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Meeting The Right People: How I Was Inspired And What I Learned

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Wow, how important it is to be around the right people, people who inspire you, whose stories teach you that it's foolish not to make leaps of faith and shoot for the stars.

This is what I learned at a recent digital media symposium put together by Accel Partners at Stanford. The event featured a panel with Andrew Mason of Groupon, Drew Houston of Dropbox, Garrett Camp of StumbleUpon, and Susan Koger of ModCloth.

To me, they are the definition of the "right people" -- they are doing now what you want to do. Their discussion left me so pumped up, chanting inside not just that I was going to do a startup, but more, that I was going to build a great company. Seriously, you can't even get this pumped from entrepreneurs who are, so to speak, "retired" -- teaching, doing VC, fishing. Stories of yesteryear are not the stories of today.

You're probably curious about how these entrepreneurs make sense of the world. I won't get in the way. I'll simply tell you what they've been asked and what they answered. Just a couple of quick and random thoughts to set the stage.

It's always great to see entrepreneurs living their dream by living their brand. Susan Koger's dress truly was cool.

Andrew Mason is a fascinating character. On one hand, he is like the image of a laid-back, intellectual grad student, someone you'd meet at a chill and quirky grad student party playing vinyl records in the background. On the other hand, you hear in his voice the overtones of a business executive far too wise and far too stern for his age. ("We've worked hard to make sure that we're regularly firing people.") Still on the other hand, his eyes quietly spark with mischief. ("We're hiring 120 people a month. Just in Chicago. Main reason? It feels awesome." But if you were impromptu asked to describe him, I bet you'd probably start with something like, "He seems like a really good guy..." Fascinating.

Now onto questions.
1) Would your business have been possible 10 years ago?
Key message: Some cutting-edge startups are based on timeless stuff.

Interestingly, for both Andrew Mason and Susan Koger the answer was yes. In Groupon's case, "so much of its business is based on email," while for ModCloth, the key has always been about having an authentic conversation with customers. "We have this intimate knowledge of our customers," said Susan Koger, "and giving them voice gave us strength as a brand."

Drew Houston's answers was a sign perhaps that we do live in a 200% world -- 100% of it all is luck and another 100% is everything else we do. He said that Dropbox couldn't exist 10 years ago, or at least Dropbox wouldn't have been as successful -- "so much is based on Amazon Web Services" and, thanks to the iPhone and the iPod, "the need just totally snowballed."

2) What were the one or two things you just couldn't screw up?
Key message: Technical details can really matter.

Drew Houston offered that the idea for something like Dropbox has been around for decades, which made for a pretty high bar for success. "So we focused on keeping it simple. Technically, we really cared about sweating the details. Very fundamental things such as file syncing vs. online drive."

3) What worked in terms of marketing?
Key message: Exercise brute force; go where your early adopters are and improve the virtuous cycle; customer service really, really, really matters; friends are your first marketers. And, don't forget to get The Hindu to write a story about you!

Listening to the discussion of this question prompted a poignant reminder that, belying the stories of meteoric rise to success, there's the often-forgotten story of sweat and toil. Andrew Mason frankly recalled that Groupon's first ten thousand customers were the result of brute force. "It was me going to Chicago's downtown and putting fliers out."

Drew Houston explained Dropbox's early marketing success by the decision to go where its early adopters were. Dropbox created a tongue-in-cheek demo video and posted it on Digg, and that's where it's first seventy-five thousand users came from. In one day. In the end though, Drew Houston cautioned, "all of that wouldn't have worked if we didn't strive to make people happy and create tools that improve the virtuous cycle." As a whole, most of the users in the first months heard about Dropbox from a friend - 20% of users, for example, came from the shared folder functionality.

Susan Koger's marketing needed to be different because ModCloth carried inventory. "We focused on keeping an amazing inventory that people love." When ModCloth got started fashion blogging began to emerge, so ModCloth worked actively with fashion bloggers, which was very innovative at the time. Finally, said Susan Koger, "customer service really counts, and it's really important to call that out."

For Garrett Camp, friends were his first marketers by "stumbling" through his bookmarks. Then came friends of friends and then somehow StumbleUpon got its first media converage. It was in The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, so next thing they knew, StumbleUpon had its first twenty thousand customers.

4) How do your roots affect your product?
Key message: No handicaps for Canadians; Steelers fans make passionate employees.

"I'm a Canadian. I don't know how that affects the product," laughed Garrett Camp. But grad school (Garrett was a student when he started StumbleUpon) did certainly play a role by keeping the operation bootstrapped. Same for Susan Koger, who grew up in Pittsburg and launched ModCloth while in college. "Starting in college taught us to survive. We hired a lot of passionate people who didn't have a lot of experience. It just made ModCloth for a great place to work."

5) What are the small things you can do that make a great difference?
Key message: Shock and awe.

"Shock and awe." This is how Andrew Mason actually began his answer. "Shock and awe." He then proceeded to tell how fond they are at Groupon of creating events that make people think, "Where the hell do I work?" For example, infiltrating the office with a man in a ballerina costume who goes around the office not making any contact. Around the office, around the clock, and not just for an hour, or even a day, but several days! "We constantly eject surprise. Bizarre, surreal ways of looking at the world. Make people feel alive."

You can hear this and say to yourself that sometimes it takes something so crazy to create something so crazy successful. Or you can say that, if you have the guts to do something like this, having the guts to actually start a company would seem like an afterthought. But I say, I just can't wait to get started.

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