How to achieve and maintain Inbox Zero

Working at TechStars comes with voluminous montains of email a day.  On an average day, I get north of 250 emails, most requiring some sort of response.  On a high-volume day (like during applicaiton cycle), I can get as many as 500 emails in one day.

It’s daunting.  And since I pride myself on responsiveness and follow-through, it eats away at me if I can’t respond to everyone.  I’ve been buried in email for the last 2 years, and I’ve tried more methods, software solutions, tricks, processes, etc to solve this problem.   I’ve finally succeeded in getting out and I want to share my method.  Here’s what I do.

  1. Use GMAIL!  Spam filters + labels are incredible.
  2. Use the web browser to read your email, don’t use a client.  It took me about 3 weeks to get to the point where I actually liked working with the native gmail interface, but once I got used to it, now I love it. You cannot beat keyboard shortcuts for speed.
  3. Use the Google Labs feature called “Multiple Inboxes”.  When you configure it, configure it to show ON THE RIGHT.
  4. I show 2 labels as my “multiple inboxes” on the right.  1 is called “do by friday” and the other is called “do sometime”.
  5. As I read my email, I either a) answer it right away.  b) label it “do by friday”  or c) label it “do sometime”
  6. Use Boomerang.
  7. Schedule 1-2 hours each day for nothing but EMAIL.  Block it off on your calendar.  I try to do ~ 1 hour in the morning as soon as I get in, and 1 hour right before I leave.

Alright, now that the basic setup is complete….  here are the tricks.  It’s important that you show the multiple inboxes on the right and filter by those two labels. If the labels are just buried in the label list on the left, or if they’re above or below your normal inbox, you won’t see them.  It’s also imperative that you move stuff out of your inbox as soon as you get it, either by labeling it with one of those two labels, or replying to it right away.  If you can reply to it within 60 seconds, do it right then.  If not, apply one of those two labels.  You should never read an email in your inbox twice.  If its an email you reply to, but need a response  back from, use Boomerang.  It’s a great little service that says “add this message back to my inbox if no one replies in X days”.  So once I hit send, I just boomerang it, then archive it so its out of my inbox.  It will appear back if people don’t follow through.

I also schedule extra time on fridays to empty out my “do by friday” label.

If your email gets tagged “do sometime” – goodluck.  I will respond to it at my earliest, which might be next week or might be next month or in 3 months.  But I will respond.

This method works for me, hope it works for you too!

7 steps to startup success

Tomorrow is day 1 for TechStars Boulder 2012, and I’m sitting here this evening putting together the orientation presentation.  My final slide is called the TechStars Survival Guide, and it consists of only a few bullet points.  It strikes me as I finished the slide that they’re not just bullet points to survive TechStars, but on how to radically increase your chances in any startup.  So let me share them with you.

1.  Be intellectually honest.  It basically means you have to know yourself, know what you’re good at and what you suck at.  By identifying what you suck at – you can easily surround yourself with those who have strengths in your areas of weakness.  Being intellectually honest means being open to feedback, even when that feedback is negative.  I’m a firm believer that successful entrepreneurs leverage their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses by hiring the right people.

2.  Deep engagement with mentors.  This is true even for startups not associated with an accelerator like TechStars.  Find mentors, experienced entrepreneurs and leaders who have knowledge in what you’re doing.  By engaging with mentors, you can avoid easy-to-make mistakes.  But the key is to engage with mentors deeply.  Empirical observations suggest that founders who are good at this tend to do much better with their companies than founders who don’t.

3.  Find the truth.  Startups are risky business.  But if you want to radically decrease the chances of failure, engage in lean startup methodologies.  It isn’t about your idea anymore, it’s about what customers are willing to pay for.  I don’t care how good your hunch is, get to the truth by getting feedback from customers early and often.

4.  Prototype rapidly (or my favorite – code badass shit).  Don’t spend months and months building.  Know what a minimum viable product is, build it fast, and get it out there to start generating feedback.  This will help you get to the truth more quickly.

5.  Synthesize data & decide quickly. Many TechStars founders get analysis paralysis as they try to synthesize the sheer volume of feedback they get.  Get data, decide, act.  If you’re wrong, fine, just fix it.  If you struggle to decide, you waste valuable time and it becomes harder to fix a wrong decision (notice I didn’t say bad decision).

6.  Develop a rhythm.  Almost everything we do can benefit from a rhythm.  (I’m still learning this trick).  Everything from code releases, to blogging/tweeting, to email updates to mentors, to staff meetings.  Developing a rhythm will keep you in sync and ensure you don’t forget important stuff.

7.  Do the right stuff, fast.  We’ve all heard the analogy of the jar filled with the big rocks.  Is it full?  Of course.  But then you add smaller pebbles.  Now its full?  Not quite, you can still add sand.  Finally, it’s full… until you pour in water.  The key here is to know the difference between busyness and productivity.  Keep your eye on the big rocks – moving those items forward.  Don’t let the minutiae bog you down (I personally struggle with this one).

Feel free to add tips if you think I’m missing something.

Tips on getting into TechStars

Last night, I spent 3 glorious hours at the TechStars Boulder Happy Hour talking with entrepreneurs about their business ideas.  Most of them were applying to TechStars and just wanted to get on my radar.  Some of them were still trying to figure out if TechStars was right for them.

 

I spent a lot of time answering the same question; “What’s the secret to getting in?”

 

As I singularly read each and every application that comes in for the Boulder program, I can honestly say there is no ‘secret’.  But there are definitely some tips that can increase your chances.  I’ll highlight them here for you.

 

 

1.  Apply early so I can get to know you!  Don’t wait until you’re prototype is done, or you reach your first major milestone, or whatever the reason you’re waiting to apply.  Mark Suster has a great post on lines, not dots… its this reason that I encourage you to apply early.  Once you apply, I can begin to track your progress, I can see how quickly you can execute, I can get to know you through your application updates or email communications.  I get a much better sense of who you are and what you’re capable of achieving, rather than a simple snapshot at the end of the application cycle.  Furthermore, I guestimate that about 25% of the applications come in the last day.  Sheer math calculations will tell you that I can’t spend as long on those applications compared to the ones that apply early.  So the likelihood of error on my part increases.  Lastly, getting your app in early will make you eligible for a TechStars for a Day invitation.  It’s an awesome one-day mini camp where you’ll meet TechStars mentors, get feedback on your biz, listen to sessions to help you improve your odds for success.  At the end of the day, even if you don’t get into TechStars, this one-day mini-camp will definitely help you and your startup.

 

2.  Demonstrate rapid execution.  TechStars mantra (and subsequent book) is “Do More, Faster”.  With the program that is only 13 weeks in nature, you have to prove that you can move at lightning speeds.  Apply early, then update your application with major milestones as you hit them, demonstrating your ability to execute like mad.

 

3.  Short & succinct videos.  You have the opportunity to submit a Business Video and a Team Video with your application.  These don’t need to be highly produced videos (in fact, I’d argue that I’d be left wondering why you spent so much time producing the video and less time coding/getting users/executing…).  Sitting in front of your cell phone video camera works great.  But keep them short.  Like 1 minute or less short (each).  I basically stop watching the video after 1 minute, and if it’s a really long video, I might not watch any of it.  It’s simply a time factor (multiply hundreds, or this year, probably a thousand applications x 2 videos… won’t happen).  For the business video, I love to see a demo.  If you don’t have a prototype yet, then maybe walk me through workflow via drawings.  If none of that is possible, then you can talk about it.  For the team video, show me YOU!  I want to get to know you, who you are, what you’re capable of.  I want to like you, I want to be impressed by you.  I want to see your personalities.  Little tip, for me, humor works wonders…

 

4.  Nail your 140 character description.  I can’t tell you how many times I read descriptions of the business that say something vague.  Something like “we’re using the web to change people’s physical lives” or “we’re changing the world through social media” or “our mobile application represents a paradigm shift for gaming…”  None of that tells me what you do.  Use the 140 character to tell me exactly what you do.  Not who you are, not what your mission is, but what your product does.  Keep it to 140 characters (writing paragraphs just demonstrates an inability to follow directions).  A well written 140 character description shows me you’ve put time and effort into making your product easy for people to understand and makes me excited to read your application thoroughly.

 

5.  Get references!  It’s amazing how much a reference can help you.   It demonstrates to me that you know how to get people engaged with your product/idea/biz/you.  One of the single biggest success factors for teams that go through the program is being able to deeply engage mentors, demonstrating you can do that before the program even starts means you’re that much more ahead.  Find local mentors or advisors that can provide a reference on your behalf (this will help you even if you don’t get in, you’ll have a mentor for your company!.)

 

6.  Don’t skimp on the team section.  Talk about where you went to school.  Talk about any things you’ve built in the past.  Talk about successes you’ve had in the past or leadership roles you’ve had or awards you’ve won.  Provide LinkedIn profiles and GitHub profiles.  We shout from the highest mountain that TechStars invests in teams.  Show me how awesome your team is.

 

7.  Be concise.  I have to read a massive amount of applications.  Help me help you by writing concise, succinct sections.  Bullet points work great.  Highlight what matters.  I don’t need massive background information on how you came up with the idea, or detailed thoughts around pricing.  Be efficient with your words, it demonstrates a knowledge of your  product/biz/market/self/team/everything and respects my time.

 

8,  Demonstrate your personality.  At the end of the day, we’re investing in people, and I want to know who’s on the other end of that application.  Don’t be afraid to be a little irreverent, humorous, or entertaining.  Plus it will help me remember your application in a sea of applications…
*New!* 9.  Create a userid/pwrd for me.  This is a small personal thing – but I end up subscribing to 600+ different sites over the course of the application cycle.  And usually when I create an account in your system, it ends up blank (b/c I don’t have friends there yet, or content there yet, or whatever).  Create for me a userid/pwrd test account and have it pre-populated with stuff, so I can see and understand your vision clearly and quickly.

 

Early application deadline is a mere 2 days away at midnight, 2/26, MST – and will make you eligible for an invitation TechStars for a Day.  If you miss that deadline, get it in as soon as you can!  Final deadline is 3/16.

 

Looking forward to getting to know you and your startup better!

The Value of the Zero (and why community matters)

I originally posted this for my friends over at BoulderStartup.org & Silicon Flatirons – they’ve been hugely supportive to the Boulder Startup Scene and I’m thrilled to be a resource to them.  Check them out!

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Getting my entrepreneurial start – I was still in college.  I was riddled with student loan debt, I was eating at all-you-can-eat restaurants and stuffing food in ziplock bags in my backpack.  I was working my way through school and remember lying to friends about being unable to join them for a movie because I couldn’t afford the $5 ticket.  I was one of the lucky ones, my parents were paying for my tuition; I just had to pay for everything else.

It was during that time when I started my first company.  It was an online retailer focused on selling to the property management industry, and my dad was my business partner.  My dad was the brains behind the operation, I was the braun.  I didn’t realize this last part until later though; I thought I was the brains.  I spent 1 measely, pathetic day scoping out the market and learned we would be the first online retailer targeting in this space.  I came up with a product set for the online store (2,000 products!).  Then I had to figure out how to build a dynamic, database-driven website when the extent to my tech competence was limited to all-nighters fighting my friends on Doom (which we did on our 2400 baud connection). Then I had to figure out how to market and advertise the site.  I muddled my way through it with a lot of hard work, luck, and encouragement.

I had nothing back then.  Nothing.  No money, no family, no husband, no assets of any sort.  I had to cover my $600/mo in living expenses (rent, food, gas, beer).  Well, I thought I had nothing.  But from an entrepreneurs perspective, I had everything.  When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.  And when you have nothing to lose, the only thing you have to fear is the fear of failure.  Luckily for me I had a family that never let me be fearful of failure.  They encouraged me to take risks, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and helped me realize that I could easily start over and wouldn’t really lose anything but would gain experience that was worth more than success could ever garner.

My family was my ‘startup’ community back then.  Boulder has become my startup community now.  Most people here are surprisingly supportive of startups.  Boulder isn’t a place that fears failure.  I’d say it openly embraces it.  You’ll talk to lots of people that are starting something or wish they were.  Successful entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and peers alike will take your meetings.  People will encourage you, and you need that encouragement to take the first leap.  So if you’re in Boulder and you’re thinking about starting your first company – do it.  But do it wisely.  Here’s my quick action plan for getting started.

  1. Don’t be fearful of failure.  It’s the most crippling, self-inflicted handicap around.
  2. If you have much to lose in the way of assets, just have a backup plan.  What’s the worse case scenario?  What happens if you really do have to declare bankruptcy?  Might be a nice opportunity to wipe away all that debt anyway – could be a blessing in disguise.
  3. Don’t live inside your own head.  Get feedback on everything.  I guarantee one thing in your startup – you will be wrong.  Talk to customers, get yourself an advisory board, talk to experienced entrepreneurs.  They can all help steer you past the obstacles which derail even the smartest of people.
  4. Learn how to accept feedback, even negative feedback.  Don’t take it personally.  Know when to utilize it, when not to, and how to communicate with those whose advice you don’t follow.
  5. Don’t come up with an idea.  Find your areas of passion, then find a problem where people will pay for a solution.  I’m amazed at how many entrepreneurs get this wrong.
  6. Build your team and know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.  In my opinion, this is the hardest part for the entrepreneur.  It’s like finding your spouse.
  7. When you commit, go all-in.  Stack the odds in your favor by focusing on it 100%.
  8. Love it.

I’m older now, with much more on the line.  But I’m in Boulder, and I’ve surrounded myself with entrepreneurs that are taking risks every day, with much more to lose than I ever had.  Those founders and this town give me the courage and the inspiration to know that I’ll start another company one day.  But not for a while – I love what I’m doing too much to call it quits yet. :-)

Tips for Applying to TechStars

Given that TechStars in Seattle application deadline is looming (June 1 – get ‘em in!), I’m reminded of the challenge of reviewing so many great applications in such a short period of time.  I thought I might throw out some tips to applicants from my perspective (in having to review nearly 700 applications for 10 spots in Boulder).  Hopefully this will make Andy Sack’s life easier!

  • Apply early!  This year, we got almost 25% of all applications in the last 6 hours.  We had mere days to review those final applications before narrowing it down to the finalists.  I spent a sum total of maybe 2 minutes per application at that point, and thus probably missed some gems.  The earlier you apply, the more time we have to review your app.  You can always edit your application once it’s submitted (plus, applying early lets you update us on your progress, showing execution and communication).
  • Team.  Execution.  Idea.  In that order (usually).  Make it ridiculously easy for us to see how killer your team is, that you’ve done cool stuff or know how to do cool stuff, and that your idea is unique.  Don’t bury it in tons of words; communicate it quickly, not in a diatribe.
  • I feel the need to repeat the above point.  Team.  Execution.  Idea.  In that order.
  • Execution is everything – once your application is submitted, don’t be afraid to send ULTRA short 1 line emails to me updating your progress.
  • Registering a URL doesn’t count as progress.  Mockups don’t count as progress.  A functioning prototype counts, as do added features.  So do page views & customers.
  • Show me, don’t tell me.  I loved 1-3 minute videos because I got to see the team and a quick demo of the product.  Anything longer than that I barely watched simply b/c I didn’t have the time (or I stopped watching at minute 3).
  • If you password protect your video, please make sure the password is included with the application.
  • If your site requires a beta invite, send me one!
  • Make sure the email address you submitted works.  Surprisingly obvious, but I’m listing it because a handful didn’t.
  • Single founders have a hard time at TechStars because of the speed at which the program moves and what is demanded of you during that time.  Work really hard at getting a co-founder if you’re by  yourself.
  • I responded to every single email I received.  But sometimes it took me a few days.  Be patient, and don’t take ultra short emails personally – it’s purely a volume challenge.
  • Have a technical founder.  We move at the speed of light here.  Outsourced firms can rarely keep up with the pace that’s demanded.
  • Small picky tip – when emailing, put your company name in the subject line.  Helped me to keep organize and remember who went with which company.

Good luck to all teams that are applying, and if you are non-selected, don’t take it personally.  Use it as a challenge to keep working hard to get to a point where it does make sense.  I felt truly honored by ALL teams with the privilege of being able to glimpse into what they were doing.

    Second best answer to yes is no

    I’ve seen this theme come up recently a lot in talks with entrepreneurs trying to raise money, or trying to sell their product. A ton of time is spent working with the investor or possible client, and the discussion ends up going nowhere. Cycles are lost, people are rejected without knowing why, and everyone gets frustrated.

    I’m a big believer in honesty about what I’m thinking and feeling, and that includes saying no. In any discussion, the second best answer to yes is NO. Silence is the worst thing you could ever do to someone. I’m not sure why people feel the need to go silent when they really want to say no. Is it that we as a culture like to avoid conflict? We don’t like to let people down or disappoint? What is it about that two letter word that is so scary?

    I say that as investors, parents, friends, colleagues, bosses, whatever your role, we all practice saying no – but give reasons why. It’s no fun to be rejected, but at least when armed with the reasons why, we can improve our pitch, product, stance, opinion, whatever the question. In this scenario we all win. The askee isn’t continually bugged with a proposition, the asker can improve the ask and simultaneously move on quickly to other prospects. It saves time, frustration, and feelings.

    Don’t be afraid of saying no. But do so with support and information, and we all win.

    How to get into TechStars…

    techstarsbadgeSo I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted the role of GM for TechStars Boulder this summer! I’ve been at it for 3 weeks now and I’m having a blast. The one question I keep getting is ‘How do we beat all the competition and get into TechStars?’. While I’m truly new to the program, I think I can share a little insight about what gets everyone excited.

    1. The Team: If there are 2-4 of you, and you’re all rockstars, we get excited. Rockstars know how to execute. They’re bright, driven, creative, and have accomplish tons in a short period of time on this and/or past projects.

    2. Hunger: Your team has to really want this – and communicate that with us. Walk the line of annoying. Just saying you want it doesn’t count, you have to show us by working your ass off to hit your milestones.

    3. Idea: You’ve come up with something innovative, new, & exciting. While a good team will always trump a good idea, the combo is thrilling.

    4. You listen: TechStars is a mentor-driven program. We try to surround you by the best and brightest to help accelerate your company. You have to know how to listen to input (sometimes negative), sort through the noise, and execute quickly on the best advice.

    5. You Execute: I’ve said this in almost all of the above points too, but thought it imperative to call it out on its own. Millions of people have hundreds of good ideas. It’s not the good idea – it’s the ability to execute on a good idea that makes all the difference. Hell you can execute on a bad idea and that’s better than not executing at all. Learn how to get stuff done quickly, cheaply, and effectively and you’ll not only go far at TechStars, but whatever you do in life.

    If you haven’t applied yet, you better hurry! Deadline is March 21st!

    You’re most important investor is your….

    …spouse.

    Investors invest cash and (hopefully) time into your company.  Their decision to invest in your venture is usually a business decision (unless you’re friends, family, and fools cash).  However, your spouse invests cash (probably your savings), your house (2nd mortgage), your children’s future education, his/her time with you, his/her sanity, and possibly the marriage…  your spouse basically puts EVERYTHING on the line, not just cash.

    Yet the tendency is to come home and unload on your spouse.  “We can’t make payroll this week”, “We lost the biggest deal, I’m not sure we’re going to make it now”, “That stupid employee….” the list goes on and on.  What that does essentially paint a very poor picture for your biggest investor, which will in turn cause significant doubt on his/her part that you can succeed, which will also create friction and resistance to your business at home, the very place you need the most support.

    The  best thing you can do for your business and your marriage is to treat your spouse like your most important investor (which they are!).  Don’t unload on him or her, but rather be optimistic on what’s going on.  “We lost our biggest customer today but I’ve got 2 other deals in the works that could make it okay…”  When you have the full support of your spouse, you’ll find they come in to the office to help with grunt work, they’ll edit/read documents for you, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure your success.  It can save your business and ultimately your marriage.

    But now you still need someone on which to unload.  Here’s where your advisory board (different than your board of directors) comes in handy.  You should have established this on day one.  Create yourself a personal advisory board that will help you think through founder problems.  Most people are very willing to help be a sounding board, and if you select carefully, your business will be stronger with it.