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Takeaways from HustleCon 2015

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HustleCon 2015 was this week, and it has certainly come a long way since last year. The event has always been a fantastic place to find my favorite type of people (hustlers), but it has graduated from an amateur, “cold email founders to get speakers” type deal to a full blown TED level event that people fly internationally to attend. This might be the best conference bang for your buck of any event I’ve been to. It’s great both for hearing actionable advice, and for stories of tremendous hustle by founders facing incredible odds.

Here’s my takeaways (notes are not comprehensive, just what stuck out for me):

Tim Chen of Nerdwallet:

  • Company started as an Excel spreadsheet of credit card rates, then realized how many of his friends were asking for it and so turned it into something real
  • Finance advice is a great niche, since all your customers have intent to buy
  • Realized paid channels were too expensive, because you are at an auction for consumer attention with big budget competitors
  • Decided SEO was best acquisition channel so focused exclusively on that(quality links, quality content), even putting aside product development
  • “A founder’s most limited resources is time – you have to learn to let the less-important things burn around you.”
  • Extracted himself from the process, better to hire the most talented people and help them build than doing itself
  • “When you’re small, you’re in a knife fight, do anything you can to win. Once you’re bigger, hire the best people you can and stay out of their way.”

Jack Smith of Vungle and Shyp:

  • What is important when hustling is knowing the rules of the game you are playing. Find those, and break whichever ones you can
  • This is easier to do on less established platforms, like Linkedin used to be
  • He found that you can target people at specific companies with LI advertising, so targeted 7 people – the CEO he wanted to talk to and 6 randoms
  • Used a URL shortener to approve the ad, then changed where the URL went afterwards
  • Always ask yourself what the risks are – here it was getting banned, so made a fake account.
  • Usually your end goal is getting someone’s attention, rather than whatever they told you to do (like apply online)

 Walker Williams of Teespring:

  • Growth is more important than user ROI in the beginning
  • Astroturfing” filling your site with content when nobody is on it so first users aren’t scared away
  • Even now, he spends hours every day reading tweets and FB groups about Teespring, to keep ear on the ground
  • Your biggest champions will come from formerly disgruntled users
  • “Hill climbing” – let users pull you towards their toughest needs, then you build product for that
  • “There was a period of time when we all slept with our phones under our pillows, and woke up to restart the database when it crashed in the middle of the night in response to user calls”
  • It’s okay to pivot, but never give up a single lesson you learned that got you traffic

Tim Westergren of Pandora:

  • Was a PoliSci major at Stanford because it was their shortest major, but then couldn’t get a job so was male nanny, playing piano in the morning and playing with kids at night (not a bad life)
  • Then was a film composer – would play his favorite CDs to film directors and see which songs stuck in their head.
  • Finally got around to Pandora, had to defer employee’s salaries for 2 years because didn’t have money at first, ended up owing them 3 million dollars around the first dotcom bust
  • Kept workers working with the pitch “This could change the culture of the world through music, how many times in your life will you have a chance like that?”
  • Finally raised a 9 mil Series B, paid 3 of it immediately to workers in cash, says “It would have been Mexico for me for sure if that didn’t work out”
  • Loves Pandora because it can keep you connected to the music you love – otherwise as you get older radio music gets disconnected from you
  • The Music Genome Project is blind to popularity, it’s a perfect democracy. “There are 12,000 artists with songs named after them in Pandora who have never been played on a real radio station.”
  • Hires and Fires off of the Pandora Principles, says that’s the only thing you can do to control a company’s destiny

Heidi Zak of ThirdLove

  • When hiring PR reps, contact the people in their portfolio and ask them how they were, don’t ask the firm directly
  • Seed your project with passionate users (like Glamour magazine editors) then they become champions
  • Reporters love statistics
  • Make sure you are ready for the big features – she got featured in Good Morning America before product was live and lost potential users because of it

Arram Sabeti of ZeroCater 

  • Was an office manager for Dropbox for a while, helped him notice what the biggest problems for companies were, and No1 was feeding employees
  • “Do the shitty stuff on the bottom of the totem pole and I guarantee you will find a big problem to solve”
  • 25% of startups lose their cofounders, and this is actually a huge driver of them failing, which is why YCombinator focuses on relationships so much
  • Company was spreadsheet at first as well, was just all the restaurants he used consistently

James Beshara of Tilt

  •  Asked himself what crowdfunding would look like in a mobile world, what kind of funding would live on – that’s Tilt.
  • “All you need to build something significant is trust and a network”
  • Talked to Bill Babel at a conference once long ago instead of Gary Vaynerchuk, he ended up being one of the biggest investors. You don’t always have to go for the big guys.
  • Incubators speed up the network part of things, helped him especially as a nobody from Texas
  • The 2nd generation of blogger tools (WordPress) is unrecognizable from the first (Blogger). Thinks same thing will happen with crowdfunding
  • “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 seconds to lose it”

Adam Draper of Boost.VC

  • Spent a year fundraising, asking around 350 people and got denied 315 times. All you need is a few Yeses, always learn from the Nos
  • Test your pitching on friends and family – always.
  • “The worst feeling in the world is a yes that turns into a no – therefore Yeses are ticking time bombs, get people to sign it in writing ASAP”
  • Investors look for lines not dots, so be a line. Start a relationship with investors whenever you can, rather than asking for money off the bat.
  • The best entrepreneurs send monthly email updates to investors to keep things up to date.
  • They invest in Team, Traction, or Hype. Find where you fit.

Nikil and Alejandro from Back to the Roots

  •  They knew their strengths – and it was in demoing retail products, so did that as much as possible
  • Once achieved success in one vertical, started asking themselves “What would X look like if we invented it?” which helped them find new ideas
  • Stick to what you believe in – for them was sustainable, focused on kids, and design led.

Arum Kang of Coffee Meets Bagel

  • Sketched out what an MVP would look like, and hired Odesk people to do it.
  • Must ask careful questions to these people in order to screen quality people – would make instructions purposefully vague so that she could see if they would ask her more questions.
  • For freelancers, pay them through a combo of by project and hourly – hourly and they can leave without warning, by project and they will do a short job of it
  • Give CTOs reasonable equity, right now they are usually short changed.

AJ Forsythe of iCracked

  • Your phone is your control panel for life. If you can get between people and their phones (as iCracked does), you’re in a good place.
  • 42% of the world has smartphones(!)
  • They could be building the world’s last technical workforce, as more things become automated
  • Let bigger companies validate things for you, don’t jump on the next big thing just because.

 Gagan Biyani from Sprig

  • Consumer businesses are democratically chosen by the users – the business can be ugly on the inside as long as the consumers see a good product.
  • The best founders have no ego, and will solely respond to the needs of the market

Workshop: Storytelling for Founders with Andrew Raskin

  • He had a business model in 1998 but nobody invested. Then he rewrote it with a narrative after reading Story by Robert McKee and got investors. Story is everything.
  • Outline: Once upon a day, every day, until, because of that, because of that, because of that, until finally, and now every day. Moral.
  • Ira Glass and David Sedaris both aim for 40 seconds of action then 20 seconds of reflection, which is supposedly the optimal pacing for public radio
  • Moral for founders will always be: this is why the customer is happy he/she relied on me, why I started this company, why people say I am X.
  • Andrew went to find a front end engineer, so hung out in front of Oracle with big signs saying “5k for info leading to the hire of an engineer”
  • Portray the positive future that associating with your company will bring, and the negative one that will result if they do not.
  • Make sure that your story is credible and that it has something you love in it.
  • Tam

    Whoa, great notes. You should send this over to Sam & tweet @HustleCon to share it 🙂

  • Sam

    Ya buddy!

    I’m happy you had fun my man.

    -Sam