MBAs and Y Combinator: Oil and Water?

Michael Seibel of Y Combinator (YC) wrote a provocative tweet a few weeks ago, observing that MBAs who apply to YC appear ill-prepared. Below is the tweet and some of his follow-up observations.

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Although my day job is a seed-stage venture capitalist (at Flybridge Capital), on the side I teach entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School (HBS) – in particular, a 2nd year MBA class called Launching Technology Ventures (LTV) – and am proud of the fact that our students are performing very well in StartUpLand. Whether it’s unicorns like Cloudflare, Coupang and Grabtaxi, major exits like LearnVest or promising up and comers like Rent The Runway and Earnest, plenty of interesting companies have been created by HBS students right out of school in the last few years. And HBS alumni are proving to be effective and scaling and managing startups and large-scale tech companies years after graduation, not just starting them right out of HBS. Sheryl Sandberg/Facebook, Michael Bloomberg/Bloomberg, Mark Pincus/Zynga, Jeremy Stoppelman/Yelp, Meg Whitman/HP are among a few examples.

That said, I respect YC, its success in picking and training winners, and its immense experience as a startup pattern recognition machine. So I asked Michael for more detail regarding what he was seeing in MBA applicants so that we could make sure we’re addressing any gaps here at HBS. His feedback was interesting and I wanted to share it here (paraphrasing a bit and incorporating other feedback I hear in the marketplace):

  1. MVPs vs. Research – The knock on MBAs is that they classically spend too much time doing research and not enough time building a minimum viable product (MVP) and getting actual market feedback. We’ve done a good job of this at HBS, I believe, where Eric Ries (Lean Startup), Steve Blank (customer discovery) and getting out there and running experiments is hammered into each of our students in their first years. In the second year, we have electives like my class and others that emphasize this approach to company building. But clearly, we should be doing more, pushing our students to be builders not researchers.
  2. No Tech Co-Founder – We could have a robust debate about whether tech co-founders are critical given how many MBA startups have been successfully created without a tech co-founder (e.g., BlueApron, Warby Parker). That said, this criticism is an important one to address. Having technical proficiency is critical to being successful in StartUpLand and, further, having a technical co-founder helps immensely when it comes to MVP creation, iteration and general product development velocity. Velocity is one of the most important, least understood attributes of successful startups that is greatly enhanced by a technical co-founder. So, what’s HBS need to do here? Well, we urge students to mingle with their MIT counterparts, but that’s too passive. We’ve started an EIR program, but need more CTO types as EIRs. And Harvard is in the midst of moving its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) across the river to be co-located with HBS – and doubling its size (thanks, Steve Ballmer). In the last few years, CS50 (Harvard’s introductory computer science class) has been taught at HBS and this year, for the first time, a Code Club was created at HBS. Another major initiative – HBS is launching a joint MS/MBA degree, targeted at hybrid technical-business folks who want to enter StartUpLand. Good steps in the right direction, but clearly we need to do more. Next year, I’m determined to create more opportunities for organic mixing for techies given founders need time to get to know each other informally before leaping into a business partnership.
  3. Commitment. This one was the hardest to hear from Michael. He feels our students are not exhibiting full commitment to their startups but, rather, at times appear to be dabbling. I am sympathetic to his perspective on this. Like most VCs, I only invest in pigs not chickens. Too many MBAs are acting like chickens – not “all in” and exhibiting a willingness to pursue the startup no matter what. As Michael described, “One of our primary qualifications for getting into YC is whether this company would exist without YC.”  There is no hedging your bets in StartUpLand.

Speaking on behalf of my HBS colleagues, I know we’re determined to keep pushing our students on these and other areas to make sure that we are producing startups that are embraced by YC, Techstars and other top-notch incubators – never mind investors – rather than appear like strangers in a strange land.

Michael and I did a podcast to continue this conversation on the YC blog, which you can listen to (or read the transcript) here.

(by the way, if you want to prepare for your YC interview, read this and this)

Combining Tech and Biz – Harvard Launches A New Joint Degree

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When I was a computer science undergraduate student at Harvard in the late 80s/early 90s, it was a decidedly uncool and obscure field. We were buried in the basement of the Science Center, coding in LISP and C++ on a UNIX minicomputer. The few of us who survived the brutal problem sets and all-nighters graduated with a strong foundation in software but zero insight into the technology business. Four years later, when I graduated from Harvard Business School in the mid-90s, we learned a ton about business, but nothing about technology.

As a tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist and Harvard Business School (HBS) professor, I have spent my 20+ year career trying to blend these two disciplines:  business and tech. Thus, I was thrilled with this week’s announcement that Harvard is creating a joint master’s degree between HBS and the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). Simply put, the new degree will focus on teaching geeks and techies the business of innovation and tech company management.

This program came together very, very quickly. My colleague, Tom Eisenmann, was one of the main driving forces and somehow managed in less than six months to design, create and secure approval for the program from both faculties and the Harvard board. The fact that SEAS is nearly doubling in size (thanks, Ballmer) and moving next door to HBS in Allston (thanks, Paulson), makes the collaboration between the two schools all the more appropriate and fitting. The benefits of teaching and inspiring future leaders at the intersection of these two important disciplines are immeasurable. I am so glad Harvard and its faculty chose to vigorously innovate in this area.

To learn more about the joint MBA/MS degree, which is accepting applications starting September 6th (!), go here.

 

The Empire Strikes Back: New York & Boston Are Unstoppable Tech Hubs

No doubt, the New York tech scene has had its ups and downs this year — but Sarah Kesller’s article looks back over the last few years particularly grimly and unfairly, starting with the title: “New York’s Unrealistic Dream of Rivaling Silicon Valley Should End with Etsy’s Collapse”.

In it, she reviews the punditry from 2010, declaring that all New York needed were a few anchor companies to breakout to become the next Facebook or Google.

Part of the Problem: Selection Bias

Unfortunately, that hasn’t played out due to a litany of missed expectations, which Kesller chronicles in detail. She notes that the stars of that period — Etsy, Foursquare, Gilt, Kickstarter, Meetup, Tumblr — have not proven to become the mega-unicorns that many hoped.

They have either sold or gone public at good but not Valley-level prices — like Etsy’s $1B public market cap, Gilt’s $250M sale and Tumblr’s $1B sale — or still exist at an uncertain point on their journey with unfulfilled expectations, such as Foursquare, Kickstarter, Meetup.

Kesller misses the more subtle but larger point that it is very hard to pick winners in StartupLand. While those six companies may not have been massive winners, there have been a few amazing companies emerge out of New York in the last few years that were not on anyone’s “top six” radar in 2010 (or even founded!).

Reality: New York is Cranking

Examples of emerging breakout companies based in New York include:

  • WeWork: worth $20 billion in their latest round
  • Vice: widely reported to be worth $4.0 billion
  • Jet.com: sold to Walmart for $3.3 billion in cash and stock
  • Oscar: widely reported to be worth $2.7 billion
  • BlueApron: widely reported to be worth $2.0 billion and preparing an IPO
  • MongoDB: widely reported to be worth $1.5 billion in its last financing*

* Which I can neither confirm nor deny as we are major shareholders having co-led the Series A.

I remain very optimistic about the next 5–10 years in the New York tech scene. Through our work (led by my partners David Aronoff and Jesse Middleton), I am seeing ambitious entrepreneurs pursuing amazing and diverse market opportunities every day.

The recent IPO of Yext (trading at $1 billion) is a solid step forward for the New York tech scene and there are dozens of private companies worth +$500 million that are growing fast and have tremendous potential. Flatiron Health is pursuing the ambitious goal of fighting cancer with data. Buzzfeed has dramatically changed the way media companies think about information dissemination.

Others like Appnexus, BetterCloud, Compass, Sprinklr, Warby Parker and Zocdoc are an amazing cohort worth watching.

And Don’t Forget Boston!

Interestingly, in contrast, the Boston tech scene has seen the reality run ahead of the hype. Boston’s historical strength in life sciences, enterprise software, cloud, big data and artificial intelligence are all proving to be very fruitful.

For the Boston tech scene, it has been an amazing few years for some very valuable, emerging anchor companies.

I did a quick analysis of what has happened to the value of today’s top six emerging anchor companies (measured by market cap) in the Boston innovation scene from 2010 to 2017. I used Crunchbase’s data to estimate the private valuations in 2010 by using a simple rule of thumb regarding ownership sold in their last round of financing or the initial market cap at the time of their IPO if it happened close to 2010.

The results in the chart below are pretty dramatic. This cohort of Boston companies — Demandware, Hubspot, Logmein, TripAdvisor, Vertex and Wayfair — was worth $15.6 billion in 2010 and are now worth $51.2 billion in 2017.

That’s a 3.3x increase! This increase compares favorably to the Russell 1000 index, which increased only 2.0x during this same period.

The conclusion? Sarah needs to be careful about selection bias, I am still very bullish about the New York tech scene (where Flybridge continues to invest roughly half our fund) and the Boston tech scene has had an unheralded strong run.

Like everything else, it just takes a bit longer than we all might have anticipated. Hang in there, New York — and keep pedaling!

Special thanks to Rashana Lord for helping me collect and analyze the data and Michael Gasiorek of StartupGrind (where this post originally appeared) for editing assistance.

Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis

Hacking Growth: How Today's Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success by [Ellis, Sean, Brown, Morgan]

One of the cool things about StartUpLand is that it brings innovation to organizational design, not just old-line industries. Lean Startup methodology, customer discovery and agile development are among just a few managerial innovations that started in StartUpLand and swept through corporations large and small, young and old.

Another one of those high impact, general organizational innovations is the rise of the Growth function. I have written about this phenomenon a fair amount, including this Harvard Business Review piece, Every Company Needs a Growth Manager.  The founder of this movement is Sean Ellis, a brilliant marketer who has been a part of successful startups like LogMeIn and Dropbox and become so passionate about the growth movement that he started a company and community dedicated to it: GrowthHackers.com. Now Sean has written a book, in conjunction with Morgan Brown, called Hacking Growth, which is being released tomorrow. Having had the opportunity to read it in advance, I can tell you it is a terrific book and belongs up there with Geoffrey Moore, Eric Ries and Steve Blank’s books as a fundamental part of the canon of StartUpLand (since, as everyone knows, entrepreneurship is like a religion).

I have long admired Sean’s work and have had him as a guest in my HBS Entrepreneurship class, Launching Technology Ventures.  I preach the use of his “40% test” to all my startups and students (i.e., would > 40% of your customers be very disappointed if your product were to disappear?). Thus, I had high expectations when I learned he was writing a book that would codify his decade of experience launching, building and advising growth teams.  Reading the book, I was not disappointed.

Sean and Morgan cover the key elements of what the growth function does, how to build it, operationalize it, measure it and ensure success. Chock full of case studies and practical examples, the book gives a practical guide for the practitioner. In addition to synthesizing his best blog posts (and others) on the topic, it covers new ground by providing more detailed, pragmatic frameworks (e.g., how to measure and prioritize growth ideas using the ICE method:  assessing impact, confidence and ease). It also introduces a concept I love, “channel/product fit”, which provides six factors for ranking potential acquisition channels, assisting with prioritization (based on a technique used at Hubspot by another extraordinary growth leader, Brian Balfour). The step-by-step approach to hacking acquisition, hacking activation, hacking retention and hacking monetization will be invaluable for executives at companies of any size.

Some critics have claimed that Growth Hacking is just a fancy name for Marketing. In response to this question, Sean joked with me once that he invented a new label because the marketing function was valued so lowly in StartUpLand as compared to product and sales functions. Whatever you call it, the insights and rigorous approach behind enlisting cross-functional teams to break down silos and use out-of-the-box, creative thinking to conduct rapid, real-time marketing tests is a major innovation that deserves study. Reading Hacking Growth is a good first step in that direction.

 

Advice to Grads: Join A Winning Startup (v. 2017)

It’s that time of year again! Graduating students hungry to dive into the startup community (aka StartupLand) are eager to start their careers but struggle to select the right, specific opportunity. Each spring, I provide a comprehensive list of exciting, growing, hiring startups–both private or recently public–that are worthy of consideration as places to start or continue a career in StartupLand.

Before we get into the companies themselves, I suggest checking out my post Seeking a Job in Startup Land, where I give some advice on how to select the right company for you. Once you have reviewed this framework for deciding what you’re looking for, this post will give you a list of over 350 companies to research and approach.

As usual, the list is compiled and organized based on location since I believe in selecting a geography to plug in to (and contribute to) a community and ecosystem. I received fantastic input from angels, entrepreneurs, lawyers and VCs across the world, helping me pressure test and compile this list (note: Flybridge portfolio companies are in blue). I’m sure I made many mistakes and omissions, which are all my own. Feedback welcome!

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ATL: Kabbage, MailChimp

CHI: AvantCredit, BucketFeet, Civis Analytics, Dough, Inc., Fooda, Groupon, Iris Mobile, Kapow, Narrative Sciences, Raise.com, RemoteYear, ShopRunner, Shiftgig, SpotHero, SproutSocial, Uptake

CO:  FullContact, Ibotta, LogRhythm, Rally, SendGrid, Sympoz, TeamSnap, VictorOps, Webroot, Welltok

DC: 2U, Cvent, Optoro, Sonatype, Tracx, Vox Media, WeddingWire

SEA: Apptio, Avalara, Avvo, ExtraHop, Julep, Juno, Koru, Peach, Porch, Pro, Redfin

UT: Bamboo HR, Canopy Tax, Domo, Health Catalyst, Hirevue, InsideSales, Instructure, Lucid Software, Observe Point, Pluralsight, Qualtrics, Solution Reach, Workfront

That’s it! Edits/suggestions welcome. Special thanks to all those who provided me with input (who shall go nameless to protect the innocent) as well as my colleague, Nick Shanman.

How To Raise Your First Round of Capital

I gave a presentation this afternoon to my Harvard Business School class about how to raise your first round of capital. For those interested in seeing my advice on this topic as a former entrepreneur turned VC who has written a fair amount about fundraising, here are the slides:

I welcome any feedback or stories you might have!

Why “Ops” Is Taking Over Startup Land

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A little over a year ago, I wrote that for startups, the Secret Weapon for Scaling was Sales Operations.

Since my writing about the importance and value of Sales Operations (where there are now 11K job openings on LinkedIn for this role), I have observed with great interest the explosion of operations functions in every function in Startup Land (a less geographically biased way of referring to the world of startups than “Silicon Valley”). Here are a few examples:

  • Business OperationsOne of my talented HBS students works for the finance department at Pinterest in a job titled “Business Operations”. I have seen many of my portfolio companies create this role under the CFO as a complement to FP&A (financial planning and analysis). Whereas the FP&A function is typically responsible for instrumenting the financial metrics and reporting them, the Business Ops function has emerged as the group that interprets the strategic implications of the business metrics more broadly and then formulates and drives new initiatives cross-functionally to address key issues. For example, how do you measure the success of a new product launch — and what do you do post-launch about the results you do measure? Business Ops focuses on decisions, not just data, and then helps operationalize those decisions within a startup. A quick LinkedIn search shows 15K openings for Business Operations, 15M title holders in the network, including companies like Circle, Lyft, NerdWallet and many others.
  • Product Operations: One of my portfolio companies, DataXu, recently created and filled the position head of “Product Operations”, a role that reports to the CTO who manages the entire 150+ product and engineering team. That executive will be responsible for measuring the product development process and implementing the necessary changes to make it more effective. They are also charged with training new hires and managing vendors. In short, they are like a “COO” or “VP of Ops” on behalf of the product organization. DataXu is not alone in hiring for this role. A quick LinkedIn search shows 6K opening for Product Operations and 200K title holders, with executives holding this title at growth stage companies like Fuze, Sonos, Wayfair and many others.
  • Marketing Operations: One of Flybridge’s marketing advisors has been discussing with me the rise of this role. The Marketing Ops role has been created because of all the data coming out of marketing automation tools and other systems. Marketing Ops makes sure that the right leads are being transitioned to sales in the right way and that the sales reps are using the sales force automation systems properly and that they are integrated with the marketing automation systems. Marketing Ops might be the group that scores the leads, tracks them through the sales process and does the win/loss post-mortem analysis. Watching the data, making sure it is integrated across the organization, managing the marketing systems, and reporting cross-functionally on key marketing metrics are all the jobs of the marketing ops function. Our portfolio company, MongoDB, has a nice job description for their open position — Director of Marketing Automation and Operations — that tells the story well. There are 5K openings on LinkedIn for this role and 9M people with that title in their profile.

Why has Startup Land suddenly gone bonkers over Ops roles and embedding them within every function? I think the simple answer is Big Data and process maturity. As companies stabilize their business models and find product-market fit, they begin to adjust from a hunch-driven operating model, where decisions are made by the founders in large part on gut instinct, to a metrics-driven model, where decisions are made by professional managers based on data. With the availability of so much data across all functions to professional managers, they need more analytical and operational horsepower to synthesize that data and derive insights from them that drive the business. Hence, the thirst for an operations staff—analytical, mid-level executives who can get into the weeds, derive insights and turns insights into action cross-functionally.

I have been preaching this message to all my portfolio companies: if you’re a startup executive and haven’t begun to operationalize your organization, you’re at risk of falling behind.