Success depends on finding and connecting with the right people. Whether you are a startup entrepreneur or an investor, however, finding the right investor or the right company is hard. In fact, it is too hard.
We wanted to do something to help the Colorado startup community make these connections. Something social, visual, and powered by the community. As part of the lead-up to the release of Brad Feld’s new book Startup Communities, and inspired by Represent LA’s mapping project, Brad partnered with the Silicon Flatirons Center and Startup Genome to develop a community-driven social startup map for Colorado.
We’re pleased to announce the public release of the Startup Genome Map. Your job: get found on the map. The purpose of the map is to connect investors and entrepreneurs. It is a community driven resource, and it needs your support. Be a part of the Startup Genome project, explore, and get on the map. http://www.startupgenome.com/city/boulder-co
The link to the map has a permanent home on the Entrepreneurial Culture page of this site.Read More
Bearish views about the value proposition of legal education proliferate. Journalists and commentators argue that graduates today don’t receive the right training for the few existing legal job opportunities. With an average debt load close to $100,000, so the analysis goes, students can be worse off for completing a juris doctrate. As a recent law school graduate – and one with a slightly above average debt load – I sympathize. Yet while criticisms ring true for graduates from many law schools, I value my educational experience at Colorado Law.
Colorado Law is well situated to help students succeed because, among other things, its faculty and staff cultivate exceptionally close relationships with the surrounding legal and business communities. As a result, Colorado Law graduates understand the legal marketplace. JDs pursuing transactional careers, moreover, understand the business models of companies that they will have as clients. These and other factors indicate that Colorado Law is ahead of the legal education curve.
A Roundtable discussion held in February of 2012 illustrates this point. The Silicon Flatirons Center – housed within Colorado Law – convened leaders of law firms and corporate departments to discuss how to better train students amid a turbulent legal environment. Sponsored by the Colorado chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Roundtable participants identified skills and traits they expect from the very best lawyers they employ. A new report, available for download here, summarizes that conversation and supplements it with outside research.
The report analyzes the following issues:
- A “disaggregated” legal landscape underscores why legal education must adapt. Disaggregation, the process by which various legal services are broken into their constituent components, allows corporate legal departments to identify activities and tasks that require less specialized expertise or can be automated or standardized. These elemental tasks can then be individually allocated to the most efficient and cost-effective provider. As a result, the range of options available to meet legal department needs has expanded to include traditional large law firms, boutique law firms, in-house lawyers and contract managers, contract lawyers, legal process outsourcers – both domestic and off-shore – and non-legal service providers like technology professionals, tax professionals, and consultants. Automation tools, including deal contract management systems, self-help tools, wikis, deal rooms, etc., expand the range of options even further.
- Disaggregation has rendered the traditional training model obsolete. At one point in time, law schools taught students how to think like a lawyer while law firms taught new graduates how to practice law. As disaggregation shifts market share away from law firms to other legal services providers, however, many firms can no longer afford to train new lawyers. Consequently, the traditional approach to legal education is no longer viable. Experienced attorneys and law students must rely on new educational methods to learn the skills they need to remain competitive.
- Today’s lawyers must master more than just fundamental legal skills. The Roundtable’s discussion focused on the skills, mindsets, and training opportunities needed for success in the new legal environment. To be sure, Roundtable participants identified the continuing need for strong fundamental legal skills and, ultimately, sound professional judgment. But they further highlighted the need for lawyers to have complementary competencies, including process management skills, business savvy, digital literacy, and emotional intelligence. With fewer traditional training opportunities available, students, employers, and law schools must work together to change the structure of legal education and continuing training.
- A menu of reforms to legal education should be considered. Participants agreed that legal education must be seen as an on-going process – viz., a continuum that persists well after receiving a JD – especially as the legal profession changes at an accelerated pace. Roundtable participants identified potential reforms to respond to the evolving environment:
- Enhanced admissions screening- Admitting the right law students and helping them develop the skills necessary to succeed upon graduation and throughout their careers is a difficult challenge. However, Roundtable participants suggested that law schools assess interpersonal skills through interviews, require substantive pre-law school experience, and admit only those with a true passion for the law. These traits will either accompany the skills and mindsets identified as necessary to success, or they will allow the law student to easily adopt them.
- Increased experiential and business training opportunities- Traditional legal training is insufficient to prepare law students for a career in transactional law immediately upon graduation. Experiential training will prepare students to “hit the ground running” when they enter the workforce, and an emphasis on maintaining a general business aptitude will help them succeed in the long run. Colorado Law already offers a unique variety of experiential classes ranging from accounting for lawyers to contract drafting to corporate tax (a complete list of courses can be found here). In addition to these classes, students are encouraged to participate in clinics (like the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, which I participated in), externships, and internship opportunities offered each semester. Colorado Law should look to improve and, where appropriate, expand these offerings.
- Improved continuing legal education- Roundtable participants suggested unique post-law school training opportunities for recent graduates. “Apprenticeship” arrangements between the law school and a company or government office would allow graduates to receive specific classroom training immediately applicable to a practical setting. A similar arrangement between a company and a law firm would allow the two entities to split the time and cost of training the graduate, while offering broader learning opportunities. Roundtable participants also discussed the need for increasingly substantive CLE opportunities for experienced lawyers and those retooling their careers. At Colorado Law, Dean Phil Weiser has evinced a commitment to training the larger legal community through CLE sessions and multi-day training programs. The “hot topic” CLE series, for example, provides training on e-discovery methods, how to think like an entrepreneur, alternative billing methods, and much more.
- Unconventional Solutions- Roundtable participants also suggested an online law school offering basic legal training for those not interested in practicing law, and a condensed version of law school for lawyers who don’t intend to specialize. Both alternatives would cost much less than the traditional law school offering, which would remain available to those intending to focus on sophisticated legal transactions.
Time will tell whether Colorado Law is on the right track. As a recent graduate, however, I’m convinced Colorado Law was the right bet and will produce a significant return on my investment.
Therese Kerfoot received her J.D. from the University of Colorado-Boulder in 2011 and is currently a Research Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center at Colorado Law.Read More
“This sounds like too much, too soon.” This was my thought as I sat across from Trent Yang and Steve Herschleb in the Deming Center conference room listening to their pitch on why REbound Technology should join the New Venture Challenge. It was a month after Russell and I founded the company, one month before the application was due and well before any thought was put into an actual application for our thermal energy storage technology. Nine months later we just attended the NREL Industry Growth Forum, socializing with a corporate and investor community that will, one day soon, help finance our development efforts, bring a product to market, and make ARPA-E wonder why they ever invested in batteries. None of this current or projected progress would have happened without CU Cleantech throwing us into the NVC mix.
Put simply, the NVC accelerated our business by A) pulling us away from MATLAB models and forcing us to think through regions, industries, incentives, capital expenses and margins, B) providing excellent networking opportunities and C) making us a punching bag for judges.
The NVC took us out of our comfort zone by thrusting us into the world of business development well before we had an established technology. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great concept and promising simulations to support it. However, if you asked me whether I thought we were anywhere close to thinking about gross margins my response would have been a resounding “hell no.” As it turned out, thinking through those business issues up front helped shape our technology. Nate Abbott from Everlater gave us that advice 10 months ago and investors continue to give us that advice today. In the end, it turns out the technology comes second. Think of an idea, advance its development, but let your markets drive the technological refinements. Thankfully the NVC taught us that early on because since the NVC, we’ve had a few technology pivots; small ones, but each market driven.
Networking was the number one reason we listened to Trent and Steve. Russell and I figured that if we crashed and burned, at least there were individuals from the community reading and talking about our tech. As it turned out, we made it to the CUNVC finals and the regional NVC cleantech finals, each providing excellent networking opportunities. In fact, at the regionals we met Rob Writz from CleanLaunch, an incubator at NREL now helping us advance our business. CleanLaunch has continued where the NVC left off, helping develop our business model through advisors, networking and, in the near future, fundraising support.
Now, getting beat up by a panel of judges who don’t know a thing about your technology seems unjust, right? As it turns out, it’s a blessing in disguise. We seemed to avoid any lashings at the CUNVC finals, but the regionals were quite different. Practicing a 20 minute pitch for a week only to be interrupted after sentence five by an inquisitive judge might not seem ideal, but its certainly realistic. Standing by while judges rip apart your business plan is also a reality. We definitely weren’t ready for the regional competition and it showed. While some technical comments by judges were just wrong, others regarding costs, margins, distribution, etc. were entirely justified. I wanted to jump on a computer and sign up for an MBA right there and then. The good news: we learned the hard way early on and, thanks to the NVC, we know what to expect going forward. Will we take a few additional beatings during fundraising? Sure, it’s inevitable. But at least we’ll be a bit desensitized, learn from the experience, iterate, and keep moving forward.
So, my advice to those thinking about participating in the NVC: stop thinking and pull the trigger, now. Get involved early and take advantage of the mentorship provided by the NVC along with other great organizations like CU Cleantech. In the end, the practical experience you gain from the NVC process will far outweigh your thermodynamics, environmental policy, biochem, marketing or communications course. Learn how to shift your focus from technical to business, learn to walk up to random people and pitch your idea, learn how to get up in front of a crowd and kill it with kick ass presentation. These are all critical professional development lessons, regardless of the NVC outcome.
Kevin Davis is the Co-Founder of REbound TechnologyRead More
Cyclizor, LLC began when my colleague and I (both aerospace engineering grad students at CU) decided we were done with uncontrolled, swinging bicycle handlebars causing nuisances everyday when we parked our bicycles or lifted our bicycles onto car racks. Our solution design evolved during mountain bike escapades in CA and commuting in Boulder, eventually developing into a product that we knew would be a great solution to the problem of uncontrolled handlebars faced by bicyclists everyday.
However, we had no idea where to start and no business experience…
…Until we went to the CU New Venture Challenge.
From the day we gave our first ever 60 second elevator pitch, we had multiple contacts for business planning help, an experienced mentor, and structure for developing our business. Through the NVC we were introduced to successful entrepreneurs, got feedback about our business plan, and attended events with amazing speakers. The Track modules allowed us to submit and get feedback on Lean Startup documents, interviews, and presentations after attending informative lectures given by Lean Startup experts.
The Track modules were essential. There were guidelines and deadlines for key Lean Startup concepts, documents, and research. From the support and structure of CUNVC and its volunteers, we are orders of magnitude further along in our business development then we would have been doing it alone. Cyclizor is now a registered LLC with a bank account and website.
The Lean Canvas Module lead us through market research, problem and solution validation, financial projections, unfair advantage, and value proposition. The Interview Module required us to “get out of the building” and interview target customers to validate the problem and solution. The Investor Pitch Module divulged into financials and taught the team how to present to VCs and Angel Investors. And finally, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Module pushed us to complete our CAD design and print a 3D working prototype.
We have won money from CUNVC modules and scored the best mentor we could dream of. Together, CUNVC and our mentor, Ray Johnson, have given us the opportunity to establish and develop an exciting company. Our prize money from the Modules has helped pay for IP protection and prototyping – milestones we would have never accomplished by now without the support and guidance of CUNVC.
We recommend participating in CUNVC whether interested in joining a startup team, making a team based on an innovative idea, or developing a company further with the support and experience the NVC has to offer.
Corrina Gibson is an Aerospace Engineering graduate student at CU-Boulder who thinks handlebars should do what they’re told.Read More
The Friday Indefensible Position: Fine Wines from Difficult Soil: Real Estate Constraints in Boulder are Good for Entrepreneurship (by Matt Burns)
During the Q&A session at Silicon Flatirons’ Crash Course on Brad Feld’s Startup Communities book, one attendee asked the packed house: “How does Boulder screw this up?”
It is an excellent question. After all, as goes the saying, nothing breeds failure like success. For every innovation center that successfully adapts over time (see: Silicon Valley), another fails to do so (see: Detroit). What challenges are staring down Boulder?
One challenge cited in Boulder is real estate constraints. As in, space is scarce for expanding startups. Brad’s analysis, edited to be family friendly, was “We’re just [out of luck] on that.” Conventional wisdom is that this is a bad thing. That is, the Boulder startup community would be better off if startups were able to expand and build offices and infrastructure here in town.
Today’s Indefensible Position: Boulder’s real estate constraints are good for entrepreneurship in Boulder in the long run.
I can hear you laughing at me through the internet already, but hear me out. The fact that Boulder real estate is constrained does a few things that benefit entrepreneurship in Boulder.
First, it creates a physical crucible that magnifies the frequency and intensity of serendipitous interactions among smart people. It ensures Boulder is one dense startup neighborhood (albeit one surrounded by open space). Entrepreneurs who are space constrained are more likely to be found working in coffee shops and other collaborative spaces rather than in an office alone or with only their own staff. When the startup next door fails, a new one moves in and the random interactions continue without pause. The tendency to look outside and get outside of the office for ideas, talent, and inspiration magnifies the network effect in Boulder. Richard Florida talks about how the entrepreneurial landscape is “spiky.” In a sense, the real estate constraints in Boulder make Boulder’s “spike” taller by narrowing the base and forcing it upward.
Second, space issues prevent the presence of a single highly influential company (developed locally or imported) from swallowing the scene. In a town the size of Boulder, the company doesn’t need to be Google- or Microsoft-sized to have a significant influence. It can be smaller, a few thousand employees perhaps (Boulder already has one highly influential entity, CU, but because it is a university and not a for-profit company, the effects are much different.) A single highly influential company can have some negative effects on the entrepreneurial community and, intentionally or otherwise, Boulder’s real estate constraints block the presence of such a company and thus protects us from these negative effects. Before a company gets big enough to have that kind of influence, it is forced from the nest and moves to a new place better suited to its needs, a new startup takes its place in Boulder, and the circle of entrepreneurial life begins anew.
The presence of a single highly influential company prevents the development of a hierarchical social order that reduces inclusiveness and chills creativity. When a large proportion of the technical talent in a particular area all work for the same company, events like the Crash Course series can start to have an “Us and Them” feel. Outside entrepreneurs may be made to feel excluded because they are not part of the company “club.”
A large company in the post-startup phase if its life cycle will focus on importing and developing worker-bee and middle-manager talent to the exclusion of entrepreneurial talent. That is not to say that employees without an entrepreneurial bent are not great people and contributors to society, but part of the theory of entrepreneurial communities is that there needs to be a critical mass of entrepreneurs. The risk is that the entrepreneurs are drowned out and Boulder becomes known as the home of one big company rather than as the home of dozens of startups. Fewer and fewer students at CU will be inspired by the entrepreneurs in the community and will instead be focused on getting hired at the bottom of the big company pyramid.
Lastly, the real estate constraint prevents the business version of the broken windows phenomenon. If real estate could be easily built out to accommodate the demand during a boom cycle, there would inevitably be vacancies and neglected property during a bust cycle. Whether it is a single big company downsizing or many small ones going out of business, the outward appearance is that the town is no longer vibrant. The attitude in town changes and the remaining successful businesses may start to look at other, still-vibrant communities.
For those reasons, it is to entrepreneurs’ benefit that Boulder has real estate constraints. It is said that great wines are created from grapes that suffer because the vines are growing in difficult soil. Perhaps great companies are created by entrepreneurs that suffer because they must grow in Boulder’s challenging real estate environment.
Matt Burns is a veteran of CU Law’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic and currently a Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center in Boulder. He lived with the hassles of trying to develop real estate as a construction manager prior to attending law school. He now lives with the space constraints of Boulder every day… in his cubicle.Read More
From the first day we are in school, we are taught that our goal on anything should be a grade of 100%. One hundred percent is better than 90%, 90% is better than 80%, and 80% is better than 70%.
So you always want to strive for the 100% solution, right?
Absolutely wrong. In a lot of cases, the 70% solution is exactly what you want.
But how can the 70% solution be better than the 100% solution? It has to do with dynamic environments, some weird thing called the OODA loop, and the idea of tempo. You’ll find that the 70% solution is a great tool for startups and fits well with the ideas of Minimal Viable Product and Build-Measure-Learn of the Lean Startup methodology.
Let’s start with the idea of a dynamic environment. A dynamic environment is one in which actions are not constrained to a set of rules. Rules like alternating turns and set amounts of time create static environments. In these non-dynamic environments you have a set amount of time to maximize your solution. Therefore it is best to strive for the closest you can get to 100%.
What about when there is no allotted time or set of rules? What do you do when it is a free for all and it is all a matter of actions and reactions that constantly change the environment? Do you still want to strive for 100% in this dynamic environment?
Hell no, just take the 70% and your C.
All of you honor students out there are probably thinking I’m crazy, but stay with me. What if every time you answered a question on the test you were allowed to choose the subject of the next question as long as your answer wasn’t completely wrong? Think Jeopardy with a curve. You want to make sure you keep the game in your strongest category. Wouldn’t you want the 70% solution instead of the 100% in this case?
The OODA Loop
This is a portion of some incredible theory developed Colonel John Boyd of the United States Air Force. The story goes that Boyd was tasked with finding out why the U.S. was losing so many aerial dogfights in Korea compared to WWII. Popular opinion was that it was an issue with the pilots. After countless hours talking to survivors and eyewitnesses, observing in the field, and study, Boyd determined that it was actually the planes that were the problem.
“Nonsense!” was the response of the establishment. Everyone knew the U.S. had the fastest and most reliable planes in the world. Boyd acknowledged that this was a truth, but what they were missing was the fact that the planes’ designs greatly hampered the pilots’ ability to see what their opponents were doing.
Boyd believed that all decision making took the form of a reoccurring series of the same steps: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA). You first observe your environment, orient yourself to the environment based upon your internal point of reference, decide what action is best to take, and then take that action. You then start all over by observing the new environment caused by your action. As in all things military it became an acronym. The OODA Loop.
U.S. pilots were having problems effectively seeing the situation and therefore their OODA loops were delayed. Opponents were completing their own OODA loop faster than the U.S. pilots and gaining an advantage.
Boyd became a major proponent for a change in aircraft design to more maneuverable craft with better fields of vision which led to bubble cockpits, the F-16, and the F-18, which are all still in service today.
It should be pretty apparent how this ties into the 70% solution. The 70% solution allows you to cycle through your OODA loop faster than someone who is taking the time to put together the 100% solution.
Suddenly the law of diminishing returns becomes relevant. The longer you wait to gather more information and mull over your decision, the less you gain from the incremental “correctness” of your decision. If you wait for the 100% solution, you might find yourself providing an answer to a question that is no longer relevant.
How do you know what equates to a 70% solution? It’s not like the decisions we need to make are all numbered questions that we can track. This is where the idea of tempo comes into play.
If you notice, in each example I frame the decision in a competitive environment. The 70% solution loses its impact in a static environment where you are not competing against another entity. But truly static environments are pretty rare; you almost always have something with which you are competing. It doesn’t have to be another company or person. It can be the market or simply just time. You simply need another force that can impact your environment even if you do nothing.
Those other forces will help you determine what constitutes 70% through relative speed, otherwise known as tempo. Tempo is nothing more than your speed in relation to your competitor’s speed. By understanding what that tempo is, you can determine when you reach that point of diminishing returns, which is the 70% solution.
I’ll give you a great example from FullContact. When we initially started commercializing our product we started at a price of $0.03 per match. We gained some initial traction, but we just weren’t seeing growth as quickly as we wanted. From some initial reactions from customers it appeared that our price was too high for an API.
We could have done in depth market analysis, pricing surveys, and held numerous meetings to discuss our options. But, we had a competitor that had a bit of a jump on us in the market and a potential capital raise on the horizon. So instead we took the data points we had, reviewed pricing from some API companies we respected, and started tweaking our pricing. We first added an additional plan at a lower price and reduced the number of free calls. We didn’t see the results we wanted from that so three weeks later we cut our prices 50x. Yes, 50x. Next thing we knew we had customers signing up at a consistent rate. Then our competitors made it seem like they matched our pricing and also modeled their website after hours. We had forced their hand by using the 70% solution, going through our OODA loop (or Plan Measure Build) faster, and iterating.
In conclusion, recognize when you are in a dynamic environment, be cognizant of your OODA loop, and know how quickly you are moving through that OODA loop in comparison to the tempo of your environment. Don’t stress out about trying to turn an uncertain and chaotic environment into the 100% solution. Take the 70% solution, execute, and get ready to do it again.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.
Ben Deda is Vice President for Business Development for FullContact, a Denver based TechStars company providing cloud-based contact management solutions. Ben is also a decorated former Marine Corps Captain adept at executing OODA loops under extreme stress.Read More