My learnings from 500 Startups – the first month

How we got in

I did not reach out to mentors in the network to recommend me to partners at the incubator. I did not have to stalk one of the partners and present my plan to him in the cab on his way back to the airport. But entrepreneurs are hungry and determined folks, who can go to extra-ordinary lengths to “hack” the system and get things done. These are real things that real people have done, and they succeeded because of their determination to get in.

My story is a little different. I knew I wanted to start a company from my days at IIT Bombay, which was a long time ago. Having worked in corporate America for several years, the “normal” thing to do was to join an MBA program. Once at Columbia Business School though, the entrepreneurial spark was rekindled. I won a business plan competition and decided to jump in full time to start a Retail Training business in India. We bootstrapped. I didn’t even know what an incubator was when we started our company in 2008. What we did was take savings from one of my co-founders and put in countless hours of hard work first trying to build a retail training business, then pivoting to build an email publication business, constantly getting feedback from customers along the way. The second business became profitable in the first year and has grown steadily to over 400,000 subscribers.

So, why did I need an incubator now? While we had success growing the company, it was on the verge of becoming a lifestyle business – a business that tottered around the fringes of something great. Having dropped out of business school to start a venture, running a lifestyle business was a compromise. I needed to put the company on a different trajectory. As things would have it, I reached out to Paul Singh while he was in India and got the offer to join the 500 Startups accelerator program in Silicon Valley in our first meeting. It couldn’t have been that simple, right? Well, as it turns out, one can do a lot of research on a company and a person online before one meets them in person these days. And when one has spent 3 years building a company, there is some real “traction” to show.

Traction

So what is this ‘Traction’ that everyone in Silicon Valley keeps talking about. Traction is anything that shows that your business has potential to grow into something big and exciting. It could be users on your site, it could be downloads of your app, it could be revenues. Yes, revenues are NOT a necessary condition for a business to be considered exciting. That is probably the single biggest difference between how companies are viewed in the Valley versus in other locations around the world. People often deride cash-burning zero-revenue businesses, but it is important to note that taking focus away from revenues in the initial stages is what has helped create some of the biggest successes in the Valley, including Google and Facebook.

Day 1 at 500 Startups

The office on Castro Street is in one of the most vibrant locations in the valley, surrounded by restaurants and bars. On day 1, I remember reaching the office only to be greeted by an ominous door with a sign asking outsiders to stay away. Once inside, the sight of tens of company founders working in a co-working space, discussing animatedly in various languages got me thinking about how exciting this would seem to a gate-crasher. ¬†After “grabbing” a desk, it was time for our first batch meeting. Dave, Christine, Paul, George, Bedy, Pankaj and Melissa are like the perfect band. Each plays a distinct role in the 500 orchestra and each has a distinct style of operating. While Dave bounced around on an exercise ball telling us how each of our companies would “die”, it was only later in the evening that we would get to see the full extent of the crazyness that is Dave McClure. A beer or two down, each founder had to pitch the company to our batch, a preview to what is to come in the “demo days” in February. While Dave attacked presenter after presenter, reinforcing the point about making an impression in a crowded room, the method to the madness started becoming clear. Investors are busy people and have more information thrown at them every minute than many of us consume in a day. Founders have less than 10 seconds to make that first impact. If you lose them there, it is very difficult to get their attention later.

Week 1 and Mentoring

Having a large network of mentors with expertise in various areas can be more powerful than one might imagine. The key is to choose the right mentors and be as specific with what you want from them. In the first week, I got atleast three concrete ideas from Hans Meakel, Mike Greenfield and Benjamin Joffe that have helped us change the trajectory of our subscriber growth and helped me re-assign responsibilities within the team to help us grow faster. There is nothing more powerful than a one-on-one discussion with a helpful expert.

Week 2 and living in Silicon Valley

It is incredibly difficult to find an affordable place to stay near Mountain View. I tried various channels such as Craigslist, AirBNB and finally the Patel hack – call any motel in the area, ask for Mr Patel (70% of motels in the US are run by Patels) and then negotiate a desi-friendly long-term rate. While Bharat-bhai of Hotel Strata tried his best, it was still too expensive. A chance meeting with the brother-in-law of a friend turned into a good room-mate situation; so that problem is finally solved.

Week 3 and Talks

One of the incredible things about the Valley is the cross-pollination of ideas and the general attitude that if you share, you build goodwill which will come back to help you at some point. It’s a nice virtuous cycle to have. The more you share, the more you encourage others to share, which leads to everyone gaining in the process. We have had some good, some great speakers who have spent valuable time talking to us about topics ranging from fundraising to design. They included Valley celebrities like Naval Ravikant of Angellist to founders from previous batches to entrepreneurs who have sold their companies in the recent past.

Week 4 and Conferences

I couldn’t help smiling through the first half of the Inbox Love conference, as I kept thinking to myself, “Wow! A conference about Email”. Never in a thousand years would I have thought that my passion in life would rely on a medium called ‘Email’ and that I would one day be sitting with hundreds of other people who felt as passionate about it as I did.

At the Growth Hackers conference, speakers ranging from the brutally honest Chamath Palihapitiya of Facebook fame to the always energetic Aaron Batalion of LivingSocial to the unexpectedly funny Blake Commagere made the whole day worthwhile. Learning of the day – It is not enough to create a product and watch it grow; you have to keep working towards growing it even if you have millions of users.

Now, it’s time to get back to work and create the next big thing!