A Roundup of BTF's Fall 2020 Semester
For people who are looking for good news about running DeCals online, Build The Future in Fall of 2020 should be a beacon of hope. Despite the looming Zoom fatigue that everyone can sympathize with nowadays, once a week at 6pm sharp, greeted by the cascade of Zoom join chimes, we held BTF. Undoubtedly, the reason why we could always guarantee that students would come back was because of the kickass show we always put on — all because of the founders we hand-select every semester.
In spirit of highlighting entrepreneurial optimism on campus — along with inspiring DeCals to push on despite an all-online format — here’s a collection of the experience-backed learnings we took in from the Fall 2020 semester.
From Alicia Lau (Team and People)
As a Cal alum and first generation, low-income college student, Alicia’s advice was not only warm and immediately contextual to current students, it hit home.
To increase your network, the best thing to do is give.
Amongst Berkeley’s self-regarded elite — students that had 500+ connections on LinkedIn in their junior year of high school and similar folk — it’s admittedly tough not to heed what already works: asking seniors for coffee chats. To this, Alicia throws a curveball and implores more students to give. Whether that be through being genuine about your curiosities or through documenting stories that will be helpful to students who will be in similar positions in the future, anything that has to do with giving first instead of perpetuating the “scarce environment of Cal” will help students seeking to become entrepreneurs.
I was always scared to be stuck in the same position after college and fail to meet expectations. Find a world outside of the world you live in and surround yourself with people who are uplifting.
To do this, Alicia spends her weekends giving back to her community by teaching middle schoolers. She also recommends that every current Berkeley student should visit her favorite Berkeley restaurant: Toss Noodle Bar — definitely a source of uplifting people!
From Nick Molnar (Identifying Opportunities)
As BTF’s first ever international guest, Nick had a lot to say about starting a company in Australia and penetrating into Silicon Valley.
I noticed that some companies, like Atlassian, had successful global takeoffs, but many other companies had “false takeoffs”. He wanted to build an American-focused team that countered the mindset that ‘any startup made outside of Silicon Valley wouldn’t take off’.
And did that he did! As of our conversation, Afterpay is regarded as one of the fastest growing fintech companies — in 2 years, they had 5 million users in the US alone! To successfully pull of this international expansion, Nick had the following thoughts:
Be very sure (with substantial evidence) of demographic spending trends
Nick tapped into the financial need of the fashion and beauty industry, partnering really closely with big influencer-directive consumer brands (Kylie Jenner, Gymshark) to build beneficial, one-to-many viral relationships.
Valuing diversity of thought and really being intentional about the people you hire
The balance of team and individuals across especially across a global aspect served as huge leverage for Afterpay. Nick personally looks for people who have a large appreciation for the customer.
Be deeply rooted in building and maintaining trust
For businesses working with Afterpay, not much is affected in terms of ‘accounting’ in that post-purchase, retailers get paid the very next day. Afterpay handles the customer-facing payment in installments. This means that if there is ever an issue of an outstanding debt, Afterpay disables users' accounts until debts are repaid. This ensures that they are never in hot water with retailers, their primary customers.
From Sidra Qasim (Product Market Fit)
Sidra couldn’t have been a better founder to embody the concept of Product Market Fit — the concept dually applies to Atoms / the casual shoe market as it does Sidra as an immigrant founder / the USA.
My cofounder and I did a lot of self-explanation and self-teaching. So, when we applied to Y Combinator in 2012 when our company was just an idea off of what we thought Hollywood was, we didn’t get accepted.
Before they produced casual shoes, Sidra and Waqas operated under the assumption that everyone who went to the office always wore leather shoes — backed by the business fashion in Pakistan and Hollywood movies they consumed to get a sense of what the US was like. Although a very successful Kickstarter helped Sidra convince YC the second time they applied, to rectify this line of thinking, they spent hours in malls, silently observing and interviewing shoppers at traditional Nike and Adidas storefronts.
To similarly get a sense of what the US was like, Sidra describes spending the first 2 nights on YC campus practicing her English to reduce the language barrier as much as possible. To properly communicate to “the people that were coming from Harvard and Stanford”, they focused more on the words they were using instead of crafting a smart slogan / meaning. As much as Sidra and Waqas had made it into familiar territory amongst other businesspeople, they still felt like they were in a vastly different world.
Around summer of 2015, there was a lot of pushback for us to become a software company like everyone else. Many of our advisors told us it’d be smart to become the “Teespring of shoes”. That wasn’t what we were passionate about. We wanted to put a story in front of our customers.
Sidra explained that as a new direct to consumer (DTC) company in the age of B2B SaaS, not many people realized how tough and competitive it was. The iterative process inclined Sidra to invite 17 people over for dinner, doubling as some rest as much as it was also user research. Following the homecooked meal, for dessert, Sidra brought her crowd of guests down to the basement, where she showed them the shoemaking process and allowed them to try on personalized pairs. Although today they’ve scaled far past the need to cook customers individual dinners, Sidra and Waqas believe that its this intimate connection of customers and “the people behind the product” that explains why the brand garners any user interaction.
From Kim Malek (Telling a Story)
Calling in to BTF from her home in Oregon, Kim’s story was genuine from start to finish. Complete with impeccably-timed Zoom interruptions from her son asking for Gatorade out of the fridge, listening to Kim’s modest adaptation of Salt & Straw’s success was almost as sweet as the brand’s ice cream.
When we first started, we got a lot of backlash from investors about “investing in people, supply chain relationships, and supporting local innovation”. They always went “Who are you, Starbucks?”
Kim is a big believer that “businesses should be on the table to solve messages that we have in society rather than just pillaging”. As much as Salt & Straw is a place for good ice cream, wherever a new Salt & Straw location is opened, Kim is rooted in her mission to support local underdogs. Instead of just creating quantifiably more ice cream, Salt & Straw is creating relationships — they always look for local flavors to fold into their ice cream and continue fostering the people element.
In the process of creating a new flavor, Salt & Straw meets all the necessary people to create a local taste (breweries for anything beer-infused, charcuterie houses to candy bacon, etc.), operating under the mantra of blending together local philosophies instead of just their flavors. This exposed humility is what Kim believes really helps Salt & Straw find collaborators.
Our new flavors are almost never driven by numbers, but really by the idea of trying new experiences. There’s nothing more important than leading with your heart no matter what space you’re working in.
The above is really carried by Kim’s mission adjacent through Salt & Straw to “fight injustices through ice cream”. Salt & Straw uses their hiring funnel to help out with low-income, Black, and incarcerated folks back on their feet.
From Michelle Zatlyn (Business Model)
Despite her successful run at Cloudflare, Michelle was never sure if she was going to do something in business, ever!
Project Webwall (the earliest version of Cloudflare) could’ve just been a project! It wasn’t really until I realized, mid-internship at a doctor’s office, that I hadn’t done anything else besides chemistry that I wanted to try something in business.
Michelle had to “knock on a lot of doors” to get into business as a result of her chemistry background. She spent some of her career-defining post-grad years doing internships at Google and Toshiba. Despite the tough beginnings, though, this led her to surrounding herself with smart people whom she learnt the basics of business that she didn’t get from.
A good business model along with true, differentiated technology is when companies really become ‘swing for the fences’ type of companies. B2B SaaS especially is a great place to be — investors love it, it’s fast, and growth is not lumpy.
To accompany this, Scott Sandell, one of Cloudflare’s advisors, said “The SaaS business model is the greatest business model there ever is”, Michelle recounted.
As a parting note, Michelle also says that the “.edu email is the most powerful single asset a student has”. For those who are earnest and curious, she says response rates are through the roof.
From Dylan Field (Fundraising)
We had the pleasure of hosting Dylan as our first student-led talk at BTF. Although Dylan addressed Figma’s success in a sort of nonchalant, whimsical way — he said he “forgot to re-enroll at Brown after Flipboard (the first company he interned at)” — there was a lot that truly wasn’t hand-wavy about the story. In quick summary:
- Met Dale Stephens, a current Thiel Fellow over coffee in Providence
- Applied to the Thiel Fellowship on an “Oh, shit, if we don’t submit this we won’t have any money” realization and an application that Dylan today cringes at
- Was excited to build something either advancing WebGL or drones — ruled out the latter because of the glaring privacy issue
- Made as many friends through opportune moments as possible (built a relationship with Jay Kreps, who Dylan texts “all the time now” because they were the only 2 people at the LinkedIn office at 2am)
- Landed on Figma and built, built, built!
No one thought that the design market would be massive. Lots of people estimated only 100,000 designers in the US when we were fundraising. John Lilly, who eventually became an investor, passed on our A!
To accompany this, in the same nonchalant, whimsical voice, Dylan described “not knowing what they were doing at all in the beginning”. The idea was to pitch it as a community that they would figure out how to turn into a business later on. He did highlight, though, that a lot of people at Adobe thought Figma would never work. “There are a lot of blind spots that come about with working in an industry that can be cured by thinking from first principles”, Dylan describes.
Although young founders are better at raising money, as an occasional angel investor, I wouldn’t sign a check to people who are students and founders at the same time. Choose either coursework or company work or you will get penalized for it.
From Michael Seibel (a special BTF event)
The Valley is being overrun by a pollution — the “upper middle class, good school people that don’t have ideas” and scenesters, people who want to “play startup”
This pollution is screwing with people and it comes from three sources:
- Your friends: people who aren’t your target users who have opinions that don’t help
- Business thinking: having bad business sense as a result of Twitter, professors who don’t really know what they’re talking about, and similar sources
- Dreamy obsession: having an obsession with something sexy that you’re not qualified at all to solve, like NLP as a high school student
To solve the pollution, slap yourself in the face if you’re ever using your “business”, “academic”, or “pure” brain and find a real problem — if you’re lucky, it’s something that you’re rationally curious about and is something about the world that ticks you off.
To extract a problem out of yourself, Michael has a technique called biography:
- Tell yourself the story of your life from elementary. Every time you mention the name of someone, write it down (if there are no names, ask yourself for names)
- For each of the name in the written list, ask yourself “how much money can you ask this person for if you started a company?”
- Apply the same uncomfortable exercise to problems. Walk through your whole life and in lieu of names, ask yourself about problems that you could solve — what sucked about kindergarten, what sucked about home life, etc.
There is something here about “blind spot problems” — the idea is that there is an inverse relationship between how much a problem is in your blind spot (how much you know about a problem space) and how much you want to solve that same problem. The less you know about a problem space, the more you’ll think you’re a genius who is going to solve this and that everyone who failed to solve it was an idiot.
If you don’t have a problem, you need to realize that you don’t have insights about the solution to the problem. Hence, you need to adopt a problem-haver and use their judgement to figure out if they’re solving the problem. The miniscule intersection between the two of you is that you also care about the problem — you will not want to solve a random stranger’s problem.
The best pitches are the ones where you pitch so good that you know what the next questions are. In the most ideal situation, catch investors in a trap where they think they’ve caught you in a trap and grand slam the question home.
The YC “Sh!t Test” is the question that is implicitly answered of what material between wet paper towel and flesh is your chest made of. With finite knowledge of seemingly infinite things, YC will poke at your chest to find gaps in your business. If you handle 2-3 Sh!t Tests well, investors will start believing in you.
The more “screw you” your vision is, the later it should be in your pitch, Do not sell yourself as eating all of Google’s lunch as a no-name, invalidated company.
If Google told investors that they were going to be the Microsoft of webapps, they wouldn’t have raised a dollar.
From Nina Stepanov (a special BTF event)
Working on “Platform” at a venture capital role is the happy medium between working at a startup and a venture fund. Simply, it’s “everything else that’s not writing a check”.
- People look down upon the role because it wasn’t an OG role — it wasn’t something that was as much needed in the early days of venture capital as it is today
- Nina thinks the above is BS and that people in marketing get the poor end of the stick (loves companies that genuinely attribute marketing efforts; at Hubspot, Nina knows that she wrote the email that a client opened (measured), clicked on (measured), engaged with (measured) that led to a signed deal 3 months later (immeasurable to the company))
- Arguably thinks people should take more pride being on the platform team than if on the investing team. Another investor has next to nothing to do with an investment even if you both hop on calls with each other, but as a platform team, all of you led to the fruition of an effort!
- Similarly, thinks a lot of Platform should get its props because they are the machine behind everything that makes that everything possible. “The real beauty is in the talent manager who hires the team around you who deals with the support tickets, manage the product, etc.”, Nina argues
- Fluctuates about the “next role that’ll become table stakes as much as Platform has” after Platform roles become table stakes. Nina used to say that there was going to be a huge reckoning that would have the “best” prevail — a huge draining of the early stage funds and taking back control of the pipeline of microfunds but provided some long-pause-prefaced contradicting thoughts, in the following order:
- “AngelList supported the microfund and made it cheaper and easier to get into investing”
- “I think institutional investing will continue to be questioned, though, and morph into a landscape of the microfund / single-LP-investor types”
- “Everyone’s a scout or angel investing or doing something similar nowadays — that might implode! What happens to the companies under these funds?”
- “It’s a good question — I don’t know!”