Finding a tech co-founder is like trying to get married

26 Sep

Keep CalmBeing the “business guy” trying to find a tech co-founder is tough, that’s well known. However, I think I underestimated just how tough it really is in practice until I began to try and find someone myself.

Ever since I was a Seedcamp finalist, the main feedback I’ve had for my startup, Satago, when I’ve been talking to investors, has been “it looks very interesting, but we wouldn’t invest unless you have a technical co-founder”.

I don’t blame them. The argument of course is that you would be wary to invest in a technology-based company where nobody in the company knows the code. You need to have someone in the team that can fix a crashed server at 3am, or burn the midnight oil to hit a new feature deadline.

To date I have been using a contractor to build Satago, and whilst he is very good (one of the best developers I’ve worked with to be honest, but sadly based very far away from me in Russia) the fear is that without the large chunk of equity that a co-founder would be working towards, he could just down tools, and then Satago would grind to a halt.

To everyone that asks me how the cofounder search is going, I tell them it is like deciding you need to get married in the next few months, but you’re still single. One probably could find a mail-order bride quite quickly, but it would most likely be an unhappy marriage and end badly. Instead I need to try and do some high-throughput dating (slutty much?), and find someone that I can have a lasting relationship with (well, at least for the next 3-5 years).

So far I have been jilted at the altar a few times. I have very high standards, and so the potential co-founders that I am attracted to, and want to get on-board, are of course very high-calibre. When you’re a talented tech guy, you’re never short on offers and so far my almost-co-founders have decided each time the other iron in their fire is hotter for them. It’s starting to hurt my feelings.

I'm a guy, but you get my point...

I’m a guy, but you get my point…

Asides from reaching out to my own network, which includes some very talented technical guys, and networking my ass off, I have also listed my “co-founder wanted” plea on a couple of UK/European websites, including WorkinStartups. What’s been encouraging, is that the people that have got back to me have have usually said that I am about the most credible startup that they have seen on there.

So what are my and Satago’s credentials?

Raised £30k on Seedrs (60 investors!) to build my MVP.

Have a working MVP with beta-testers using it, and very good feedback from them.

Finalist at Seedcamp in Berlin (this has been the main filter for people that have contacted me – if it’s good enough for Seedcamp to look at it’s good enough for them to look at too).

Interest in Satago at Government-level (two meetings at Downing Street to-date).

Downing Street

Me at Downing Street to discuss Satago and late-payment to small businesses.

I just got very close to a term-sheet from a Tier 1 VC fund for a seed-investment, but after many meetings with them they decided I was too high-risk as a solo non-tech guy. That I got so far with these guys was great validation in my mind.

Lastly, some really cool top-secret things coming next month!

I worked for Rocket Internet for 2 years (that’s either, “nice, he’ll be good at business execution” or “herp, derp, evil German cloners! Fetch the pitchforks!”) and an MBA from Oxford University (that’s either “cool, useful degree from a good university”, or “begone foul-MBA, for ye are pure evil and do not know what a startup is”). I also have a PhD in Genetics, and while not especially useful for a internet startup, it does mean I too can hack code, just not computer code (ok, really I’m hoping it appeals at an intellectual nerd-to-nerd level). Also, I’m fairly certain I’m not an obnoxious guy, so hopefully it’s not my personality putting people off!

I’ve looked at a couple of these founder-matching websites, but they seem to be a bit US-focussed, and of course I seem not to have made the grade for the..uhhh…. “illustrious” FounderDating.com.

I do have a few good networking opportunities in the next couple of months so maybe something will come from that. I’m also thinking about organising a couple of founder speed-dating events in London and Berlin next month. I’d select 10 high-quality, credible “non-tech founders” with more than just an idea in their head and invite any tech guys that are looking for interesting co-founder opportunities.

In the meantime, if you’re reading this and you’re interested in helping me tackle the problem of late-payment to freelancers and small businesses, please get in touch (Berlin, London, Oxford or Scotland – all good to me). Satago is built with Java, with Tapestry framework and PostgreSQL database. Of course one thing I have found (and I expected anyway) is that most of the young, entrepreneurial developers are PhP or Ruby guys. Most Java experts (at least the ones I’ve spoken to) are from banking and already very well paid, so it’s quite a leap for them to consider a startup. I’m not committed to staying with Java – I’d prefer to stick with it since it’s already working well, but for the right co-founder of course we could move to any language.

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Leaving the Rocket ship

29 Jun
Rocket Berlin Bear

Rocket Berlin Bear

After just over a year working at the headquarters of Rocket Internet in Berlin, yesterday was my last day.

When you’re always travelling at rocket-speed, it’s quite difficult to jump off a moving vehicle, but jump I have.

In total I was at Rocket Internet for about 21 months, but given the amount I learnt there I’d say it was more like 3 or 4 years in any other “ordinary” job. It’s been a fascinating time, from my first 8 months working in London launching a specific venture, to my time in Berlin where I had a role that allowed me to see nearly everything that was going on in the Rocket universe.

Rocket has a lot of detractors, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it’s like from the outside looking in, but I’d say its reputation has improved over the past year. Perhaps it is more a grudging respect that, whilst we’re not aiming for innovation, we really have entrepreneurship nailed down pretty well.

This recent article in Venturebeat gives one of the best analysis of Rocket that I have read. It was always amusing for us on the inside to be reading speculative articles about Rocket Internet, but this guy has a closer relationship to the firm and as a VC, rather than a random blogger, he has a slightly better perspective. Be sure to read the comments too.

I hope over the next few months to blog a little bit about what it was like at Rocket Internet, to maybe address some of the mis-conceptions.

So what’s next? Well, in a rather unusual twist for someone leaving Rocket Internet, I have decided not to start or launch a “ecommerce startup incubator”, and instead will be launching my own startup, Satago, in London.

Pic is my leaving present from the Finance department at Rocket, one of the most thoughtful leaving presents I’ve ever had!

FounderDating: Nice concept, dodgy viral mechanism

28 Apr

The other day I noticed that my girlfriend had posted to her Facebook wall about trying to “unlock Berlin” as a city on some dating website. Wondering why she was trying to access a dating website, when she’s meant to be dating me, I took a look at the website, FounderDating.

The concept sounds good – a matching website for entrepreneurs in the Internet startup space, with tight control on who gets to join and an emphasis on at least 50% engineers, presumably so it doesn’t get flooded with those annoying MBA-types with their ideas and “I just need a coder” attitude. Or as they put it:

Seems good. I’m looking for a technical co-founder, so I applied.

As part of the application process I had to link my account to LinkedIn and invite other people to recommend me as worthy for acceptance to this network. OK, that’s fine. Getting people to recommend me  makes sense, and obviously they want to spread their brand to good entrepreneurial people, so win-win.

At this stage I was told that the more people I invite the more chance I have of getting accepted to FounderDating. Hmmm, ok, that got my “slightly dodgy” radar twitching, but nothing too bad. I have over 500 contacts on LinkedIn, so how many should I invite to be sure I get in? I thought maybe 10 would be a good number, but in the end I could not be bothered scrolling through 500 contacts so I picked the first three of my entrepreneurial contacts, who I thought might be happy to endorse me.

A week later I get an email from FounderDating – my Application is incomplete. Oh. Really? I open the email to be told that 2 of my 3 contacts had not endorsed me yet, and that FounderDating  “can’t continue to review your application without their response

Hmmm. That seems to be a bit of a conflict. FounderDating tell me to invite as many people to vouch for me as possible, yet my application can’t proceed unless every single one of them replies. So If I had invited 10 people I would have more chance of getting in, but then logically less chance of all of them completing the application.

I tweeted them pointing out that this didn’t make much sense, but they thought I was just confused:

Well anyway, I decided to send a email to my two outstanding contacts. One of them replied saying they had tried but were unable to access the website. He’s a busy guy, so I didn’t want to push the matter any more seeing as he’d already tried twice. In fact my email to my second contact bounced. I had no way of knowing this as the original request was sent by pasting their email in to FounderDating directly – not by a message via LinkedIn, which might have made more sense. A message through LinkedIn later and she had managed to sign in and vouch for me.

Well, 2 out of 3 endorsed me (at least I hope they did!) – I guess that means I will never get in… shame.

Things got more interesting when I got an email from my girlfriend, saying she’d just got a strange email about FounderDating “from” a friend of hers:

Hey Anne,

I’m starting my next entrepreneurial project and looking for the right people to do it with. So, I’m applying to join FounderDating – a handpicked network of entrepreneurs. As part of the application process, I need people to vouch (aka act as a reference) for me. I’m hoping you can do this for me as they won’t look at applications without it. It’s quick, just click this link
http://members.founderdating.com/miniprofile/….

This is a really important part of the process, so thanks for your help,
[name redacted]

The problem being that she knew her friend would never have sent an email like that.

Oh, so FounderDating have been sending this email in my name to my contacts? That’s definitely not cool. As far as I can remember I was not told that my contacts would be sent reminders and I definitely never got a chance to review this text that they sent on my behalf. The worst thing is that they have written it to really sound personal – “Hey Anne”.

I’m protective of my network. I was probably a bit blasé about giving an unknown service access to my contacts in the first place, so I apologise to those people that I have now inadvertently hassled.

I love good viral mechanisms. They can really make a great company. One of my favourite’s is Fab.com‘s, which I have… *ahem* studied in great detail. I’ve been pushing TransferWise loads recently and have got a few people signed up (if I get 2 more I get £50!). I also managed to get £15 of free bets from my friends at TradeChase the other day just by sharing my bets to Facebook (but they’ve removed their normal referral link! Guys – bring it back!).

Most importantly the company with the viral mechanism needs to respect the trust that you have put in them by allowing them access to your network. I’m sure FounderDating haven’t been malicious in their viral intentions. It’s just bad implementation. In fact it’s probably working well – I see loads of tweets about them, although I’m not the only one who is unhappy with their endorsing system.

I would like to be able to log-in and change the settings or something, but I don’t seem to even be able to log-in and when I use their “forgot password” link, I don’t receive anything.

Hopefully FounderDating will take this criticism well and change their system ASAP. And hopefully I get in soon too and find a nice technical co-founder for Satago.net.

We apologise for the interuption…

22 Apr

It’s been over a year since my last blog post. Naughty blogger.

The reason for my silence has been a kind of self-imposed personal stealth mode, as I worked on a few things.

Not that I expect the blogosphere has particularly suffered from my absence… nevertheless I would like to get back to blogging my thoughts.

To summarise, the two main events in my professional life have been:

  1. I moved to Berlin, Germany to work at the HQ of Rocket Internet.
  2. I raised some money through Seedrs to build the MVP for the startup idea I developed during my MBA.

I’d like to blog about aspects of both. There’s lots to say. Until I get back up to blogging speed I’m going to repost a couple of posts I published on my personal blog a few years ago that I think are still interesting/relevant.

London the Primate City

5 Apr

A blog post about Munich is basically an excuse to post pictures of girls in dirindls

I’m in Munich, Germany at the moment, working on a new Internet company that is growing in leaps and bounds. We’re hiring lots and lots of people, both technical (developers) and non-technical. Something in particular about this interests me – Munich isn’t Germany’s first city, it isn’t even its second – in fact Munich is the 3rd largest city in Germany behind Hamburg and the capital, Berlin.

Why does this so fascinate me? Well, can you imagine setting up a brand new Internet company in the UK’s 3rd city? According to Wikipedia, Glasgow is the UK’s 3rd city. In fact, let’s forget Glasgae for a second, can you imagine anyone ever setting up a brand new super successful Internet company in Birmingham, the UK’s 2nd city? Nope, neither can I.

In the UK it seems that unless you’re in London, you’re nowhere. How does one city get to dominate a country so much, and is it good for the UK? According to George Zipf’s theory of rank-size for an ideal distribution of city size the 2nd city should be half the size of the largest city, and the 3rd city 1/3rd the size, and so on. Mark Jefferson described “primate cities” as those that so dominate the country that they capture most of the population and economic activity in a country. Classic Primate Cities include London and Paris, whilst the most extreme example is Bangkok, which is 40 times larger than the next city.

Compare that to Germany, where Berlin has a population of 3.3 Million, Hamburg is 1.6 Million, and Munich is about 800,000. They almost perfectly follow Zipf’s Law. So which ecomony is doing the best out of UK, France and Germany? Yeah I won’t bother answering that…

Although Berlin, where my direct employers are actually based, is itself considered a bit of a European startup hub, I never get the feeling that it dominates Germany in the same was that London dominates the UK. I don’t think many of my non-British friends in the UK would seriously consider living anywhere in the country other than London. In fact, do people even want to visit Birmingham or Glasgow? Not really. Other than a weekend trip to Edinburgh, for most people London is the UK.

Everyone had gone to Bradford for the weekend.

So for someone from a far-flung corner of the UK, that’s a bit depressing. What chance does Dundee have of becoming some kind of gaming hub, when as soon as a company gets successful it will probably up-sticks to Edinburgh, like Rockstar – developers of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto – did (yes – Grand Theft Auto was developed in Dundee!).

The UK Government acknowledges the London dominance by trying to force some taxpayer-funded organisations to move to provincial cities. Even the BBC is getting in on the act by moving its BBC breakfast programme to Manchester – a move which is proving rather unpopular with the staff.

I doubt London will ever lose its “Primate City” status in the UK. Nevertheless, I think government is obliged to keep trying to encourage companies to invest elsewhere in the country. Which is why you will get some pretty good incentives to start a company in places like Scotland. Here’s a story in which a founder of an Internet company got a £250k grant from Scottish Enterprise. I was also pleased when my MBA classmate, Xavier, told me that one of the reasons he set up the first Better World Books overseas subsidiaries in Scotland was because he was impressed with how helpful Scottish Enterprise was.

Maybe there is hope!

What I did after the MBA

11 Mar

It’s been a while since I did a blog post, so I thought I should really write a quick update on what I’ve been up to since finishing the MBA last September.

So I was trying to get my own little start-up idea going, but, as I’d already blogged about, I was rapidly running out of runway. Then, seemingly out of the blue, via a classmate, LinkedIn and Skype, an opportunity came along that was too good to turn down.

If I could describe my ideal job (if I was not starting my own company), it would probably be something along the lines of “working for an investment fund, helping them start Internet companies”.

…so I am now Venture Development Director at Rocket Internet, helping them start their Internet companies in the UK. I think that worked out quite well then. 🙂

Rocket Internet has a particular reputation and it’s fair to say it divides opinion. Its critics describe it as a “clone factory”. Here’s a recent article in Wired, “Inside the clone factory“, where one of the fund’s founders gives a rare interview. Make you own mind up.

All I can say is – it’s fascinating being on the inside. I cannot imagine it would be possible to get a better lesson in Internet startup execution. Even Rocket’s most vocal critics would be hard-pressed to deny Rocket are masters of execution.

So does that mean I’ve abandoned my own entrepreneurial ambitions? Of course not! Sometimes it only takes an unexpected spark of inspiration to get me thinking about it all again. What I do know, is that I ever do get back in to another startup of my own, I will be immeasurably better as an entrepreneur thanks to the Rocket experience.

Does Oxford University have any claim to MBA startup ideas?

18 Oct

Copyright PharmaVentures Ltd 2010

Another question that was asked by the incoming MBA class to the entrepreneurship panel I was sitting on the other day.

“Does Oxford University have any claim to startups that originate from the MBA class?”

The short answer is “no”.

Normally, when some Intellectual Property (IP) is developed as a part of research at a university, the university has a significant claim to the IP – afterall it has been developed whilst working there. The split can be very fair though – the scientist who originated the IP can get 1/3 to 1/2 share of IP rights with the university.

This can be very lucrative for the university and the scientists involved if the IP ends up becoming part of a successful company or product. For example Remicade, an arthritis antibody treatment, was developed at New York University School of Medicine. In 2007, Royalty Pharma paid $650 Million to buy the royalty stream from NYU. Can you imagine your university suddenly getting a $650 Million cash injection? Nice!

Of course Oxford University tries to commercialise as much technology as possible, mostly through its technology transfer arm, Isis Innovation.

I’m told that one of the biggest royalty streams to Oxford University is thanks to Ed Southern’s “Southern Blot“, a molecular biology technique. However, I’m not actually sure if the patents are still valid.

The Said Business School has an arrangement with the University that any business ideas developed by MBA students are exempt from any claim by the University. Afterall, what right-minded entrepreneur would come to a business school that would lay claim to his ideas just because he was there for a year learning about Porter’s Five Forces and the Laffer Curve?

The exception would be if your business was based on IP developed elsewhere in the University. We do some projects with Isis Innovation so that is quite possible. One of the recent Oxford MBA startups, Lab Minds, is based on technology developed by two people from one of the science departments, so I presume the University has some licensing arrangement there.

So don’t worry about coming here with your amazing startup idea. I think the University is hoping that you’ll make it big and give some money back of your own free accord.

Next post, also a question at the same panel, – should you keep your startup idea secret?