VC’s just to get feedback on the concept and build relationships.

We’ve also applied to TechStars NY and are really hoping to get in.  The mentor list looks ridiculous and we think it’s an amazing program.

I want to try it out!

Sure, if you have low expectations and a sense of humor send me an email and I’ll send you an invite to a really buggy alpha (just don’t try it in IE).  Feedback on the product or concept is always appreciated.

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