Hi guys. I know that no one from Middlebury is going to be reading my blog unless you’re interested in the J-term project, so first, thanks for your interest. This is the course that I wish I could have had when I went to school. (Although I did have two very good independent studies which allowed me to do my work in the evening after skiing was over.) Folks who otherwise are reading my blog, this concerns my initial thoughts on a January term course being done at Middlebury—if you feel you have something that you can add to the effort, contact me, I’m open for all assistance.
Starting up our own little startup
I hope that at the end of the course, we will not only have built the start of a little company, but we will have started making a dent in the world. How? If you 1) believe that progress is made by the crazy ones who disrupt the old ways of doing things by building a company to do something new, and 2) believe that building an online, opensource, free education site that better organizes startup theory and practice can help improve the odds of success for some of those startups, then you’re going to love this course. And this ain’t just reading articles—you’re going to be learning by doing.
I’ve worked as an employee for 1 successful startup, then started another very successful startup, and then started and buried a very unsuccessful startup. And in this course we are going to go through the same processes that all three of those times. But even if this never gets off the ground, you will learn a ton.
Well, in one month we’re not going to be going into legal and finance—there’s no actual entity funded or incorporated—but we are going to be doing almost everything else. The larger and more diverse the talents we attract, the greater the odds we are going to be able to actually show off something to be proud of, and we can definitely build the foundation for something ongoing of value. So let’s consider ourselves all spiritual cofounders. (But you’re better off than most co-founders, since you aren’t subsisting on ramen noodles.)
If Google uses machine learning to catalog all of the world’s knowledge, we’re using human knowledge (and a bunch of head starts and pointers) to begin to catalogue past knowledge (going backward through the calendar, year by year, author by author) to do the same, but better because some things are still better handled by humans.
The task of organizing and sorting knowledge is a little bit like curating phone apps. You start by not knowing any apps, and just seeing a few on an acquaintance’s phone. But going through the appstore is a terrible experience that only shows the most popular apps, not necessarily the best ones. What we’re talking about is a hard problem—just as hard as making an efficient, smart, quality appstore. (And you know how much that sucks, and Apple has plenty of smart people on it.)
Your preliminary homework assignment before January is to think about “how can I get smarter about startups in the most efficient way?” Read some Paul Graham, the founder of Y-Combinator, especially his “How to Start a Startup”. Do some web searches. I am in the midst of watching the Y-Combinator led “How to Start a Startup” lecture series now taking place at Stanford Business School. These are lectures by some of the greatest names in Silicon Valley. You might dive into one or two of the great venture capitalist bloggers (Fred Wilson, Brad Feld, Mark Suster) or you may try to go broad, and search on some of the current curated content, maybe from StartUpManagement, or the First Round Review. Subscribe to the Mattermark Daily.
Want to see and read the same curriculum as Startups 101 at Harvard Business School? Here’s the curriculum. Much more importantly, check out the index of topics on the right hand side, along with Professor Tom Eisenmann’s favorite blog citations. Except we are going WAY more granular. And notice the blog roll further down the side of the page? All of those authors we are going to cover, and more. So I hope you all like to read. And recruit more students, and more can share in the cataloguing and editing process.
What are some of the tasks we’ll need to do? Same ones as at any startup.
Initial market research: Problem definition, talking to potential users, assessing the current state of the art (“competitive analysis”, so to speak) and the alternatives. The more you dig, the more you’ll realize that the knowledge is all around you, but Google is only a starting point. We’ll be providing the curation. For initial homework, over the next few weeks, talk to anyone who is interested in startups. Where do they go for knowledge? How much do they know? What kind of questions and frustrations do they have? If you are already a student of startups, what frustrations do YOU have?
Content Research and Organizing: This in a way is the heart of the course, and much of the value we are creating. And it’s not just blogs, it’s videos, podcasts, slideshares, whatever.
Content Creation: When we find some controversial areas—say, in the topic such as “non-compete agreements”, we may ask some of the market thought leaders their opinions. This may come out in the form of articles, but I’d like to do it via film. For NEVCA, we want to interview lots of the local VCs, lawyers, bankers, angels, and entrepreneurs. (Here was my first attempt, but we can do better. Feel free to scroll through what I’m creating and make comments or suggestions.) What we create depends on our talents. Know someone in the theater department who wants to be the reader for audiobooks? Sign them up to be the voice creating podcasts, reading our “top 10% blogs”. Editing is never just objective, it’s subjectives. And since this is about an educational site, there is no better judge than you all if an article makes you smarter. So perhaps we’ll give out awards based on your votes. (I retain the right to veto popularist dreck. Especially if the blog mentions the author’s Tesla.)
Product Management: This is a big topic, but some of you will act as product managers, be that coordinating between disciplines (say, keeping design and programming on target), determining what features must be in the “minimum viable product” we can ship by the end of January, making sure that “QA”—quality assurance is maintained, etc. Included, however, should be a design that we can grow on and update for years.
General Company Management Who is going to do what? By when? We will do a stripped down, weekly edition of “Objectives and Key Results”. While fortunately almost everyone is in one location, I will probably only be available in person Fri-Sun. So, we’ll need to figure out a communication method (Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangout), etc. How about Yammer, or Slack, or Campfire for getting organized. I’m used to Google Docs, we’ll need some type of general management and communication approach. If you have something that works well, we’ll use it.
Web App Design: User Experience and Interaction. This is where we really need to do some tests, try stuff out, and in quick order. I doubt that we are going to have an actual grid, but who knows? We probably will try to break into groups, with one group running a four day design sprint, a la Google Ventures. That makes it tight for having the coders getting something out. Which is why startups never sleep. BTW, the GV Design blog is a terrific resource. Gorgeous design is what made Apple Apple, and why Google had to buy Nest. Design matters.
Database Design: There’s lots of free stuff, but we want this to be able to scale with minimum technical debt. If you don’t understand that last phrase, you will by the end of the course. Hopefully via reading, but probably via practice… Both Web App design elements will be working with Adam Bouchard of Agilion Apps, and I hope to get some of the various Burlington design pros (for example, JDK) to donate a day or two at the start to take us through the process.
The Reward: Well, it’s intrinsic, but we will certainly do a few field trips, one to Burlington, home of various hot startups, like IrisVR (run by Shane Scranton and Nate Beatty, both recent alums) and Ello, as well as Boston (perhaps we’ll see companies like Bridj, run by Midd alum Matt George) or Midd VCs like Alex Finkelstein of Spark and Dustin Dolginow of Atlas Venture. And the stars of the class can definitely get intros to a lot of the cool people and places, and have something they can be a lot prouder of on their resumes than my “just make time for skiing” J terms.
You get the idea. I’m posting this now as it’s late, but hopefully this gets your juices flowing and will persuade you to apply for the StartupGrid class. I just added a tab (look up to top of the website) for StartupGrid. And I’ll start transferring info over to there. As of now, I’m planning on being in Middlebury on Thursday, 10/30, and hope to catch some of you at dinner. My phone is 802 922 2916, Skype is tdanco (although I’m not often on there), I like to Google Hangout, address firstname.lastname@example.org, and email is the same. Feel free to contact me (or on campus Jake Vacovec) with questions.
Go recruit some coders!