On January 25th, ten Sloanies in the E&I Club touched down in Colorado to kick off the second annual E&I Club Boulder Startup trek. The trek started last year at the behest of Brad Feld (MIT ’87), co-founder of the Foundry Group and Techstars, as a way to build a pipeline of talent from Sloan to Boulder.
An opportunity to visit a budding startup community in one of the most beautiful areas of the country as a precursor to the annual Sloan Breckenridge Ski Trip?? Sign us up!!
Over the course of three days, we visited representative companies of that ecosystem: 8 companies in all that ran the gamut from a boot-strapped team of 10 to a pre-IPO company of 500, consumer devices to enterprise security, and accelerators to traditional VCs. We kicked off the trek at PivotDesk, an online marketplace matching startups that need office space with companies that have extra, and we couldn’t have picked a better company to start our conversations with. We met with David Mandell, its founder, a serial entrepreneur and respected mentor within the Boulder startup community. Yes, he told us about PivotDesk and how it got to where it is, which itself is a great story. But perhaps more valuably, he told us his own story, which is inextricably intertwined with that of the Boulder startup scene, and what he believes are the necessary ingredients to become a great founder and CEO. We’d tell you what that is, but then we’d have lost our competitive advantage.
The talk provided a great frame of reference for what the Boulder startup scene is all about; from there we were able to dig deeper and see different angles with each company we visited. With that said, the theme of the week was without a doubt, collaboration. As a David said, an early rule to joining the community was that there are “No A**holes Allowed in Boulder” – an ethos echoed by each company we visited. There was a universal feeling of mutual respect amongst all of the founders and teams, with some of the more experienced ones taking it upon themselves to mentor the newcomers.
Of course, we left time in our schedule to explore a few other booming industries in Boulder. We visited several of the amazing micro-breweries that Colorado has to offer and sampled the beer of many others. Some of us even found time to hike through the Flatirons or take a jaunt through the Rocky Mountain National Park. All said, this was an amazing trek and we would like to extend our thanks to all of our hosts Foundry Group, TechStars, PivotDesk, JumpCloud, SOVRN, Rachio, Haven, and Sphero for welcoming us with open arms into this special community.
Alex Taussig from the global venture capital firm, Highland Capital Partners, hosted a visiting speaker series lunch today. He shared some advice about breaking into careers in technology, particularly startups. Alex used an Oregon Trail (computer game from the 90’s) analogy in his presentation to describe the career search journey but unfortunately, the non-Americans in the room didn’t really follow. Don’t worry – luckily I don’t think having played the game is necessary to appreciating the great advice Alex had to share.
What are the products you obsess over? What are the problems that absolutely fascinate you? Alex started off with these questions. These are the most critical questions in forming your career strategy. Because you want to love going to work everyday, and answering these questions will help you focus your search.
Note: Advise is not a category. Alex then offers up three key roles he sees at a company: Sell, Build, Operate. Think about what you enjoy doing to help you know what role you want to go after. If you want to do strategy, start a company and be the CEO… but giving advice isn’t really a key role. Listening to him and being an ex-consultant myself, I took away loud and clear that I need to develop some other important skills!
Jumping off cliffs vs. flying high… there is definitely a difference. Alex puts tech companies into three stages which are associated with different levels of risk. First is the early-stage startup. This is a bit more of a “jump off a cliff” option. There are a lot of risks and an early stage startups basically give you very little support. You decide whether or not it’s a soft landing. That’s different than going to a big company (or a mid-stage one), where there is some institutional support systeHe encouraged anyone considering entrepreneurship to really think about if they are willing to handle what can be an emotionally gut-wrenching, high-risk effort. Second is when a company is generating revenue. This signals it is relatively stable and unlikely to suddenly fall apart. Alex’s feeling is that this is a great stage for MBAs, where the risk isn’t as high but you can join early enough to take on great roles in helping take the company to success. Last category is profitable which is clearly just pretty great, the trajectory looks good, but the downside is that it may not teach you what you’re looking to learn depending on your goals.
Where to live. Alex presented a graph showing that 86% of value and 54% of exits are in Silicon Valley (2012-2013 data compiled by CBInsights.) Despite growing tech scenes in cities like Boston, NYC, and LA, Silicon Valley is still the dominant leader. Perhaps it’s that proximity to Oregon that is the secret sauce. Location he said is a matter of personal preference, but the numbers are in your favor in Silicon Valley.
Become a tech news fiend. Alex recommended using a RSS feeder and apps like Pocket to aggregate tech news from tech blogs and specific blogs in your particular area of interest. If you give yourself 3-5 months, you can learn a lot about a technology space, follow the companies receiving Series A and B funding, and position yourself to sound knowledgeable to potential employers.
The job hunt: focus and be prepared. Going back to narrowing in on a passion, Alex recommends not having a “scattershot” approach to breaking into tech careers. For networking, he thinks LinkedIn second-degree connections provide an incredible network. For outreach, use a short personalized email pitch that fits on an iPhone screen, with the goal of getting to a conversation. Attach a resume or refer to LinkedIn to provide information about yourself instead of writing a long email. Remember that all “coffee chats” make an impression, so take it seriously, come prepared to “blow them away”, and follow up within 24 hours. Remember that startups don’t really hire early, so build a relationship with people you’d like to work with so that when a position opens up, you’re top of mind.
Now you choose. When you have the awesome opportunity (which all Sloanies will) to choose between several offers, don’t pick based on compensation. Alex recommends optimizing for your learning to prepare you for the next stage of your career. If you’re hoping to make money, make it through equity, which is all about picking the right company, not about the salary. Lastly, the role is less important than joining a fast growing company because, in a fast growing company, your role will change frequently as opportunities arise. If you know you’ve found a promising all-start company, join, out-perform, and you will earn an all-star leadership role.
What makes a great venture capitalist? During Q&A, Alex was asked about the skills valuable for a VC role. Alex said, “to be honest, I only do finance about 5% of the time.” What Alex has observed is that the best venture capitalists are simply people that entrepreneurs like. They are people who understand the journey of entrepreneurs, respect and work hard for entrepreneurs, ask tough and meaningful questions, and are helpful and knowledgeable advisors.
This was really insightful and practical advice. Hope our readers feel more equipped to break into their dream tech companies! Thanks Alex for coming to speak with us. Next time we’ll ask for a demo of Oregon Trail.
Alex Taussig(SM ’07) is a partner at Highland Capital Partners, a 26-year old global venture capital firm investing in early stage technology startups. Alex has led or co-led Highland’s investments in Jaunt VR, RethinkDB, Talaria Systems (acq. by Google), RentJuice (acq. by Zillow), and thredUP. He has also worked closely with several MIT startups in the Highland portfolio, including Bit9, Filepicker.io (acq. by Copper.io), Streambase (acq. by TIBCO), and Vertica (acq. by HP). Prior to joining Highland, Alex conducted research in materials engineering as a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Caroline Ross and had the pleasure of TA’ing one of Dr. Donald Sadoway’s last sessions of “3.091 – Introduction to Solid State Chemistry.” Alex also received both an AB in physics and an MBA from Harvard University.