Startup Grind 2014

I attended the 2014 Startup Grind event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California earlier this month.

Derek Andersen has started quite a movement here. It was the highest energy startup event I’ve attended in years–and the cast of speakers was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed listening to George Zachary, Reid Hoffman (founder LinkedIn, venture investor with Greylock), Ben Horowitz (Andreesen Horowitz), MC Hammer, Scott Cook (Intuit), Jessica Livingston (Y Combinator), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Mark Suster (Upfront Ventures), Danae Ringelmann (co-founder IndieGoGo), Elizabeth Gore (Resident Entrepreneur at the United Nations Foundation–reports to Ted Turner!).

I missed a bunch of talks that I wanted to hear, partly because Derek made me say a word about StrengthsFinder 2.0 (the product I champion for Gallup) on the first evening, and I was literally swarmed for the next 3 days. I could hardly move from one conference session to another without an entrepreneur or ten eagerly asking me about StrengthsFinder. But that’s also what made the conference incredibly fun and energizing for me–engaging with dozens of entrepreneurs, from many countries, who are all looking for tools, tactics, and advice that will help them emerge from their startup grind with a successful business.

Thankfully I can catch the interviews I missed on the Startup Grind YouTube channel.

What I love most about Startup Grind is its values and the kind of people it attracts as a result. Derek credited George Zachary for helping him grasp the importance early on of establishing and communicating the values of the Startup Grind community.

The name itself connotes that startups are hard work and success often takes time. There are more comfortable things to do than “eating glass and staring into the abyss of death” which is how Elon Musk has apparently described entrepreneurship.

Startup Grind is not for get-rich-quick schemers, but for those who want to make their mark on the world through building a new company, “however long and hard the road.”

These Startup Grind values were plastered everywhere:

1. It feels better to give than to receive
2. Give more than you take
3. Make friends not contacts
4. Never give up

Another awesome part of the Startup Grind culture–and I experienced this first hand when I spoke at a Washington DC event last year–is that when introducing a speaker, the audience gives a huge standing ovation right up front. Everyone feels good, fired up. And the speakers get that sincere thanks right up front, for volunteering their time.

And then often, at the end of a Startup Grind interview, the guest is given a fun gift–such as an artifact connected to their favorite superhero. When I was interviewed, I explained why my favorite superhero was “Bill and Ted” (I know that’s a stretch), because their music “put an end to war and poverty.  It align[ed] the planets and br[ought] them into universal harmony allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life from extraterrestrial beings to common household pets, and . . . it’s excellent for dancing.” What superheroes have ever had a better outcome than that!

So they presented me with an awesome Bill and Ted movie poster.

The Startup Grind culture is just fantastic.

Back in the 90s when I was building my first company with my best friend and business partner, it was a pretty solitary endeavor–mostly just us trying to figure things out. Not until I attended the Inc 500 awards conference in Philadelphia in 1996 did I realize that there were people (authors, advisors, mentors) out there helping entrepreneurs to succeed. But today, there are far more.

It’s like the difference between writing software code in the 80s and 90s, when you wrote every line yourself or with your team–compared to now, when there are bazillions of lines of code written by millions of coders, on github and elsewhere, some of it packaged into amazingly useful libraries. If you are a coder, you are not alone in the universe–and you don’t need to write applications from scratch. Much of what you are doing is finding and learning and stitching–building on the shoulders of others.

Same with entrepreneurship. Today, instead of figuring everything out on your own long and lonely path, there are dozens of amazing accelerators, incubators, and seed stage funds, there are Startup Weekends, business plan and business model competitions, meetups everywhere, and crowdfunding platforms like IndieGoGo which are increasingly being used by companies to validate and refine their product–not just to raise capital.

The startup failure rate is widely reported as being 80-90% or higher over a 5-year period–who knows what the actual number is?–but I remember hearing from an expert in franchising that 94% of all franchisees are still in business after 5 years. Why? I assume it is because the brand, product, processes, business model, advertising strategies, and all that have been worked out and proven to work in advance, usually in scores of markets.

Imagine a world–with all the support of Startup Grind and the other resources mentioned above–where the success rate of startups doubles or triples? The success rate of Y Combinator companies is already so high that each company accepted into the 3-month accelerator program has an automated $150,000 in startup capital waiting for it at the end of the program–not to mention all the built-in support from other Y Combinator mentors and alumni. As Steve Blank and Eric Ries spread the Lean Startup gospel worldwide, and as more accelerators and incubators build support infrastructure to help, I wonder if it will be possible to significantly increase the success rate of startups.

The most interesting facet of startup success for me right now is trying to understand how the talents of the team–and the team dynamics–can lead to failure or success.

Marc Andreesen (2007) wrote that of the major factors in a startup–market, product, and team–he thought market was the most important of the three. But Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator made it clear that her major roles as a non-technical operator at Y Combinator was to make a decision, on the basis of a 10 minute interview with applicants, whether they have what it takes. She must be very gifted at this, given the success rate, but at the same time she humbly admitted that she never knows who really will succeed and who won’t. She especially loves co-founders who went to school together, or were roommates, and who already have a strong relationship. (There’s even a father-son founding team in Y Combinator now, and I think she said a set of twins.) Because when you don’t have that kind of trust between founders, when things get tough–and they always do–things can go bad really fast.

In my role at Gallup as evangelist for StrengthsFinder 2.0, I’m planning to attend a lot of entrepreneurial and investor events this year. For years, StrengthsFinder has been a powerful tool used by thousands of large and small companies to boost productivity, revenue, and profits by making individuals and teams more engaged and more efficient. I’m very excited to see it can be, along with the newest Gallup product Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder, in helping boost the percentage of startups that survive and thrive. The economy needs a huge dose of the type of job-creating entrepreneurship that The Economist wrote about this week to create the millions of jobs that are so desperately needed today all over the world.

I personally want to thank Derek, Startup Grind, and all of its dedicated chapter leaders and volunteers for doing their part to make this happen. And to  tell everyone — I can’t wait till Startup Grind 2015!