Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Archive for the ‘venture capital’ Category

Building a business vs. Raising money

Posted by shannonclark on June 30, 2010

It has been over 2 months since my last blog post (and yes that’s a deliberate echo of my early Catholic upbringing, the way you would start saying your confessions…). So why such a delay?

Mostly because for the past few weeks I have been heads down working on a new business idea, we aren’t quite yet ready to announce what the new business is, still lining up early customers, partners and we hope investors (contact me privately for more information and to discuss meeting with you if you are an angel/early stage investor or if you are involved in the games industry).

While I have been working on this I have also been thinking a whole lot about the differences between building a business and raising money and how even now 10+ years after the first bubble the difference between raising money and building a business is lost on many people and not helped by the tech press who have an obsession about writing about rounds of funding and only rarely writes about business milestones (the occasional PR driven post about a company hitting some numerical milestone – often one only marginally related to the actual business model of that company is perhaps an occasional exception).

In this past week a clear example of this is the press around the $20+M round of funding recently raised by FourSquare. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of FourSquare (though I think they have some major growing pains and need to get far more professional in their engagements with actual paying customers – i.e. how they engage with marketing agencies, Brands and companies big & small)

One of my favorite tech blogs has a post which is illustrative – which summarizes the discussions across many investor’s blogs about the recent round of funding which FourSquare has raised. These posts have some great advice for the entrepreneur, specifically to meet with and cultivate relationships with investors early on, earlier than when you are “ready” to pitch those investors.

But the tone of the piece as well as the posts from the investors is very much a symptom of a the problem – it is as if having raised a large round of funding the is the end game, not as it actually is just the beginning. The hard work, the real work, of building a sustainable high growth valuable business is now ahead of FourSquare and their recent round of funding is just one of many steps which they have chosen to take that, I hope, will get them to being a great company – but I actually have some serious doubts.

Back in the early 90’s I interviewed at a very well funded, even for those times, startup outside of Chicago. The startup had spun out of another company, raised a ton of money and even as I was interviewing for an entry level position I walked past the offices of the multiple VP’s which the company, pre-launch mind you, already had. In seeing those VP’s offices I knew immediately that this wasn’t a company which was likely to survive and though I completed the interview I had already decided that my future would not be with this company. Indeed they failed not all that long later losing millions for their investors.

A large round of funding, even many large rounds of funding can hide serious underlying flaws in a company and can in many ways tune the actions of the company towards raising additional rounds over building the business. In the case of FourSquare while I am happy that they have gotten a nice office space in NYC and are growing rapidly, I have also observed that they have sub-par iPhone applications and in talking with friends at large agencies they have a limited imagination and at times less than professional way of engaging with even very large agencies, agencies who represent some of the largest Brands in the world (and who have large marketing budgets and creative talent to allocate towards creative campaigns).

And while relying on “one off” advertising/marketing campaigns may be a tough way to build a business if done well it can be very sustainable and the upper limit of revenues is quite high. Especially if a successful campaign can become a part of how various businesses do business over a one-off push for goodwill. But the relationship skills needed to build out such campaigns, to manage interactions between agencies and Brands are very different from the skills needed to raise money from early stage investors – and different again from those needed to engage with the technology press. Not unrelated skills but different ones.

More generally large funding rounds, while not in and of themselves a bad thing (though at times a very real argument can be made for the downsides) can often allow a company to get into bad habits early on. A company may hire too quickly, take on too large of a lease (space isn’t the problem – what can end up taking too much time and attention is finding, negotiating for and filling up a space with furniture, computers etc – and the people that then go with them).  Some of this “waste” is what investors intend when they fund a company – to give the founders financial room to make a few mistakes without putting the whole business at risk, to give them resources to toss money at some problems instead of time.

But too much of this leads to dangerous problems and it also leads to the very common situation of a core management team that when they close their first round find themselves almost immediately working on closing the next round and the next beyond that. As a friend and advisor to many entrepreneurs I have observed this situation first hand – friends who disappear from all social and professional engagements for months of pitching dozens (sometimes 100’s) of investors, of constant updates to their pitch deck and of work focused on developing the demonstration of their product (over at times actually building the product and the business around their products). Once they have raised money they often then find themselves deeply focused on numbers that can appear “sexy” to the tech press and/or to their investors (and future investors) often again over building out the business aspects of their startup.

By “business aspects” I mean actual revenues – whether from individuals or from other businesses.

Yes, there are a handful of seemingly successful counterexamples (Twitter may be the current favorite, though they have started to turn on revenue producing services finally) but there are far, far too many counter examples.

In my new business we are focused quite specifically on revenue production from the very early stages and while we plan on raising money our best and likely most reliable source of “funding” will be sales and repeat business from happy customers. If we get very good at selling to other businesses not just initially but on an ongoing and growing basis then we can be very strategic when it comes to raising money. We will probably still need to raise money but a solid business base will give us leverage and flexibility as we raise money and should also help my co-founder and me avoid the trap of focusing on our pitch to investors over our sales processes and products.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, internet, personal, venture capital, web2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Billion dollar ideas for the next decade

Posted by shannonclark on April 23, 2010

What will be the next set of Billion dollar industries?

In the past week one of the biggest angel investors in technology, Ron Conway, announced that he has closed a new venture fund and he spoke to TechCrunch about what he sees as the opportunities for the next few years, the opportunities he will be investing in with his new fund. He identified three “megatrends” – the real-time data, the social web and flash marketing.

I agree with Ron that these are big trends and that there are many companies already pursuing them but still many opportunities in these areas for new companies to be created and to succeed.

However I think there are a number of other very large opportunities which will be huge in the next decade, opportunities which will transform not just entire industries but how we (and by we I mean people around the globe) live. Some of these opportunities may require massive investments and infrastructure which means that the winners in these spaces will likely be existing large companies that navigate the transition to a new business model though there likely will be opportunities for large, venture backed (and eventually public IPO backed) companies to prosper in these spaces as well.

I’m sure there are other, very large opportunities, but here are a few which I have identified.

  1. Full lifecycle manufacturing – products which are designed to be recycled and reused. Yes, physical goods. As Moore’s Law continues to move forward the pace of technological change is rapidly increasing, manufacturing is increasingly global and nimble yet climate change concerns, the cost of transportation and energy and many other concerns suggests a need to reevaluate many products. My prediction is that across products from cars to toothpaste design for full-lifecycle use will inspire billions of dollars in new products and industry opportunities. Businesses designed to take products after the initial purchaser of the product is done with that good and reusing those products, at scale, to add value and reenter the value chain. This is much much more than just “recycling” it is an underlying shift in design. Done well this is highly “green” but will also be highly profitable with lower costs, multiple revenue streams and ongoing, engaged relationships with customers over the lifetime of the product – whether it is a car or toothpaste or a laptop computer.
  2. Renewal products to extend the usefulness and value of goods. Cars designed just two years ago have technology components which are already massively out of date and limited (20gb disks for the media players in the car). Laptops and desktop computers are typically out of date when you buy them and new models come out from most computer companies multiple times a year. And while the trend for the past few decades has been to replace our electronic devices (and indeed much of our consumer society) on a frequent basis, I think there is a huge opportunity for a new business of retrofitting and updating a wide array of devices. This opportunity is two-fold. The big but complicated part is retrofitting current products – such as cars made in the past decade with modernized electronics. The even bigger opportunity is when the design of products starts to shift to be designed for ongoing upgrades. This has happened in software in the past five years – both desktop and mobile applications (and to a degree server based applications) are almost all now designed to have ongoing and automatically checked for updates which allows these products to upgrade over time. My first generation iPhone is still useful over 3 years later as a result of having been designed to accept significant ongoing updates both for the core software of the device and for the dozens of applications I run upon it (which wasn’t even an option when I purchased the phone initially!)
  3. Many pieces loosely coupled. This is a trend which exists online and offline. In place of monolithic products whether software or hardware the next decade will see many more opportunities to integrate small discrete items together in ways they may have not been designed to be combined or expected to be used. In software the rise of widgets, such as Facebook’s recently announced Social Plugins is an example of this trend. In hardware this trend is a bit slower but there are examples of it in action in the home entertainment center changes of the past few years – the rise of Internet connected devices other than computers within many homes. Most Blue-ray players sold today, for example, come with wired or wireless Internet access and along with the ability to play Blue-Ray disks the ability to connect to Internet delivered services such as Pandora, NetFlix Streaming, Flickr and more. I predict that there are billion dollar opportunities for increasing the types of devices that can connect with each other and for more combinations of hardware and software working together. Specific short term opportunities I see are around Bluetooth devices that are more complex than keyboards, mice or headphones. Eye-fi’s line of wifi enabled SD cards is a great example of how a second part added to an existing device, say a basic digital camera, can transform the functionality of that device.
  4. Hyperlocal but global curated experiences. At first this may sound like a contradiction, how can an experience be both hyperlocal and global? What I mean by this is the emergence of new retail opportunities which combine deep connections and relationships with the local community around the retailer alongside of a global perspective and sourcing. The emergence of Third-wave coffee roasters over the past few years is one great case study. (here’s a list my favorite coffee places  in San Francisco). This trend is not limited to small, nimble entrepreneurs, even large corporations such as Walmart with their recent major switch to sourcing most of the fresh food they sell locally to each store is an example of this trend. But in the next decade I think there will be a major retailing shift & opportunity where hyperlocal smart retailers who deeply know the needs and interests of their local buyers connect to a global network and source parts of what they sell from across the globe, curate these elements carefully and present specific to their community goods and services. In many cases building and finishing these goods locally but sourcing parts and raw goods on a global scale. But increasingly not just sourcing from massive global businesses but buying nearly directly from global producers. Third Wave coffee roasters increasingly buy their green coffee directly from farmers across the globe. These small scale local retailers are able to afford to send buyers around the globe to source their beans and are building highly successful (and highly profitable businesses). Four Barrel Coffee here in San Francisco recently was quoted in a New York Times article on Coffee in San Francisco that their retail business alone is generating over $100,000 a month with a 45% profit margin. Add to that significant margin a large wholesale business and you have a highly successful new business. 45% margins in a retail business can sustain significant growth.
  5. Global brands, local products. New brands and businesses across the globe will with ever increasing frequency in the next decade expand outside of their initial “home” markets into a more competitive global market. The brands which will prosper in this new world will be ones which combine the best of global sourcing with local connections, resources and awareness. In the media space large media brands will emerge that translate media generated in one country & language into another. Viz Media in San Francisco, for example, translates highly successful Japanese media properties (Manga & Anima mostly) into English and has had great success. TOKYOPOP in LA is one of the most successful publishers (in any media) in the US with many of the bestsellers each year from their highly successful English language manga.

There are many other industries which are likely to generate new billion dollar businesses in the next decade but which I know a bit less about – a few of these are Cleantech, Biotechnology especially around drug design,  and Renewable energy.

What other Billion Dollar opportunities have I missed?

Which of these opportunities should I expand upon in future blog posts?

And yes, if you are a venture fund or investor and want to work with me on exploring these ideas in greater detail I’m available…

Posted in customer service, economics, Entrepreneurship, futureculture, geeks, internet, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

first look to the future – my hopes for 2010

Posted by shannonclark on December 30, 2009

Over the next few days I will likely post a flurry of posts here and on Slow Brand (where I just posted 2500+ words on why 2010 is a great year for print). Some will be looking forward, others will be thinking about the past year (and decade) but to start here are my hopes for 2010.

These are not resolutions, nor are they in any particular order. Some are small, some are pretty major.

  • see my niece who was born in Dec. This will probably mean taking a trip to NYC early in 2010 and, I hope, getting in a habit of more frequent visits to one of my favorite cities. Though my niece is just recently born, I want to be an engaged and active uncle. As she grows up I hope I can be a great uncle (and spoil her just a bit)
  • travel outside of the US. In 2009 I didn’t travel all that much, a few trips early in the year, but not many after. In 2010 I hope to spend time outside of the US, see the changing world. Hopefully this will include many countries and many types of travel – professional and personal.
  • the return of Chuck to TV (well the Web in my case). My girlfriend’s “tv boyfriend” is Chuck. I’m okay with this. And yes, our shared love of this show says a great deal about our relationship. I’m a geek but so, in many ways, is she.
  • the end of David Tennant’s run on Doctor Who and the beginning of Matt Smith’s run. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan but never thought it would return to the TV, the past 5 years have been enhanced greatly by the return of Doctor Who to TV as well as the great spin-off series. I’ve loved David Tennant’s Doctor but I really look forward to what Steven Moffat does as the new show runner and I trust that I’ll love the new Doctor. My Decembers for the past few years have been made better by the Christmas Specials and this year my New Year’s Weekend as well.
  • SXSW. Every year since I moved out to the Bay Area I have attended SXSW staying for a few more days each year. In 2010 I hope to stay for even more of SXSW Music (and hope to convince my girlfriend to attend with me hopefully she will be working for a company by then which might send her to SXSW…)
  • A MeshWalk at Social Media Week San Francisco (Feb 1st). I will be organizing a MeshWalk here in San Francisco on Feb 1st as part of the larger Social Media Week activities in San Francisco. The format will be a Social Media Crawl – we will range between a number of businesses with offices in San Francisco in/around SOMA who will have open houses, demonstrations and drinks. Should be an amazing way to start a busy and great Social Media Week here in San Francisco.
  • MeshForum 2010. My hope is to pull together a full, multiple day MeshForum conference in 2010, probably in the late Spring in/around the Bay Area. It has been too many years since I last held a full MeshForum and the focus on the interdisciplinary study of Networks is even more important now than ever before.
  • Raising money for a new, social media related venture. I have been immersed in Social Media for a very long time, running an online game with 1000’s of players from my college dorm room in 1991, being active in USENET in the early 1990’s and on the web in many incarnations and forms ever since. As 2010 starts I am actively engaged in raising an early stage/angel round to fund a social media related venture. Watch my blogs for more details and updates but suffice it say that the focus will be on topics I have been writing about for years – the importance of Curation as the future of Media.

Of course if you are interested in supporting any of my ventures, especially the last three above contact me directly. Especially if your company is interested in sponsoring one or more of these events and online activities.

I also know a number of ventures, of many different scales, who are always looking for additional sponsors and creative advertisers, in 2010 I expect I will be connecting great advertisers and sponsors to amazing, unique and fantastic publishers online and offline.

Politically I have long been a strong supporter of Barack Obama and though some are disappointed in his 2009, I am not. He has achieved a great deal of what I expected and hoped he would, along with the support of his fantastic appointees. In 2010 I am eagerly awaiting still more achievements from the first great administration of my lifetime. Starting early in 2010 with, I hope, the passage of Health Care Reform which will have an immediate and important impact on the quality of my life.

I have a pre-existing condition (Asthma and related allergies and allergy caused conditions) which combined with looking at individual not group coverage would, currently, make getting high quality, affordable health insurance nearly impossible. With the passage of #HCR I should be able to get far more affordable coverage of a far higher quality w/o restrictions for my pre-existing conditions (which I should note are not expensive to treat and keep under control but do require annual expenditures for emergency inhalers and the like).

But more than any of these admittedly wide-ranging looks and hopes for 2010 my biggest one is stay worthy of the love of my girlfriend who has been, by leaps and bounds, the best part of 2009 by far.

I hope you have a great 2010 and look forward to reading about what you are looking forward to – whether big or small.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, meshforum, meshwalk, networks, personal, politics, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

brainstorming about business opportunities

Posted by shannonclark on December 3, 2008


I am an entrepreneur. When I dream, I dream in business models (seriously, though not every night). That said, I need to find a way (or more likely many ways) to make money in the current economic environment. Projects or businesses which will prosper now and as the economy turns around will have many growth opportunities. Businesses which may have some “exit” in mind – though my dream exit is less an exit and more a route to enduring success and sustainable growth.

What do I mean by that?

I don’t particularly want to build something to sell it – even to sell it to the public (i.e. via an IPO). Rather in my ideal world I build something which can stay private, but can also grow into a large and comprehensive entity, with ongoing growth into new opportunities while building on a solid base. A business which would employ a lot of people, share great rewards with those people (as well as with partners and customers) and in turn have a large impact on the world.

Why would I want to keep such a business private? Well first and foremost when I think of great companies only a handful of them are public – and if anything being public limits them in a wide range of ways. I think a very well run, private company, has much greater flexibility than a public company and can more often place long term bets (which admittedly is not always doable in the tech world – but then again my fantasy company though almost certainly driven in part by technology is not a pure tech company). Yes, being private means that as a company you have to be a bit more creative with how you reward your employees – and with how as the owners you diversify your own finances – and with how you obtain the resources to grow and build the future.

So unlike some of my peers here in the valley, my goal is not to build something to sell it, or to make a “quick hit” for myself (though certainly I wouldn’t complain about that) instead I want to build a business (or likely related businesses) which give me a base to explore lots of ideas and a platform from which to have a big and oversized impact on the world. Starting by the customers I serve, the business partners I help, the employees (and their families) I help support.

On a personal level money matters to me – but only up to a point – what matters more is the freedom and flexibility to have a big impact on the world. I want to travel a lot – not just to be elsewhere – but experience a lot. I want to spend a lot of time around the smartest and most impactful people in the world – from formal experiences and conferences – and less formally at lunches, dinners, salons, and meetings all over the world. At somepoint in my life I want to live in many different cities (including outside of the US) and even when I have (as I hope to sometime not all that far from now) a family I would hope to raise that family in multiple cities and countries – and to expose my future children to many cultures and ways of engaging with the world.

So with that as my goal(s) what opportunities should I be pursuing in 2009 (and the rest of 2008)?

In the past few weeks I’ve blogged about a number of business opportunities and ideas I have had: Radio Schedules 2.0, a new(ish) approach to local media, the future of media being curation, and what I would have submitted to the Knight Foundation

A common theme to many of my current ideas have been some degree of rethinking of media – both on and offline – as well as a newish approach to how commercial content plays a role in the media – more than it does currently online but in somewhat different ways than it does offline.

I am still also passionately interested in the core idea which led me to start Nearness Function over a year ago, ideas around how a new form of advertising network could function as a buffer and valueable partner for software and new media firms and a valued partner for advertisers and their agentcies and media buyers. At the core of my belief is that brands matter – more so now than perhaps ever – and that to build great brands requires sustained, ongoing investment and engagement – and that as attention shifts to the “web” (or more accurately to services and communities woven together largely over and via the web) brands will have to engage with audiences via these same services.

And unlike many in Silicon Valley I do not find this inherently a bad thing – if anything I think it is inherently a good thing – that great brands at all scales of brands serve a very valuable and useful purpose. A few months back I launched a new blog, which I need to update more regularly, Slow Brand to discuss my views on branding (and occasionally food) though I need to blog there on a more consistent basis to build up that blog and get my voice out more often.

My friend Tim Ferris (yes of the 4 hour workweek fame and who is launching a new TV show Trial by Fire this week on the History Channel) talks about Lifehacking and indeed to a degree I should implement many of his lessons and suggestions, but my goals are not entirely (or at least not solely) about myself – my body, my life experiences – but are also very much about what I can do for others, what I can build and help create.

As I think about what I want to do I find myself pulled in a number of not entirely complementary directions.

  1. I am a very value-adding consultant. My primary skill being to brainstorm with people, especially senior management/founders/investors asking tough questions and helping explore business models, potential partnerships, avenues forward and technical evaluations and decisions. I’ve been told by one VC friend that my 1 hour, emailed evaluation of a company they were looking at, entirely on the basis of public data about the firm, came to the same conclusions it had taken them over 1 month to reach. Now, there are challenges packing up and promoting my consulting and much of what I have done in the past has been on a fairly informal basis – I’d love to do much more of this type of advising/consulting, for a high but fair fee (mostly $ but in some cases perhaps also equity). I think I’d also be very valuable for an investor or M&A person in helping evaluate potential deals.
  2. I am a skilled facilitator. I’ve been doing “open space” events since the mid-90’s and have become skilled at the art of facilitating open space events and meetings, as well as the related skill of helping curate other forms of events. This is an art – done well my role almost disappears into the background – achieved by means of the invitations, the settings, the structures lightly imposed upon the event and the group, and gentle nudges and one-on-one conversations and slight changes to the schedule made on the fly. I enjoy such work – whether for a non-profit event or for for-profit businesses and I would like to do more. Especially events which might involve the MeshWalk format I’ve used many times quite successfully. I’ve organized dozens of evening events, helped with lots of weekend and multi-day conferences, and organized a couple three+ day conferences on my own. (The first of which was over 20+ years ago when I was in high school, a science fiction convention which still occurs to this day in no small part because we designed into it a great sustainable structure & financial model)
  3. I am a writer. In the past years I’ve written hundreds of blog posts and lengthy emails to mailing lists, not to mention over 7000 tweets. My non-fiction writing has blossomed in the past few years, occasionally even earning me if not direct income then some value in trade (conference passes and access for example). I have multiple non-fiction as well as fiction book ideas, just a few weeks ago in fact I started a new fiction book which is going well so far (though as I write this post it is still early, about 4000 words written but it is going quickly and I have much to write). I also have a major piece of non-fiction I want to write on Networked Economics a topic I have been thinking about since at least 2004 and which I started and ran multiple conferences in no small part to help myself learn.
  4. I enjoy connecting people and businesses and serving as a translator between industries. Yes, I am a geek, I wrote my first application when I was about 8, am the 3rd generation of my family to write software (my grandfather was one of the first employees of Rand Corporation and then later at Aerospace Corporation he oversaw the deployment of early IBM mainframes to detect nucluer explosions, my mother has been a programmer since the late-60’s and I would do her student’s flowcharting homework as a child). I’ve had a server on the Internet since about 1991, served as an editor of some IETF standards. In short I have deep and extensive “geek cred”. But I am also passionately interested in business and economics – in topics such as branding and business and process innovation which are non-technical. I find that I can offer a lot of value bridging between the possibilities of technology and the needs of business.
  5. I come up with business opportunities. However though I have, I think, had many great ideas I also need to work with others to implement my ideas. While I have many skills I do not have every skill needed to build a successful business (or at least have not had them all so far – still working on it). I have ideas about technology and design which are best implemented by others. While I can and have sold at a very high level, my sales process is too slow and sporadic for sustained growth – I need to work with others to keep myself closing (and/or to help close and implement deals). I will keep practicing the art of the close and of selling – it is a necessary part of being a successful business person, but I also know that my value is multidimensional and that in many ways I would make more money with the right partners than I could alone.

So those are where my thoughts are at the moment. I have many opportunities I’m working on and many ideas (probably too many ideas) but I am faced with the dilemna of evaluating which to pursue now and how to best go from my current state of not enough income to one of a surplus of resources – cash but also other resources such as great staff & partners.

I welcome suggestions and opportunities.

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, economics, Entrepreneurship, personal, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Heading to SXSWi – parties, networking and hallway chats

Posted by shannonclark on March 6, 2008

I fly out very, very early tomorrow morning (flight at 6am, leaving house before 4am). Like many of my travels, I have made the arrangements for this trip at the very last minute – I haven’t yet, in fact, registered, I’ll do that onsite when I get there tomorrow.

But then I’m not going to Austin for the SXSWi sessions – sure, I may stop by a few friend’s panels (or may not) and assuming I do get a pass I’ll spend some time in the exhibit halls and at the official parties.

However the reason I am going back to SXSWi is not for the formal conference. Rather I am returning for the chance to spend an intense 4+ days and nights with my peers across the geek/tech world. Friends have described SXSWi as “geek spring break” and there is certainly an element of that. If you want to spend the next four plus days seriously abusing your liver, that is certainly an easy (and popular) option.

For me, however, I am most looking forward to long conversations in hallways, conversations which start with one or two friends and quickly blossom into small groups. Last year powered in part by effective twittering groups of us roved from party to party or, at times, created our own parties when that evenings more official gatherings had ended, were full, or deemed not worth trying to get into. Most evenings (and many afternoons) this year I have parties to attend which friends of mine are organizing and hosting, but I expect to spend some part of most evenins in small group conversation.

My focus all weekend will be on discussing how new forms of advertising could work on the web – how the advertising that I want to deliver via my new company, Nearness Function, should work to offer the best value for individual users and for the developers at our partner companies. I’ll likely also be talking with a few investors over the course of the weekend, with many potential clients, and hopefully with a few potential advertising partners – there certainly will be some people at SXSWi who are at digital agencies.

SXSWi is an intense, jam packed conference. Covering all things interactive and running alongside a film conference and just before one of the biggest and most important music conferences and festivals in the US. In short for this weekend and next week Austin is where much of the creative “class” in the US (and indeed from outside the US) will be found. Friends are flying in from Scotland, Miami and most part of the US and Canada.

This year the weather reports are not entirely pleasant – quite cool and a chance of rain on a few days. So I’ll be packing accordingly, lots of layers and my first purchase after checking into my hotel is likely going to be an umbrella (all my other umbrellas have been destroyed by San Francisco wind gusts this year).

There are countless communities and guides to SXSW, I won’t try to duplicate their advice here but a few reminders – as much as for myself as for you the reader.

  1. Have fun. Should go without saying but though a big, long conference is work, don’t forget this should also be fun.
  2. Introduce people to each other and don’t be shy about approaching people you don’t know – or people you don’t see often enough. If you get in the habit of introducing people – even people you just recently met, it encourages others to do the same.
  3. Try not to eat any meal alone. If you find yourself in danger of doing so, ask some strangers to join you – one plus of a big conference, very likely there are others who likewise don’t yet have dinner or lunch plans (or for that matter breakfast – though you’ll find at SXSW many people sleep in).
  4. At the same time if you aren’t an extrovert, give yourself some time alone, some time to regroup and mentally review the activities of the past day. If you are a runner go for a run (though you might do this with fellow attendees as well). I hope that my hotel has a pool and my current plan is to try to get in a short swim each morning – exercise plus a chance to mentally regroup. I also found that at times I might be leaving one party and meeting people at another – instead of taking the fastest path there (a cab) at times walking, even if it is a mile+ away would give me a great chance to refresh and relax.
  5. Perhaps it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Get enough to drink (water) and try to eat as healthily as possible. Yes, I plan on eating a lot of BBQ. However I will try to vary my diet, be sure to get some fruits & veggies along with my smoked meats, and I’ll be sure to drink a lot of water. This is especially important if, unlike me, you plan on drinking a great deal of the free/cheap booze that flows freely.
  6. Have something to give people to be remembered by – but in turn when you get something from someone whom you want to stay in touch with try to quickly get back to them digitally. At any convention it is far too easy to end up with a large pile of stuff and have little memory of who you need to send what to. My plan is to carve out a part of each day (probably in the mornings) to process my notes and contacts from the past day and at least send people my contact info. Jotting a quick note on the back of someone’s card (and/or in a small notebook you carry with you – I’ll be using my Creative Commons Moleskin) can also be a good starting point.
  7. Travel as lightly as possible. I am lucky, the hotel room I’ll be sharing is across from the conference center. As such I plan on dropping off my bags there frequently, as much as possible I hope to carry with me as little as possible (sometimes just pocket planner, notebook, iPhone, may even leave the laptop behind)

And above all keep in mind my first point.

Hope to see many of you in Austin tomorrow!

Posted in advertising, digital bedouin, Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, meshwalk, networks, personal, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Remember everyone is human – even the A-listers like Arrington & Scoble…

Posted by shannonclark on December 12, 2007

[full disclosure – Robert Scoble spoke at MeshForum 2006 in San Francisco. Oh and both he and Mike are friends of mine]

UPDATE – Robert has posted his side on his blog “It is your business

Though even if I did not count both Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble as friends, I would still find the commentary on Mike’s recent TechCrunch post about Robert’s plans to leave PodTech disturbing at best and more than slightly depressing at the worst.

Reading the comments I was struck by the vitriol of many of the commentators – the sense from them that both Robert and Mike “had it coming” (one commentator called Robert a “liar”). The comments also have a sense of being written about characters – not fellow humans (one comment talked about how Mike and Robert are “real world” friends – implying that somehow the comments and blog posts exist outside of the “real world”.

For most of my career in technology I was outside of Silicon Valley, I only moved here in January of 2006 full time (and spent some time here in the Fall of 2005 but spent much of that time looking for a place to live). The Chicago tech community was (and still is) much, much smaller than Silicon Valley’s. A recent Chicago email subscription I still have showed that that is still the case – the lead article was about how a bunch of Chicago based VCs all called Facebook’s valuation an “aberration”, clearly in my mind not understanding what Facebook is building.

Since moving out to Silicon Valley I have met many of the people who, back in Chicago, I read about. My opportunities to meet them have been at countless networking events, conferences, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Some public events, many others private gatherings of friends. The “secret” to Silicon Valley, however, is that people are friends with each other – the tech world is in many ways a very small place. At almost any networking event throughout the bay area “competitors” can be seen sharing drinks and talking with each other – more often than not individual employees may have gone to school together, worked together at previous companies and usually fully expect to work together again at some future company.

Founders and investors alike know as well that the links that connect people here in Silicon Valley are many and diverse – it is a rare company here that does not have countless ties to other firms across the valley – shared investors, former colleagues, roommates.

Likewise, while in Chicago (and indeed in much of the rest of the US and world) failure is a taint, something which is assumed (again outside of Silicon Valley) to “ruin” you that is not entirely the case in Silicon Valley. Sure, no one – founders, investors, or employees wants a company to fail – but likewise nearly everyone knows that failure is a very real risk with any startup. And there are many different types of failures.

What matters most, though this is something which few (perhaps none?) of the commenters on TechCrunch grasp, is how you fail – and how as individuals you treat others, your investors, customers and partners.

In my observation how Mike Arrington and Edgeio are handling their failure is an honorable way. Yes, it is a bit abrupt but even that is likely better than lingering – especially for the employees who will almost certainly find other employment.

But to get back to my main point and the topic of this post – Remember everyone is human

Yes, this includes the “A-listers”

And yes, even lawyers and VC’s.

Even at the biggest of companies – whether Microsoft, IBM, or newer giants such as Yahoo! and Google – are, in fact, the result of the collective efforts of 1000’s of individuals, fellow humans all.

It is easy for everyone to be snarky, to gossip, to offer commentary and to put down someone else – we all have more than our share of faults.

But I also believe and my life and career keep reinforcing this point over and over again that your expectations about others are usually right but that the causation here is not simple – if you expect others to be jerks, to be untrustworthy, to be stupid, to “not get it”, it is your very attitude which helps that self-fulfilling point of view. In contrast if you approach the world assuming the best of others, assuming that generally speaking people are good, smart and trying hard, and willing to help more often than not you are proved right. Again, your attitude helps shape the world around you – and equally importantly what you focus on and emphasize for yourself.

This is not I should note looking at the world with rose-colored glasses or being naive about business matters. Rather this is about what you focus on, what you spend your time cultivating starting with your own attitude and approach to others.

Starting with how you interact with people in person and most definitely including how you interact with others online.

One of the commenters on TechCrunch whom I won’t name here except to say he (and yes, I am assuming he is male from his writing style on his personal blog) was very active on this post, is also apparently in the midst of seeking funding and partners for a new venture. While I always wish everyone the best, I also have to note that were I advising someone about his venture (an investor for example or a friend considering working for him) I would caution against it. Because of the attitude about others which comes through in his blog and comments – a strongly bitter sense of betrayal and a core assumption that others are idiots, wasting money, doing things in stupid ways etc.

(all while, I should note he is, I think, missing some technical approaches to a problem he is facing)

But. And this is a big but, I would still be happy to meet him, to discuss what he is doing, and very likely even offer my help. I believe in giving everyone a chance.

My view is that you can and do shape reality around you – how you approach others reflects back upon you, shapes how they will interact with you. If, as I have advised in the past you approach everyone starting from the perspective of “how can I help you” when you need help it will be there, likely from the most surprising of people.

I am by other’s accounts a networker – yet the core “secret” I have found to getting things done in the past has been the simple act of asking for the help I need. And if someone says no not just giving up but learning from that – and asking follow up questions such as “can you suggest who could…” [speak in your place, sponsor the event, etc]

So I encourage all of you to think about this when you next read about celebrities – whether “a-list” bloggers, startup founders, or media stars – and remember that everyone is human.

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, internet, meshwalk, networks, personal, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0, working | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Launching a new Ad Network – or why this blog is a tad silent

Posted by shannonclark on September 27, 2007

In the next few weeks I anticipate seeing the above street sign more than a few times as I start a series of meetings and phone calls. Some along Sand Hill Road (and elsewhere) as we start raising money, and many others across the Bay Area (and perhaps in other states) as we line up the first partners for our new ad network, Nearness Function.

Needless to say, while I may make it to an occasional event, such as STIRR Founder’s Hacks, for the most part my time and energy for the next few weeks (hmmm probably next few years) will be dedicated to Nearness Function.

So what is Nearness Function?

Nearness Function is an ad network for dynamic content.

What does that mean?

Nearness Function is an ad network for publishers of AJAX applications, Flash Apps (and yes, this includes games), Java applications (including on mobile phones), widgets (where ads are allowed) and other forms of rich, dynamic content, the stuff that often is labeled “Web 2.0”. If you are technically inclined, think of Nearness Function as an advertising network with an API (well when we launch fully). If you are not technically inclined, think of Nearness Function as working to sponsor and enrich the most interesting and vibrant applications on the web today.

Oh, and Nearness Function is designed to also help support new, non-browser based applications – mobile applications, streaming content, and potentially downloaded content where commercial messages make sense (some videos and podcasts perhaps).

We start, however, from a focus on enriching the individual user experience. So we will not work with all advertisers, nor will we offer all types of ads (you won’t see us serving up pop ups/pop unders). Our view is that where appropriate, where the messages are highly targeted and relevant (and fully disclosed as being commercial messages) there is a valuable and enriching role for commercial messages. Not at all times or at all points in the use of an application or service – but at the right time with the right messages everyone benefits.

Individuals have a better experience and are made aware of brands and opportunities they value.

Application providers make money and have happy, even thrilled users.

And the commercial parties (i.e. advertisers) reach their targeted audiences with relevant, often actionable messages. Building brands and sparking specific, immediate actions.

How can you participate?

Nearness Function is in the very early days. As I alluded to above, we are likely going to be raising a funding round this fall. Even before that, however, we are putting together a series of trials this fall. These trials will involve a select group of advertisers and a carefully selected group of application publishers. Real ads will be placed and paid for during these trials – and the full specifications for the technology we are building will be shaped during these trials.

If you are an advertiser, willing to work with a new advertising network, and interested in reaching individuals where they are spending time and attention today (and even more so into the future) please contact me directly – shannon AT or call me at 1.800.454.4929.

If you are a software company who want to enrich your applications with well targeted advertising – whether you are delivering services via AJAX, Java, Flash, or another technology also get in touch with me directly.

It is still the very early days, but we are happy to talk with the press or event organizers about what we are building. Both myself and my business partner, David Spector, are available as speakers, either on Nearness Function or on the multitude of other projects we have each worked on in the past. Please sent a note to press AT

So if this blog is a tad quiet for the next few weeks – this is why… I’ll post when we have more news and definitely when we start hiring.

Oh and if you have examples of great (or terrible) advertising, especially as a part of a dynamic application, please leave a comment here and/or contact me directly, we are collecting best practices to publish and share with publishers and advertisers.

Posted in advertising, economics, Entrepreneurship, networks, venture capital, web2.0 | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The use and abuse of copyright – thoughts on presentations at TechCrunch40

Posted by shannonclark on September 19, 2007

disclaimer – I am not an attorney, so do not take anything here as a legal opinion. That said, I have many friends who are lawyers, many who are creators of lots of copyrighted works, and quite a few whose companies are built on the use of copyrighted works – in a legal manner. I am also a supporter of Creative Commons and use CC licenses on much of my own creative output.

On stage at TechCrunch 40 earlier this week I saw a nearly unbelievable amount of misuse of copyright. Much of it was simple and almost certainly not intended to offend, but startup after startup used unlicensed images from across the web (or ripped from other media), many used clips from Hollywood movies, and in many cases this use extended beyond the PowerPoint they showed on stage to their live website and application.

At least one company has already been called out in public by my friend Scott Beale – at least they have apologized in the comments and removed the infringing photos from their site. In their case they abused a cc licensed work, perhaps not realizing that there are many variations of such licenses each which allow different uses and require different acts. In Scott’s case he does not allow commercial use of his works, and in the case of non-commercial use he requires attribution and spells out clearly how he wants that attribution. He has at times allowed commercial use of his images – but only when as his license requires the company in question has asked him and gotten permission, usually he asks for some attribution.

In general however there did not seem to be a realization in the presentations by many of the companies (there were, thankfully a few exceptions) that using other people’s images, videos, and music without permission or a license (including abiding by a CC license) is a bad idea. Further that it could include very real legal issues – far beyond a small specific infringement – in many cases I think a strong case could be made on the basis of the company’s fairly public demo at TC40 that they as a company were encouraging infringement in the use of their application – i.e. that their application is built with the intent to infringe copyright. In turn, that could lead to very serious legal issues – not just for the company but also for the founders individually should the company be sued.

[did I mention, I’m not a lawyer, go talk with your lawyer about these issues. Also, consider attending the EFF’s Bootcamp on Compliance for Web 2.0 companies being held on Oct. 10th ]

In all fairness I should note that in the final grouping of startups on stage at TechCrunch 40 there were a bunch who did the right thing in their presentations and even more importantly in the underlying design of their applications. They talked about the rights of the creators of the content (even when that content was “user generated” – and in fact took steps to have proven to them that the people who submit the content have the rights to that content they are submitting. In other cases the companies showed working with bands to promote their content and offer an experience for their fans. I commented to many people that the final group of companies clearly “got” rights issues. They used cc works in the right way, gave attribution even in the course of using works in their business presentations, and showed business models that respected the rights of content creators and owners.


But far too rare.

UPDATE – Don Dodge summed up the issues and his comments in a great post about copyright law and the presentations at TechCrunch 40

Posted in Entrepreneurship, geeks, venture capital, web2.0, working | Leave a Comment »

post TechCrunch 40 thoughts – part one

Posted by shannonclark on September 19, 2007

I have just returned home from the second day of TechCrunch 40, Jason Calacanis’s and TechCrunch’s very good new conference, held a week before DEMO. The conference was great and I had an incredible time. Lots of great conversations, interesting companies on stage, in the demo pit and in random conversations over meals. We are building a new ad network – in the past two days I’ve had great conversations with potential investors, publishers, a few potential advertisers, and many friends who have offered feedback and in quite a few cases offers of relevant introductions when the time is right.

I also managed, as has now become a bit of a typical pattern for me, to order all the food for dinner the last two nights (well tonight only for our table of 11 out of the three+ large tables of TC40 attendees). Had dinner with, among others, MC Hammer.

My attendance at TV40 was the result of helping a friend of a friend. I was asked if I could host a visiting entrepreneur who was exhibiting in the Demo Pit. Not a problem at all and it was my pleasure to do so (I have plenty of space and always enjoy having guests here for a few days). When he arrived he mentioned that he had an extra pass, would I want to use it?

So thus I had a pass. I spent most of Monday, however, as Robert Scoble notes in his flickr “Shannon Clark – holding court” outside the main spaces of the conference.

This post will be on my feedback on the TC40. My next post will have a specific gripe I have with a LOT of the presentations (and more generally with many – perhaps most – startup presentations, and in some cases business models/lack of them).

  1. TechCrunch 40 drew a really good audience. A mix of entrepreneurs, strongly of the non-funded/not much past seed/small first round stages, and investors. There were also a smattering of other professionals (though many of those in attendance were sponsors, or PR professionals there with clients). Perhaps it was because the press were in front or in the press room but the press presence, while strong and good was not overly dominating or intense. Though I did see a great mix of tech press at the conference and I’m starting to see the articles and blog posts already
  2. TechCrunch 40 proves how hard it is to scale a conference past about 500 people – the 750-1000 person conference may be one of the hardest sizes of events to hold comfortably and successfully. The Palace hotel as the spaces were used by TC40 has two main rooms which could handle 400-500 people (at the very most) as laid out (i.e. in classroom format with tables for people to use their laptops).
  3. I do not know the solution – more spaces need to be found which have rooms that seat 1000+ people Ideally in classroom seating – which implies up to 2000 or so people in auditorium seating. (the difference is a table, no table means no power usually but also about twice as many seats. One option at the Palace might be to rearrange the seating so that press had tables up front, then a LOT of auditorium styled seating (so laptops not actively encouraged) with an outer ring of additional tables for people who need laptops open.
  4. This might work as the wifi AND cell coverage (so EVDO coverage as well) at the Palace Hotel was beyond bad. In most cases it was simply not there or functioning. Wifi was spotty but usually okay in the main TC40 space – though I was booted off many times due, I think, to lots of computers/iPhones overloading the wifi routers as configured.
  5. TC40 did a very good job of driving people over the course of the conference to spend time in the demo pit (though perhaps some of this was due to the issues as per above in lack of seats)
  6. The food from the Palace Hotel catering was in most cases very bland. Some good to decent ideas behind the food (“chinese theme” one lunch, “mexican theme” the next lunch) the overall quality of the food was not great. Nothing horrible, just nothing as stellar as the surroundings would have led you to expect. Flavors were bland, service was very aggressive in removing plates from tables – but also and especially in removing food service very quickly (though not as fast in replacing missing plates or forks from the buffets) Overall nothing was very good about the food.
  7. This is the problem with conferences in hotels – the hotel catering can often be very bad and not infrequently, even in hotels with a lot of character and history, use lots of ingredients of relatively low quality. Even the whole, fresh fruits (which were appreciated) were fairly bland flavorwise – I think they were not from CA in most cases. I did not finish some of the wraps today as they were not particularly pleasant to finish (the crab wrap was real crab – a definite plus – I know this, however, because parts of the shell and cartilage was still in my sandwich).
  8. One specific place TC40 somewhat dropped the ball was in having beverages available at all times during the conference – snacks (with drink carts) were available around the planned breaks – but coffee ran out in the mornings and drinks disappeared later in the afternoon. It does take very real money (especially at a higher end hotel such as the Palace) but drinks should have been available at all times – one suggestion would be to have had a beverage station inside of the demo pit which was always open.
  9. The conference bags were very nice – one of the few bags I plan on using on at least a semi-regular basis. That said, the schwag items inside were very random (a cd case from AOL – I can’t remember when I last needed to carry more than a couple of cd’s at any time recently, a soft ball, and much else which was quite random). The hat from Mahalo was nice – no complaints there. Other than the bag, however, nothing that really stood out (at least for me). At a pretty seriously priced conference ($2500/person) I’d expect a bit more uniqueness from the items from the sponsors – and/or items from them that had specific, attendee resticted offers.
  10. The contests/drawings were generous and had I won one of the, I’d certainly have appreciated it (prizes from companies at TC40 included – a roundtrip ticket to Ireland, 10 winners of new nanos, 2 winners of MacBooks, and a 42in TV – which was a case of having been used for a display but not being shipped back.). That said, I actually think that there is somewhat of a disconnect with the audience of a conference such as TC40 and these types of prizes.
  11. As an alternative I would suggest – more prizes like the $50k won by the best of the TC40 companies or the $10k in legal services offered by one of the sponsoring law firms.
  12. I would suggest prizes for not just the best but perhaps the top 3-4 companies who demoed. I’d suggest as well a surprise prize of some form of service or other in-kind offers from the sponsors – for the prize winners – but possibly also for ALL of the companies who demoed on stage. Prizes such as: a server and/or hosting from a hardware sponsor such as Sun, some free legal services – either on a cost basis or perhaps more focused one service from a library of commonly needed services/documents.
  13. In an ideal world these prizes might go not just to the companies on stage but some prize might go to all of the companies who paid to be a part of the demo pit as well.
  14. Speaking of the Demo Pit. I think in general it worked well – companies had enough space but not too much for the stage they were at (i.e. not full booths but room for a computer or to). That said, the companies who were against the wall were at somewhat of a disadvantage to those who had more space around them. But all of the companies suffered from a lack of a simple and easy “cheat sheet” for attendees – especially such a list given out in advance of the conference program book.

So what major suggestions would I make for next year’s TechCrunch conference?

1. Engage sponsors more actively in supporting the companies on stage and in the demo pit. Ideally, make participating in either the demo pit or being selected on stage an amazing and surprising experience which exceeds expectations. The practice presentations probably helped all of the companies on stage (though some clearly had started from a very bad position and only got a bit better), the companies in the Demo Pit had highly variable experiences and displays dependent on their stage, but also their expertise at presenting themselves in a trade show like environment. At a minimum the exercise of getting each company to give a one sentence description of the product they will be demonstrating in the Demo Pit would be a very good experience.

2. Since the conference was being filmed, it likely would not add overly much to display the conference as it happens on stage to a few spaces around the hotel. Specifically I would suggest screens set up: in the Registration/lunch room, in the hallway just outside of the main conference space (by the atrium), in the hallway to the side of the main space (where the sponsors had booths), and a screen set up in the Demo Pit area. Ideally these screens would have audio and video – but even just video would give the entire conference a visual sense of what is happening in the main space. (I’d also suggest running the same feed into the press room – definitely with audio in that case)

3. Consider setting up the lunch/registration space as an overflow room and livestream the events on stage not to a “small” 40+ inch flatscreen as in the hallways, but to a live, projected image. Note, this likely means having at least two cameras running at all times and one or more people mixing the live streams of images.

4. Given the issues with wifi connections have multiple means for the presenters on stage to get online – ideally via an entirely different path than attendees  – hardware connection to a dedicated DSL connection perhaps and/or a dedicated secured wifi, with an EVDO card as a third backup – in short no company on stage should use lack connectivity as an excuse for a busted demo.

5. Seriously consider not letting presenters use their own computers – instead get all presentation materials on dedicated laptops on stage for the presenters to use – virtual machines on a mac laptop could allow every presenter to literally have their own machine to use to present.

6. Make the time for presentations clearer – I head anything from 6 to 8 minutes mentioned at the time for a presentation at different points during the conference. I would suggest perhaps 5 minutes but that might not be enough for some people. For the companies in the Demo Pit – I’d suggest that you require each company to deliver a presentation to TC which would be used by them when they win a slot on stage – I’d make these presentations be required to be 3-4 minutes long – perhaps with a template design which allows the company to enhance the pre-submitted presentation with 1-2 minutes of additional material (and/or always accommodate a presentation which is of the form – intro, live demo, wrapup thanks & contact info – a format which should be encouraged by many)

7. I would definitely encourage all companies presenting demos to have two people on stage – one talking and engaging with the audience and the other driving the demo – many companies tagged off – which can work but in 5-8 minutes does seem a bit short for that

8. ALL presenting companies – both in the Demo Pit and onstage should get a short-course on copyright, attribution, and how to/not to use copyrighted works. Much more on this topic in my next post – I would estimate that over 50% of the presentations I saw on stage, and many of the demos in the demo pit, involved companies misusing copyrighted works in the course of their presentations. The companies whose very products are designed to break copyright laws are a somewhat separate matter and issue (personally I wouldn’t have put at least one of the companies of the 40 on stage for this very reason)

But overall a great conference – congrats to Heather, Mike and Jason – and to their whole team & sponsors for a fantastic conference. I’ll almost certainly be back next year in some capacity (and of course, I’m happy to help in anyway I can)

Posted in Entrepreneurship, internet, networks, reviews, San Francisco, venture capital, web2.0 | Leave a Comment »

Networking Advice – non-valley style

Posted by shannonclark on July 31, 2007

I am a geek. Let me get that right out there, in high school and even in college I was not by any stretch the most popular kid around, heck in high school as a freshman and sophomore I wasn’t all that comfortable calling girls on the phone (this was in the late-80’s, long before cell phones).

Why do I mention this?

Well since college I have become a fairly serious networker. I run conferences, organize events, attend many others and close to 100% of my business development happens as a result of the contacts and connections I make at events (and at follow ups to events such as dinners after).

At the closing party for the Mobile MeshWalk I held last March here in San Francisco one of the MeshWalkers told me a story of advice and training he had received from his boss when he first arrived in Silicon Valley. The advice – “don’t spend more than 2 minutes talking to someone at a networking event, look at their nametag and decide quickly if they are worth your time, if not move on”.

He noted that this was horrible advice – and thanked me for organizing an event which broke with that model and tradition – an event which encouraged longer conversations.

In the past week here in Silicon Valley you could have attended a major networking event/party nearly every single night. Last night it was a blogger dinner (at $40 a pop), Saturday it was my friend Scott Beale’s LaughingSquid Paradise Lost fundraiser, Friday night it was the infamous TechCrunch party at August Capital, Thursday night my friend’s at Satisfaction held an office warming, cupcake party. Wednesday I held my MeshWalk Palo Alto.

Leaving aside my own event, which both was different from the others by virtue of being a full day event and which my results from differ because I am the organizer of the event, the other events show both what is great about the valley and what is so very wrong. My friend’s boss’s advice being the starting point.

In the Valleywag coverage of the TechCrunch party one paragraph by my former college editor Owen Thomas stood out to me.

It was the same small talk, the same pitches, and the same scanning of nametags before faces as any other Valley networking event. With one small hitch — partygoers were asked to fill out their own nametags, and most neglected to include their company information. That omission perplexed at least one venture capitalist in attendance. “I feel like I’m walking socially blind,” he confessed. “I don’t know how important these people are to me.” You mean Arrington’s velvet rope-holders let in some hoi polloi who aren’t worth your time, let alone your capital? Quelle horreur!

A few things to note here. One, Owen observes the same behavior I have, the scanning of nametags to judge whether someone is worthy of time spent talking with them. Two, the sense that lacking this context you are “socially blind”. Three, the implication that you should only talk with “important” people.

Let me now give you, the reader, some different advice.

And so you can judge me, some context. I run a conference on the study of networks, most weeks I meet my personal goal of meeting 5-10 new people (and have for nearly over a decade – do the math), my last event, the MeshWalk Palo Alto drew nearly 100 entrepreneurs and investors for a day of walking, was sponsored by Mohr Davidow Ventures, and well over a dozen angels and vc’s participated.

So, my advice.

1. Networking is about giving and listening.

Spend your time when you meet people thinking about how you can help them. Often this can be both very simple and immediate – introduce people who you meet at a party to each other. As you do, mention why you are introducing them i.e. “John, meet Jenny, she mentioned that she’s looking at deals in the healthcare space and you were telling me about your friend’s new medical startup…”

To do this well you have to be listening. Listen not for a pause when you can enter and pitch yourself/company/product/investment opportunity, listen for how you and the person you are talking with can form a connection.

2. Have a very concise, two or three at the most sentence explanation for yourself.

This is something I have to work on, in part because I am working on too many projects at once (three startups, one ongoing non-profit, writing a book on economics). But for all of the projects I am involved in, I can explain them very simply and quickly – in a few simple, easy to understand sentences – which generally get a reaction of head nodding and interest in the project.

Getting to this point is not easy. In many ways it is harder than writing a long business plan. You have to strip away everything that is unnecessary and communicate quickly what you are working on. Without, ideally, doing so in a jargon or buzzword filled manner (I never use terms such as “web 2.0” when describing my projects, even those that are, in fact, “web 2.0” in spirit).

The point of this is to get the introductions behind you and to give someone stuff to continue to talk with you about – give them hooks to a conversation.

3. Parties and events are the starting point, not the end point.

Photos with celebs can be fun. Being on the guest list is always nice. But from a business perspective the conversations and discussions at a party are just the starting point. Make a point of following up with people – in ways that emphasize giving not taking. If while you are talking with someone you mention a book they should read, a person they should talk to, when you get back from the party fire off a quick email introduction or a reminder about the book/website/tool you mentioned. This does not take long but has a very real impact.

4. It is not quid-pro-quo.

Frequently people’s reaction when you do something for them is to try to “pay you back”. There is a strong sense that networking is some form of accounts – that you do favors and then collect on them, that people “owe you”.

Please, break yourself of this instinct. Not the part of it which inspires you to help others, but the part which tries to keep accounts, which tries to weigh whether someone can help you before you help them.

If I were to trace back the links and connections which have, in the past, resulted in business deals and opportunities for me, rarely is the line simple or direct. Usually it is something more like:

I was at an event, got into a conversation with another attendee, we went out for dinner as a group, later followed up via emails, over time those emails led to me participating in an online discussion group, later that led to other introductions, those introductions led to meetings while I was visiting CA, when I moved out to CA those occasional meetings grew more frequent, leading to participation at an event, which led to going to another event, which led to a conversation, that led to a lunch meeting in NYC, which led to a partnership to start three companies this year.

And that’s the relatively simple, straightforward version.

The full, detailed account would take a lot longer to explain – and takes many more twists and turns and mutual introductions and reconnections.

But, by giving back, by helping others via my comments, introductions and referrals, I have gotten far more. Not via direct paybacks, but indirectly.

5. Know what to ask for, and very important, ask for it.

People often ask me, “How do you get…” (sponsors, attendees, speakers, funding, clients, partners etc).

My usual and true answer is “I ask.”

It is amazing how few people do and how often asking the right people for the right thing gets amazing results.

Critically I do not usually ask in ways that only lead to yes or no. Rather I ask for something very specific (will you speak? Can you sponsor this?) but also for something openended “Who else should be speaking? Who should I be talking with about this? What should I read or take a look at?”.

This combination of specific and openended has worked very well for me. The specific leads to a yes or a no (and seriously, getting a quick no is really valuable – the worst result is the indeterminate answer that delays you from asking others). By asking for something open ended you give people a chance to help even if they can’t immediately do your specific request – i.e. if they can’t fund you, they may still help via some introductions, if they can’t make it to your event they may help via inviting someone to go in their place.

Getting to the point where you know what to ask for, however, is hard work. You have to really deeply understand your project and what next steps you need to take.

A few specific examples to help illustrate this.

I have many projects going at the moment. However what we need, for now, is not overly complicated.

– we need specific types of partners for trials we plan for our ad network this fall (publishers, advertisers)

– this is leading to needing serious investment (but for now we’re starting to talk with investors but mostly need to know who might be good fits when we are ready)

– for my next few MeshWalk’s I need participants (in Seattle Aug 12) and sponsors (for NYC in Sept)

– for another project which we are about to launch, we will need the right type of (probably) angel investor interested in content investments (online and to a degree offline)

– for that same project we need to talk with large (ideally trade show sized) event organizers in Chicago or San Francisco

We have other needs – for beta testers, for future hires, for certain types of partners. But, those are my current priorities and thus what I mostly ask for when it is appropriate to ask. And I have what we are looking for down pretty specifically (I can get into details about the trials this fall for example).

Specifics, even if open ended i.e. “who should speak”, lead generally to better results than very vague and uncertain questions.

i.e. don’t ask “can you help me with my startup”

Ask for something more specific. I have a call scheduled later this week with a former CEO who built, took public, and sold a company in a space we’re entering. My call is to get his perspective on our plans and to ask him if he would join our board (at least our advisory board, but very likely after we raise funds our formal board). This is very specific and importantly, he knows why I am talking with him (his perspective and advice would be very helpful plus his association would help as we raise money). I am also going to be asking him specifically about hiring sales and business development people in this space.

I hope this is helpful. Please leave comments with other advice (and feel free to point out alternatives or clarifications to this document).

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