Every VC talks about ‘value add’. The unique ways in which they believe they can help you build your business, be a great partner, and increase the chance of your start-up being a success. These include their network, recruitment, strategic advice, operational experience etc.
I have observed that a great angel/VC partner/firm can add enormous value. As a simple example of something concrete that changed Songkick’s trajectory, Saul Klein our board member from Index knew we were urgently looking for a world class designer, and introduced us to Gideon Bullock who he knew from his days at Skype. Gideon became our Creative Director and is a core member of Songkick’s management team. That’s just one example and I have hundreds more examples of things that our investors including Greg McAdoo from Sequoia, Peter Read, Paul Graham and many others have helped us with in building Songkick/Detour.
But there are other investors that I have encountered or learned of who do not add meaningful value beyond their capital, and in some cases, actively destroy value by distracting, confusing and generally offering poor advice to start-ups. I’ve lost track of the number of off the record conversations I’ve had with founders where they tell me about a VC pushing them to do something they know to be fundamentally wrong for their business, and the distraction it is causing.
Clearly there are qualitative signals of who adds value - you could look for example at which VC firms great angel investors steer their companies towards. You can look at how effectively VCs win deals etc. Just as there are qualitative signals around product market fit, the most important concept for start-ups. With product market fit, the most valuable contribution I believe anyone has made to the discussion is Sean Ellis’ concept of ’% very disappointed’ as a way of quantifying how close you are to to achieving PM fit and moving it away from a purely qualitative discussion.
I’d like to suggest a comparable metric for VCs to track, as they question how much value they add beyond their $$. They should ask their portfolio companies “If I had provided zero capital, how much equity would you give me in your business for the advice and support I provide”. Let’s say the founder came back with an answer of 5%, but you own 20% of the company, you know that 15% of your value is in the capital you provide and 5% in your 'value add’. YC have taken this to the extreme by offering so little capital that the 6% average equity stake they take is close to entirely value add.
This statistic will be somewhat inflated as founder worry about wounding their investor’s egos, but it should nevertheless provide a good sense of how your value add compares to your equity stake. More interesting, an independent 3rd party with the trust of enough founders, could establish a clearer index of investor value add across a wide set of start-ups, and help to rank value add across the investment community.
Over the long term as an increasing set of funding mechanisms emerge (Kickstarter, Angellist, Upstart etc), this may be an increasingly important question to ask as VC itself is disrupted and partially/completely decoupled from the capital it provides.
For such a vital and rapidly shifting art form, hip hop has been unusually self-aware of its past . With founding production rooted in samples of funk and soul, the culture respects looking backwards to take things forward. Many of the MCs I grew up listening to had a rich and hyper-aware sense of the giants whose work had influenced them. Quoting verses from years gone by in a new rhyme acknowledged your influences and demonstrated how deep your love of hip hop culture went. Premo combined both, sampling past tracks to create new beats and past verses to create his legendary scratch choruses.
As a fan I remember the strange sense of nerdy achievement that came from understanding that an amazing line you had naively attributed to one artist was actually a hat tip to the inspiration a generation took from another. Cuts were like the wordsmiths version of samples. Breadcrumbs to relate the past to the present. If you don’t know, now you know. From Biggie back to Heavy D and Marley Marl in the same verse. That sense of joyful recognition those references trigger in you as a fan was captured perfectly in 8 Mile when ‘P Rabbit’ slipped in a line from the Shook Ones chorus in his closing freestyle over that classic Mobb Deep beat. Like they say – the crowd went wild.
It’s that self-awareness of its own history, along with that of broader culture, that leads people to describe hip hop as the most postmodern music form.
Take ‘Black on Both Sides’ by Mos Def, one of my favourite records of the ‘90s. If in The Wasteland T.S. Elliot packed in an impressive volume of historical shout outs, everyone from Baudelaire to Chaucer to Yeats, that’s nothing compared with the Mighty Mos. Across a lazy late night re-listen to the first few tracks of that record I counted references to over 10 ghosts from hip hop’s past from Rakim, Rap Attack, Tribe etc.
Well I’m not seeing that anymore. Yes there are pockets of Retromania that Noz chronicles hyper-eloquently in this Pitchfork piece, but to my ears they’re not the most exciting areas of rap right now. Everything I’m listening to sounds divorced from the ghosts of hip hop past. Take a listen to recent Future, Waka, Juicy J, Chief Keef, Earl Sweatshirt, Angel Haze etc. You’ll rarely hear a direct reference to a past MC. I’m more excited about where Chief Keef will go next, than being taken back to 1999 by Joey Bada$$.
I’m seeing the same thing from the still vital elder-statesmen of the game. Kanye and his clique are relentlessly looking inward. Have a listen to Mercy, Cold, or Ni**as in Paris. The sound is solipsistic, paranoid, icy, and fixed in the present. You’re more likely to get a reference to Prince William than Biggie. When there is a reference to past ages “I was born on the day that Fred Hampton died” it feels sharply disconnected from the present sentiment. Even those who were there in bygone eras avoid the past more than in their earlier records.
Assuming this is true, I’ve been wondering why that might be. My take on it is that it comes down to two things: 1. mainstream rap was fucking boring for much of the past decade presenting fewer canonical reference points, and 2. the internet has lead to a broadening of rap’s musical influences.
On the first point, to my ears there was an unbelievable drought from 2003 to 2008 relieved by occasional flashes of genius (Hell Hath No Fury, Boy in Da Corner, The Black Album, The Cool). Rap, to my ears, sounded staid, chasing it’s own tail and increasingly trapped by past sounds and themes. Maybe hip hop’s canon is less visible now partly because of this creative discontinuity. It feels like rap got restarted recently and most of pre 2000 rap is as disconnected from a track like ‘Don’t Like’ as early rap would have felt from disco. The contemporary equivalent of a scratch chorus is your own voice chopped Houston style into a ghostly sparring partner.
Historical references if they exist look backwards across a broader expanse of musical culture. I think this is the flipside of Simon Reynold’s brilliant thesis on Retromania. With everything available on YouTube, past and present separated by one click, rap’s base of influences has broadened. A Lil B verse on top of an Imogen Heap sample. The moment that hit me was listening to Blame Game by Kanye – a Chris Rock skit, an Aphex Twin sample, a John Legend chorus. And it felt of it’s era.
Overall I think the loss of self-awareness of hip hop’s pas is a positive shift - if only because it has accompanied the most fertile explosion of new voices in a while. I increasingly feel in the right place when a new track reminds me of precisely nothing.
 So I’ve written this piece with an expectation that you’ll take my opinions as that of a total amateur rap critic. I’m painfully aware of the bounds on my knowledge of rap, and the irony of trying to make any kind of commentary on whether hip hop is or isn’t getting less postmodern, without a Noz Scaggs level of scholarship. Unknown unknowns and all that. Anyway rather than continually caveat this post with self-evident disclaimers like 'to the best of my knowledge’ I’m stating what I observe to be true. If I’m straight up wrong about something - please let me know in the comments.
Dan and I had some fun cooking a pig’s head torchon. We were going to do the Dave Chang version, boiling it first then making the torchon. Dan sensibly argued that the Thomas Keller version ‘had more butchery’, so that’s what we made.
Step 1: buy a pigs head. give it a good shave. This was £10! Bargain.
Step 2: use amateur butchery skills & a good knife to remove all the meat from the cheeks (you can see the teeth from the inside in this one.) Try to keep in 2 big pieces. Remove the ears and slice into strips.
Step 3: Carefully remove the skin from the cheeks (we made crackling with it). Assemble the torchon on cling-film. Layer 1 is big cheek pieces, layer 2 is ear, layer 3 is darker meat from inside face. Salt and Pepper. Roll the torchon.
Step 4: Chill, transfer to cheesecloth & tie up with string. Some fresh veg for the braise. Deploy nose for comic effect.
Step 5: braise for a few hours. Chill again. Remove cheesecloth and behold. Slice ready for breading & frying.
Step 6: bread with panko, fry. Serve with sauce Gribiche. OH MAN IT WAS GOOD.
I did kind of a long talk tonight at the London Hacker News Meetup. People seemed to find it helpful so I thought I’d put it up online as well. If you weren’t there you can just skip the italicised bits if you like. I’m not embedding the slides because it stands alone more easily as an essay.
I’m really honoured to be here today to speak to you guys. It’s actually kind of a special moment for me because 5 years ago there was a suggestion on News.YC from tpatke asking “if anyone has the leadership ability to organise a meetup - I would be very interested”. My co-founders and I got pretty excited about the idea of meeting other start-up minded people in London and made an event happen. We did a few more, enough to really seed the idea. But didn’t have the time to see it fulfil its potential so I’m so happy to see what Dmitri and many others have transformed a gathering of 50 people in our first office into! I heard that this event has had almost 1000 people show up in the past, that’s a long way from the 30 or so folks who came to the first one. It’s so cool to see how far London’s start-up scene has come since then.
So I was trying to figure out a good thing to talk about to you all today. Thinking back to everyone who stood in that room back in 2007 and wondering how much the audience has changed. My guess is that most people here are a bit like we were back then. Anxious to do something great and looking to learn how to do that from likeminded people. I thought back to some stuff I wish I knew back then and thought I’d talk about the non-technical side of start-up building, aka selling, aka talking to people you don’t know.
First just as a bit of background I guess I should tell a bit about myself. I grew up in South London and have always been happiest when I’ve been making things. I’ve done that in various guises - I made fighting robots in Japan once, studied Machine Learning at university and worked on a computer vision system to classify breast cancer biopsy scans and various other projects. For the past 5 years I’ve been building Songkick with my co-founders Pete and Michelle, and an amazing group of people, based in East London. We were part of the summer ‘07 YC batch along with Disqus and Dropbox, and the second team from the UK to do YC.
Our dream at Songkick is to make the world of live music as great as it can be. We believe that an amazing concert can change your life. That it’s the most intimate connection between and artist and a fan. We believe that live music should be for everyone. But the industry surrounding live music, whether ticketing or other has drifted to a place where it is failing fans and artists. And as a result the experience of seeing music live has drifted to a place where it is niche. We believe we can fix that by using technology to rebuild the connection between artists and fans.
We’re now the second largest concert service in the world, after Ticketmaster, with over 7 million people using Songkick on the web, iOS and Android every month. We’re partnered globally with brands like Foursquare, YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud and many more. We’ve been fortunate to partner with some great company builders in YC, Index and most recently, Sequoia.
Many of you will hopefully be users of Songkick, but you may not be aware of a new product we’ve been working on called Detour. It’s kind of the natural extension of Songkick, and I’m incredibly excited about it, because it has the potential to dramatically improve the live music experience for artists and fans. Essentially it’s predicated on the belief that when a true fan really wants to see a band live, they’ll do more than just leave a comment on that artists facebook page. They’ll step up and pledge to buy a ticket. And if enough fans self-organise to pledge to bring a band to say London, that de-risks the system for everyone involved and makes more and better concerts happen. We’ve done Detours now, on top of Songkick for artists like Hot Chip, Andrew Bird and Tycho, and it feels like we could be onto something really special. Most importantly the Detour experience it feels authentic to the experience of seeing your favourite artist live.
So over the time we’ve been building Songkick, as co-founders do, I’ve played a variety of roles. I wrote part of the first version of Songkick, and as soon as we found people who were far better at creating web apps, I stepped back from that and put my copy of Agile Web Development with Rails back on the shelf and tried to figure the next most valuable thing I could do. I ended up spending some time on product, then we realised that my co-founder Michelle was vastly better at that than me, so I looked around for the next place to help out. I ended up spending a lot of energy on the hacker side of marketing, which as I’m sure everyone in this room knows has been rebranded as ‘growth hacking’ in the last few years, but for a while I was all up in them traffic acquisition forums figuring out how to get fans to discover Songkick with our zero dollars marketing budget. We found an amazing guy, much more talented that me to take that on after a while and I then spent a while working on distribution partnerships and business development. And at various points in our life I’ve spent a ton of time on hiring, and some on investors and press. I didn’t really know how any of that stuff worked when we started out, and today I want to try to share some of the key things I’ve learned so that if any of you end up stepping into those roles, you have a few helpful abstractions to keep you on course.
Firstly I want to start with something that another YC founder said in a recent article that just felt so succinct:
“If you don’t like shoveling, then don’t work at a startup.
If you like “managing stuff,” then don’t work at a startup.
You build or you sell. There’s nothing else to do.” - Christopher Steiner
I think that’s such a great distillation of start-up roles. You build or you sell. I’d modify that to allow that selling is a form of building. Hiring is all about selling, getting people engaged and excited enough to see how your little start-up could make something they love, genuinely better. So selling is the route to building your team. So is it selling, or is it building? Bus Dev for consumer start-ups is about doing partnerships that define a distributed version of your service. So it’s that building, or is it selling? You go out there and you persuade a great VC to fund you and join your board. If that person becomes a core part of your team, someone who you call up when things get hard, who helps you navigate the real challenges of building a company is that building or selling. And to invert things one more time, when an engineer gets excited about a new product idea and they excitedly run around telling everyone in the company about that idea, is that building or selling.
I think my conclusion has been is that building a company is about making and selling. And you will not succeed by neglecting either. Today I want to talk about a specific version of selling:
Talking to people you don’t know.
Before we go much further I want to just be clear about what I mean by selling. I don’t mean that glengarry glenn ross dude with the leads, or that pushy guy trying to force you to buy something. Fuck that shit. I think that selling is about authentically sharing with someone what you believe in, carefully listening to to what they believe in, and finding the places where those are in alignment.
So selling can take on various guises, from sitting down with a key reporter who covers your industry and explaining why your company is relevant to their column. It can be persuading someone you’ll get 15 minutes with why they should invest in your company. Here are some of the areas it touches:
And I think those are roughly in priority order. Let’s take an example of a couple of well known YC start-ups. I think if you talk to the founders of Dropbox or Airbnb, they’d probably agree that the most important ‘sales’ they have done have been to convince people who became incredible core team members to join the company. People like Joe Zadeh who joined Airbnb really early on and manages big parts of their product. Who architected one of the cleverest and most scalable schemes for recruiting hosts you could ever imagine (look up his sxsw talk on their system for managing professional photographers. It’ll blow your mind). In the case of Dropbox they focused on consumers for the early years, so there has been relatively little BD/Sales, but for Airbnb, the time they spent in person with home-owners, understanding the value they provided them was probably the next most valuable use of founder time out of the building talking to people they didn’t know. Then based on our experience working with Sequoia with whom we share investors, I’m sure that they have come to see their respective partners there as an extension of their core team, and value that ‘sale’ as one of the best things they did. Finally press is a funny one because of its multifarious impact on a start-up’s prospects. It kind of greases all the wheels, it’ll help with hiring, with partnerships, with fundraising and for some companies it can be a scalable means of customer acquisition.
So with that hierarchy laid out I thought I’d dive in and try and share some really specific advice on the top 2 variations of selling to people you don’t know: hiring and BD/sales. In general, this stuff about selling is kind of generalisable. Once you learn how to do it well and scalably in one area, you can transfer a lot of that over to the rest.
There are kind of 2 stages to hiring in my mind.
1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity
2. Persuading them to join you
The second bullet is kind of the beating heart of all the sales you’ll do as a founder or start-up team member. Explaining why what you are doing really matters and why they would have the time of their life doing it with you. You can’t fake that bit, it’s basically about uncovering the most open hearted and authentic motivations that drive you to do what you’re doing, and finding words to quickly and easily explain that to people who haven’t yet realised how important the work you’re doing is. For people who aren’t natural verbal communicators a good hack is to do a 5 why’s analysis of why you’re spending your time on this company. That’ll force you to try to articulate your intrinsic motivations. And hopefully those motivations are large hearted enough to get others inspired to join you.
1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity
The first part is really interesting and by far and away the hardest part of hiring. It’s what everyone underestimates and it’s a big part of the reason the recruitment industry is so utterly broken. Figuring out how to crack it is probably the most important thing you can do if you’re a seller at your start-up.
Now this is all with the caveat that you’re an exceptional team looking to hire exceptional people. Many start-ups don’t set the bar that high, and in which case hiring is pretty easy. You just hire the best person the recruiter sends you. We have an extremely high bar at Songkick. I think from what I’ve heard from our investors one of the highest in the European start-up scene. And for most of the start-ups I truly admire, companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Stripe and others, having a high bar is a defining characteristic. I would argue that with the pace of change in technology it’s the only way to build an enduring company in our industry.
Having a high bar should be an incredible asset as a founding team/start-up, but only if you can reach enough people with your message to keep pace with your growth. If you don’t reach enough people it can flip to being a potential cause of failure. I remember having board meetings in the early days of Songkick where we would have arguments about how quickly we were hiring. Looking back we were both right - we were right to set our bar where we do, and they were right to say we should have been hiring faster. The missing piece what that first and hardest step - making more people aware of your opportunity.
So how many more people? I think a good way to force the average start-up founder to think about this right is to say that for every exceptional person you hire, you will need to make 1000 people aware of the opportunity.
WHUUUUUUT. I imagine people are saying. So if I want to hire 10 people I have to reach 10,000? That’s crazy, I don’t have time to do that, and it sounds crazily inefficient.
I think that’s the reality. You want someone truly world class, who is a great culture fit with your team and who will get obsessed with the problem you’re solving? Then 1000 people is a good proxy for the job you have ahead of you. And if you’re listening to this being like “yo, but the first person that recruiter sent me was perfect, who is this crackpot”, you’re probably not setting the bar high enough or you got very lucky.
So how do you make 1000 people aware of your role? There are 4 main things that I’ve discovered that make a real difference:
1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have
2. hire your users
3. produce unique content that people you want to hire want
4. get out there
1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have
So for the first one, this is kind of simple. If you can spot an opportunity invest your time in helping people who share your interest connect with each other. That typically results in an opportunity to reach a large number of people you’d possibly hire at scale. Some examples:
- when we started the Hacker News meetup, we figured that it would help people interested in start-ups and technology in London meet each other. We thought that beyond our interest in sharing ideas and support with other start-ups it might lead to a hire or two for us and others. It did and one of our longest standing team members, Dan Lucraft who is a truly exceptional guy joined us via those meetups. He’s the guy with his hand up in this photo at our annual festival trip. Some other examples:
- the news.yc job board is a great example. News.yc is an authentic community but has also been an inspired way to make the worlds best hackers aware of YC and apply, and from there help those start-ups to hire
- Stack Overflow’s entire business is predicated on this insight
- We recognised that the London technology start-up community was being dramatically outspent and out marketed by the big banks and companies like Google in reaching new computer science graduates so we created Silicon Milkroundabout as a community jobs event. That has lead to close to 1000 hires for the London start-up community as a whole and some key people joining our team in the process
So if it’s such a great way to hire, why don’t more start-ups do stuff like this? Bottom line - organising a meetup for 1000 people takes up a fucking lot of time! And it involves talking to a lot of people you don’t know, which many people who just want to get on with building a great product don’t enjoy. It seems excessive as an approach to hiring 10 people. But I’d argue that it could be one of the best things you spend your time on as a founder.
On the off-chance that you actually love the idea of doing that sort of thing, we’ve decided to spin out Silicon Milkroundabout as its own start-up, from Songkick and are looking for co-founders to build that company going forward. So if you’ve spent time thinking about how to fix recruitment let us know.
2. hire your users
This is one of the most epicly scalable ways to reach 1000 people who might be a great hire for your team. If you’re a growing early stage service you might be reaching tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who care about your market every day. Some of whom are developers, some of whom are designers, some of whom would love to work on partnerships for you. Put the time in to engage them in your jobs. From a jobs page that really articulates your company culture and gets people excited about open roles and a career with you, to creative ways to engage the people who engage with you.
I love this Easter Egg in SoundCloud’s source code “You like to look under the hood? Why not help us build the engine? http://soundcloud.com/jobs”
3. produce great content that people you want to hire want
This a really great technique for reaching people at scale. One of the hires I’ve struggled with the most at Songkick is a truly exceptional sales person. Someone I can entrust the biggest and most evangelical sales meetings too. Just like every other role I’ve hired myself out of, someone better than me at getting people excited about working with us.
I’m looking for someone who is kind of a needle in a haystack. Someone early in their career, who will be charmingly determined in service of Songkick’s goals who is personable, creative and brings a hacker spirit to sales, who is on course to start their own company at some point. So I started thinking back to what that person would be looking for as they planned their career. I figured they’d be reading a lot about start-ups and trying to figure out where they fitted in. I wrote a couple of pieces for my blog about what the hustle looks like at a start-up which got over 10,000 visitors between them. I’ve gotten hundreds of applications for that role from that and some of the best people I’m interviewing have come from that.
4. get out there
You can do all the super scalable stuff in the world, but for senior hires, often the only way you’ll know someone might be bored in a role, or a potential fit is if through your network. Unfortunately I don’t really know any scalable hacks there. You just have to put in the time. Help people out in London’s start-up community. Help other start-ups hire. Make intros. Stop to give the advice you’re asked for. Show your true colours as a founder or team member. And eventually people start helping you with some of the hardest hires you’ll make.
Whew. So that’s some of the stuff I wish I’d known about sales as it applies to hiring. Let’s move on to the equivalent for BD/selling to customers.
So if sales in general is about talking to people you don’t know. BD is basically about persuading people you don’t know to do things with you no-ones ever done before.
If that sounds like a challenge then it is. Hopefully once you’ve successfully done that a few times though, you move into what I think most people call ‘Sales’:
persuading people you don’t know to do things with you that someone else has done before.
I’m going to focus on BD, because I think it’s probably more helpful to discuss the bit you’ll do first, where the sale is harder. In some ways you could think of it like this:
BD: Product Discovery :: Sales:Product Execution
So BD is closer in spirit to the early stages of customer development and prototyping that many product designers will be familiar with. The difference is that rather than building something for an end user, you’re building something with another company for both of your end users.
So 8 lessons I’ve formulated about how to do distribution centric BD well. The rest is a reformulation of what I wrote here. So go there for the BD theorizin’
So hopefully all this has been a helpful guide through what I’ve learned about selling at a start-up, and the role that plays in building a company. I hope it’ll help you avoid some of my mistakes or at least know when you’re making that mistake earlier! I hope it’ll help you all hire better, and partner better and I hope this make a tiny difference to London fulfilling its potential as an amazing place to build technology companies.
I’m not normally one for end of year lists but have been inspired to make one after discovering loads of good stuff through them over the xmas break.
Books (most published before 2012):
- Infinite Jest
- The Pale King
- Sound and The Fury
- To The Lighthouse
- Gravity’s Rainbow
- White Noise
- Jay-Z: Decoded
- Hit Boy (producer)
- Chief Keef
- Angel Haze
- A$AP Rocky
- Balam Acab
- Killer Mike
- Pusha T
- Mac Demarco
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Jiro Dreams of Sushi
- Nostalgia for the Light
- Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry
- The Master
- Silver Linings Playbook
- Beasts of the Southern Wild
- End of Watch
Caveat: haven’t seen Amour, Zero Dark Thirty or This is 40 yet.
I also wanted to ask you about the tour in Latin America in February—the crowd-sourced tour you guys set up. I was wondering how that idea came to be.
I think they approached us. They were looking to have their inaugural launch of that idea. It’s a cool idea. It’s untested yet, so I don’t know what the cons are yet, but so far it’s all good. What it feels like—I haven’t don’t it yet of course—is almost like there’s a commitment between me and the audience, before the show. There’s a sense of responsibility, shared responsibility, that I think is kind of cool.
Like they brought you there on purpose. They didn’t just hear you were coming.
Right, and everyone’s more invested. You know, a lot of times, talking about disconnect or connectedness, you have that show with the audience but then you’ve got all the promoters and the stage, the industry people can kind of ruin it for you sometimes. You know? Like I love playing in France, but the way they do business there has kind of soured the whole experience, even though the audience is amazing and super enthusiastic. This seems like a way to establish direct connection with the audience.“
I wrote a post a few weeks back about the concept of a 10X Hustler which unexpectedly got over 10k page views. Since then I’ve seen a few other pieces about the nature of BD - I loved this one in particular by another YC alum, Chris Steiner about how Biz Dev is a clever name for dirty work. That makes me think that there’s increasing curiousity about how BD can help early stage start-ups.
A few months back, someone on the YC email list asked the question “What tips do you have for becoming better at BD”. I tried to summarise some of the things that I’ve learned doing much of Songkick’s BD over the years, and thought I’d publish them here too.
When we started Songkick I’d never done any BD before and had an engineering background. Since then we’ve had some successes with medium to big deals (Foursquare, Spotify, Yahoo!, YouTube etc) as well as building a self-serve API that services hundreds of other partners. Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned. This mainly focuses on BD as distribution for consumer products.
1. If BD is to be meaningful it needs as clear a vision statement as your core product.
For us it’s becoming the circulatory system for concert data online. We want to power concerts wherever they exist - an artist’s website, a venue’s, Facebook, Google, any music service etc. This is very aligned with our core goal to get fans to more shows & become the home for concerts online.
2. Deals with companies bigger than you are driven by their strategic goals.
Whether a deal closes & gets focus hinges on whether it aligns with their strategic goals. E.g. right now any partnership that will help Yahoo! re-establish themselves as an innovative tech company will be taken more seriously than it would have been a year ago. Figuring out those strategic goals should be your first priority. If you can’t find a way to get something done that serves one of their high level strategic goals, it will go nowhere.
3. BD is about helping partners discover significant orthogonal value to their core.
You don’t want to fill holes that they’re going to fill anyway in their core (unless your goal is an early exit). Focus on orthogonalities e.g. the partnerships between Foursquare/AMEX, Firefox/Google, Apple/Twitter that create real long term value for both parties.
4. BD is about cannibalising BD.
Hand-holding deal after deal does not scale. You want to focus your efforts on 2 things:
- landing massive deals that define the distributed version of your service. PR the hell out of them to set visible examples of this use case, and establish yourself as the go-to partner in your space
- creating an awesome self-service version for that use-case that developers and product people will love to use. Awesome API docs etc. Then the big deals drive new inbound that services itself
We now have hundreds of partners using our API, but I’ve spent most of my energy on a handful of partnerships.
Good blog post from Hunch’s former head of BD on this: http://shaivalshah.com/cannabilize-business-development-by-populariz
5. For those big deals, there is no substitute for in person.
I’m amazed at how often people underestimate how much this can change the balance & lead to a better integration. By showing up in person you can do real time rebuttal on any competitor’s pitch, figure out the most creative & aligned integration and demonstrate that you’re going to be a committed, engaged partner.
6. Make sure you’re talking to the ultimate decision maker. It’s often not the person you’ll be directed to. It’s frequently the PM.
I lost an early deal for Songkick. I screwed up by only talking to their BD lead, not the product owner. I haven’t made that mistake again and it sucked. I beat myself up for a long time about that. In general the best companies deal making is heavily influenced by tech and product and mediated by BD. Focus on the product and user experience ahead of the commercial terms if possible. This means that the best BD people have great product instincts. It also means that you should push to meet the product owner as well as the BD person early in the process.
7. Work as hard after the deal as before.
Account management can be a great differentiator for your platform. Once you’ve done all the hard work to close the deal, account management maximises the value you create for your partner and yourself. This also drives future investment in the same direction, and with larger organisations a small step can grow into something much bigger over time.
8. BD & Corp dev often go hand in hand
One interesting thing about BD is that it’s a way to build a strong working relationships with key people at much bigger companies. A lot of corp dev relationships start that way. This is a good reason to be involved in major deals as a founder/CEO. Many of the offers to acquire Songkick have come from relationships that started in BD.
9. Know enough to help your BD lead, but get out of the day to day as soon as it takes off.
I could have done a better job at this. I did all our BD for the first year or two and figured out how to do it. At the time I didn’t realise that this creates a challenge when you come to hire someone to own it - it’s hard to transition and scale.
I think the best thing is to hire someone to own BD right away (maybe part-time or on trial as you test BD’s relevancy to your business) but work alongside them through all the major first deals you go after. You’ll develop a good deal-making skillset which will help with other things e.g. raising money & gather a lot of good insight into what the distributed version of your product should look like.
10. The ideal BD hire is entrepreneurial and on track to found their own company a few years from now.
I wrote a better summary of this here.
Hope this is useful.
Thanks to Tristan Walker for reading an early draft of this.
If you’re reading this, and it resonates with some of your own ambitions, then we’re hiring for someone to work on Songkick’s partnerships. We have partnerships all over the world with companies like Foursquare, MTV, SoundCloud, Spotify and YouTube, and an awesome ecosystem of artists and individual developers building on top of our API. We’re just getting started, and looking for someone to take things to the next level.
Sarah Lacy on Color:
I remember when Max Levchin was launching Slide. At PayPal they’d concocted a clever method of paying users $20 to refer a friend, and the product spread rapidly — and it was cheaper than how other companies were grabbing users back then. With Slide, he was struck by how his pedigree, his experience, his team, his cash — none of this could force adoption. There was no trick the way there was in the late 1990s. “You just can’t force users to get up off their asses and use your product,” he told me in exasperation at the time.
We are living in more exciting times.
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
The connection between pirating of music and live music revenues for an artist was the subject of an interesting academic paper a couple years back.
Interesting to see a major artist (Ed Sheeran) now presenting the conclusions of this thesis as a viable business model. From what I understand Sheeran is on Atlantic & therefore very likely to have a 360 deal (label takes a share of all revenues, including ticket sales), where all stakeholders are aligned around this approach (manager, agent, label).
Ed Sheeran, the UK artist who currently holds the distinction of having the most BitTorrented song in that country, is sanguine about pirated songs.
“I sell a lot of tickets. I’ve sold 1.2 million albums and there’s eight million downloads as well, illegally," Sheeran told BBC’s Newsbeat earlier this week. "So nine million people have my record in England, which is quite a nice feeling. You get people who actually want to listen to your songs and come to an event like this in London, who wouldn’t necessarily buy the album.
"You can live off your sales and you can allow people to illegally download it and come to your gigs. My gig tickets are £18 and my album is £8, so it’s all relative,” Sheeran added.
I finally finished Gravity’s Rainbow. Has to be one of the longest, hardest books I’ve read. If you’re looking for a 1000 page meditation on paranoia, death and conspiracy, this is your number (00000)! For anyone who embarks on it, the final part after Slothrop’s mind starts to fragment is particularly hard work, but rewarding in the end. Thanks again to Dan for the recommendation back in the day.
“Personal density,” Kurt Mondaugen in his Peenemünde office not too many steps away from here, enunciating the Law which will one day bear his name, “is directly proportional to temporal bandwidth.”
“Temporal bandwidth,” is the width of your present, your now. It is the familiar “[delta-] t” considered as a dependent variable. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.
When Schonfeld asked him about the Twitter ecosystem, and the company’s recent moves to discourage app developers from building Twitter clients, he replied with this one liner, “Don’t be a Google Bitch, don’t be a Facebook Bitch, and Don’t be a Twitter Bitch. Be your own Bitch.”
For me going white label is the extreme example of this: being anyone’s bitch.
I first heard about Paul Graham through his essays. Prior to YC’s brand becoming the international juggernaut it is today, the essays were what lead Michelle, Pete and me to apply to YC. One of Paul’s essays that really stood out for me was How to Make Wealth, and in particular the concept that if you were a great hacker, you could be 10-100X more productive than the average developer at a large corporation. I think for many start-up folks that concept hits pretty hard.
In general though I believe that the idea of a 10X person is applicable to almost every start-up role. The key is to understand the characteristics that can in combination create enormous leverage for a particular role. We are starting to see this be acknowledged in marketing with the rise of the Growth Hacker term.
I think one variation of this that has not yet been fully acknowledged is the ‘10X Hustler’. I’d define this as someone who can grow a start-up through partnerships & 3rd party integrations 10X faster than the average corporate Business Development person.
Some examples of 10X hustlers I’ve been lucky enough to get to know:
- Tristan Walker (formerly BD @ Foursquare). Prior to Foursquare, Tristan’s only proven business development experience was an internship at Twitter. He came from a banking background and wanted to break into tech. He hustled his way into Foursquare, and within a couple of years had put together partnerships with AMEX, The New York Times, CNN, MTV, and Starbucks that I believe were a key part of the story that lead to Foursquare becoming the brand it is today.
- Dave Haynes (BD @ Soundcloud). Dave was a label guy who again wanted to break into tech. He started organising events in London to pull together the digital music community in London, which lead to a job at SoundCloud. He then set up the Music Hack Days which have become a formidable global movement in their own right. Those hack days massively accelerated adoption of SoundCloud’s API, and over the past few years Dave has done an incredible job of growing SoundCloud’s community of partners and developers.
- Shakil Khan (formerly special projects @ Spotify). Shak’s impact on Spotify’s is legendary. He started at Spotify with a background that didn’t include having Bieber & Snoop Dogg on speed dial but Spotify wanted their support for the big US launch, so Shak made it happen. The machine Shak has built around himself for making the impossible happen should be the subject of a hollywood movie.
- Paddy Cosgrave (founder of F.ounders). Paddy wanted to set up a conference that pulled the most innovative founders around the world together. He didn’t know many of them so he started cold emailing people to suggest a quick Skype call. He pitched them on the idea of an intimate conference in Dublin. People warmed to him on those short calls, said yes, and made introductions for him. More people said yes. Paddy took all those yeses and went bigger still, getting people like Jack Dorsey, and Chad Hurley to show up. At this point F.ounders is probably the best start-up conference in Europe. He did 90% of this OVER SKYPE in evenings and weekends. Next level hustle.
- Steve Jang (founder of Imeem). Steve pulled off an extremely broad array of partnerships while at Imeem and is one of those rare people who can be a start-ups ambassador to many different constituencies. From hanging out in the LA DJ scene to hacking on projects at hack days, to hard nosed BD negotiators in the corporate world, Steve wins over everyone he meets in a sincere and genuine manner.
These people are very rare, but the impact they have is enormous. Typically the common traits are:
- immediately personally impressive. People have a sense they’re meeting someone special and go out of their way to help them, independent of context. The 10X hustler knows that often they only get 5 minutes and they make it count.
- a hacker mentality. always looking for a more scalable shortcut. Shaival Shah, another distribution maestro put this better than I can here in his post on how a great BD person canibalises their own function
- great at creating ecosystems around the things that excite them. Dave & Music Hack Days are a good example
- able to thrive in a wide variety of contexts and get on with exceptional people from all walks of life. No one would ever describe a 10X hustler as a 'suit’, or a business guy. And probably not a hustler. They’d most likely describe them as awesome.
- on a path to running their own business. They’re fascinated by product, technology, growth hacking, fund-raising and any and all aspects of building an enduring company. If they’re not a co-founder then often a BD role at a start-up is a stepping stone to running their own company.
If you can find someone like this, their impact can be as significant as that of a 10X Engineer, world class growth hacker or next level designer.
If you’re reading this, and it resonates with some of your own ambitions, then we’re hiring for someone just like this to work with me on Songkick’s partnerships. We have partnerships all over the world with companies like Foursquare, MTV, SoundCloud, Spotify and YouTube, and an awesome ecosystem of artists and individual developers building on top of our API. We’re just getting started, and looking for someone to take things to the next level.