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Startup School

What do you want to know

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We've got an exciting set of speakers lined up, from Stephen Wolfram to Steve Wozniak. What would you ask these luminaries?

Plus: One slot will feature the kids from the Summer Founders Program talking about their experiences. What should they talk about? What do you want to know about what it was like? What scares you about doing a startup? What excites you?

Obviously there's no guarantee your questions will get answered on stage, but it will be good to have some idea of what you want.

Abraham: How do you get paid? I'm a techie, so I understand something about how to code up an idea, but running a business relies on translating that code into cash. How do you get your first customer?

Secondly, I think we should assume that either everyone has (or can, on their own time) read Paul Graham's essays, so I'd prefer not to rehash the things he says there (unless, of course, anyone has interesting disagreements).

Aarjav: I work right now for a young company on a small R&D team with a very startup like environment. I have learnt that managing people, creating or putting in place processes is a little harder than it looks. I am beginning to get a grip on it now but I would like to know if 'soft' skills like these, or the lack thereof, play an important role once a startup starts hiring employees.

whirlycott: Under what circumstances do you think that it makes sense to take VC money? I've worked for 5 startups and (still) one VC fund that does seed financing, so I have seen firsthand the pressure and baggage that comes along with the cash. It's fairly obvious to me when it doesn't make sense to take investment money from VCs, but when and why do you think that it does?

Wyatt: (To any/all speakers)- Should a start-up incorporate right away, or should it first work as a privately owned business? At what point did you (or someone in your company) decide to incorporate? Was it immediately - as soon as there was a product to be sold, or was there just a time when you knew it was right to begin the incorporation process?

Wayne:As I run an online P2P system for college students (i2hub), my question is for Mr. Cavanaugh. What are his thoughts on P2P systems built at universities, using open source software, built for collaboration between students? Should the industry be targetting us?

Aaron: I want to hear about different people's living/working situations. Did you work in your room? Was that alright? What'd you do for food?

Anonymous: I'm not scared at all - the prospect of staying in a big-company job for decades longer is much scarier than the thought of losing all my savings in a startup ;-) I am a little scared about the prospect of my current boss reading this though (and stopping my immigration sponsorship, which would kinda mess up the long-term plan!). Is there any chance we could have logins and make this wiki private, or at least some parts of it?

Aaron: If you want to write pseudonymously, you can log in in the upper right corner. But I doubt the wiki is going to be password protected.

I would like to know how successful they were? Are any of them generating revenue? Did any of them recieve additional funding? Do they now have business plans?

Andrey: I'd like to know what scared them most about a startup (before and after starting one).

gmale: I'd like to know by what process they were able to turn their high-tech business into an enterprise; that is, one in which the founder can eventually step back and let the company run itself. This process is fairly straightforward when the company is something like an instance of McDonalds, where employees can be issued process manuals to execute, but for a creativity-based company the process is somewhat unclear.

Keith: I'm already a year into my startup and 8 months into doing it fulltime. It's a bit scary at times when you realize that you'll only make as much money as you actively go out there and hunt for... then you realize that the only limitations for your hunting on your time, existing money, and sanity. ;) Lots of risk, but lots of potential reward.

Aaron Farr: I'm still in the planning phases. The hope is to be ready to create my startup in about one year. So what should I be doing in this time frame? I don't think it's too early to start planning, but is there anything I should definitely focus on now or something I should save for later?

Adam: I'd like to know how they took care of the all the non-coding parts of their web services. For example, did they go out and hire someone to do the GUIs, or do them in-house?

Anonymous: I'd like to hear about "how to get seed funding without spending months bootstrapping first."

Jaime: to Stephen Wolfram: do you believe in destiny? Do you believe there is a creator for the basic set of rules?

Dan P.: Beyond your own personal network of contacts, how to you find the "right people" to fill roles you can't fill yourself? For example, we'll probably need a lawyer to help through the incorporation process. How do you find one you can trust, especially in light of apparent IP trends?

Anonymous: Questions for the summer founders:

  1. Where did you end up working? If you lived in the same place that you worked, how did it go? How many people shared the space? What would you like to have done differently?

  2. For those running a website: what did you do about bandwidth? Did you co-locate? Or did you purchase a T1 and have it run to your office/apartment/whatever?

  3. Did any of you not build websites? What did you do?

  4. What made you think that people would want to pay for the product or service you're providing? How did you think of the idea? Did you start with the notion that you wanted to build something people would pay for? Or did the idea come about in some other way?

Dallas: If you have a clever or popular idea, how do you plan to monetize that? How long until angel investors, or bigger investors expect to see some real profits starting to come from their investment? If you run out of investment capital and you have to go find another job, what happens to the assets of the company?

Anonymous: to all [complementing a question on how to find non-technical talen (marketing, financial etc)] When, in your opinion, this is needed? In the market I'm planning to enter, customers are much bigger than most suppliers and expect more than a technical demo of a product.

Anonymous: to all What are the things to consider in coming up with an initial distribuion of the equity in the company that is fair to all and still allow to keep the company in course (expecially if one of the founders decided to leave or substantial strategic disagreements pop up). How this was done in your companies? What would have you done differently? What other founders would have done differenctly (try to put yourself in their shoes for the purposes of this answer)

EricFloehr: to all I am 35, husband, and father of 2. I've got the mechanics down, I've started my company, and I've bootstrapped to a year of meager profitability. I am technical, not a sales and marketing guy...I would like advice on how to position, package, market, and sell your products to a point where your second job (the new company) can become your first (and only). I would also like advice on finding angel investors and how to present your ideas and company to them.

Anonymous: to all

To which extent should a startup be concerned with non infringing other companies' patents? I'm not referring to voluntarly misappropriting IP belonging to others, but rather reimplementing things that happen to be patented (most likely time and financial constraint on a startup wouldn't allow for patent search other than for the key element of the technology used).

Peter: to all

It seems that most well-known startups today try to grow fairly quickly, gaining lots of employees and revenue in a short period of time. What is your feeling on creating a startup with the intention of remaining small (both in terms of revenue and head count) long term? Any tips on going this route?

Anonymous: to all

Any chances we could have someone comment on some existing 'small' companies that can be inspiring for wannabe entrepreneurs ? I'm thinking about FogCreek Software for example (actually may be the organizers could try to invite Mr. Spolsky see what he says :-D). These guys seem to be successful by implementing 'better' versions of existing tools (FogBugz) or experimenting w/ slightly different business models (Copilot recently). What are the key factors to succeed when you're not coming up w/ something radically new or different ?

Adam Smith: - I'm a college student who is about to graduate, and I'm wondering how people fed themselves while getting started. Off the top of my head, it seems like there are four alternatives: (1) get a Real JobTM and save up, before taking the plunge, (2) Take ramen noodle and rent money from something like SFP, (3) grow a small lifestyle business (i.e. an automatic $40k/yr) first, or (4) do what Steve Jobs did, and live like a monk. Of course, there are other creative options, like get married to someone with a full time job, or work part-time. Suggestions?

RE: Adam Smith - One plan my wife and I have is for her to get a job as a resident director for a college. She has the background for something like that and while the pay isn't good, it will give us a place to live and enough money not to starve while I start working on a new business. We also plan to have enough saved up that we have some starting capital. -- Aaron

Re: Adam Smith - Could you clarify what you mean by a "lifestyle business"?

RE: Adam Smith - Stop worrying and trust to the invisible hand!

John M: - For someone interested in starting a startup: If the right idea doesn't come about, can you provide any advice for finding the right startup to work for?

Douglas De Couto: to all

I'd like to know more about outsourcing. My idea involves some hardware and software, and although I am sure I can muddle through the hardware to get what I want, I think the most efficient way will be to get an expert to design and prototype it. Any opinions about how to structure the deal with the HW designer? Also, I have some ideas for my application that may be patentable; how can I do this on a shoestring budget?


Christopher Stacy (an ex-Symbolics hacker) once said:

Too bad that a quarter of a century ago we Lisp Machine guys were naive technocrats who didn't know anything fundamental about business, I think we all know by now that business success has practically nothing to do with technical product quality. However, I don't imagine that this obvious fact is taught in engineering schools today, either. It's not something that scientists and engineers like to hear.

To what extent do people believe this is true (that business success has practically nothing to do with technical product quality), and to the extent that it is true, what can we do about that?


How closely did you guard your idea before releasing your product? I like to be very open with people, but I have some paranoia about having my ideas stolen. Is this a red herring or have you had experiences involving your ideas being developed by others?

Brian: (To any/all speakers)- I've worked with "enterprise" software that really doesn't do much of anything right, but is backed by a big vendor and manages to capture a reasonably large market of Fortune 1000 & government customers and makes a good deal of money. How does a startup break into such a business? (Or can it?) At what point does making innovative and powerful software become less important than a big name and salesforce?

Sam Odio: (To summer founders)- We all know that no one person can do it all alone. How did you meet the partners you're currently working with? What has the experience of founding a company and working closely in a small team/partnership been like? What was/is your greatest struggle in this partnership - and how did you overcome it?

Beau Hartshorne: (To PG)- Besides hackers, who should we partner with, when, and exactly how (what's the split)? We all know that Woz was the real hacker; but without Jobs (and now Jonathan Ive) I don't know if Apple would be where it is now.


I have a day job and am waiting for a Green Card so that I can legally start a business in the US. I am also working in my spare time on some code for when that time comes, and I have something that I think is almost presentable. Should I make the service live and public before I get the Green Card so that I can start building a user base while I'm waiting? Or would it be more sensible to sit on the code until I can actually start a business with it?

Stefan Hayden: I'd just like to hear every mistake you have ever made. I'm very good at learning from others' mistakes and would like to avoid the obvious ones that kill most start ups.

Dan P.: How does your strategy differ if your customers are 'businesses' vs. 'people'? Which type of customer would you prefer, and why?

Luke: What are the opportunities for someone older? I've reached the point in my life where I can afford to start up a business, but I no longer have the contacts from school and my friends from work aren't in a financial position to do this. I'm sure I'm not the only person who didn't want to do this straight out of college, but instead settled down a bit.

Dallas D.: The summer founders had a "demo day" setup to show off their idea(s)/product to many(?) potential investors. Is there a forum like this for others who are not in a program such as YC to get an audience to demo their work? What did the presentations consist of? Were they mostly power point presentations? Did the participants of YC put together any sort of business plan of any form?

anon: Is it possible to balance a startup with a balanced personal life, perhaps at some cost? What are those costs going to be?

Anonymous: Startups and open-source: under which circumstances to consider releasing the startup IP as opensource?

Cory W.: What do you do when you realize that your project has become boring and uninteresting?

Anonymous: I'd love to hear an elaboration on the "How to Find Problems" bit.