How to be a Smarter and Sexier Startup

Last year I took Stanford’s Technology Entrepreneurship Venture Lab course, which covers the process technology entrepreneurs take to start their companies and methodologies pioneered in the Silicon Valley. It started with two assignments and went full force into a four-month project. That’s almost the same time it takes to launch a startup!

At the time, I had experienced shipping releases for Office 2007 and Bing and was managing the globalization project for the Windows 8 Store. In spite of all the product development experience behind me, I was blown away with Chuck Eesley’s -- my professor -- iterative approach. The course started with 37,606 teams and making it to the top 10 was no small feat. But we did it. 

In October, I moved from Seattle to Chicago and changed roles from a technology lead in the Windows 8 Store engineering group to being a startup technologist with real-world startups. Today, my typical week includes holding office hours at coworking spaces, meeting entrepreneurs, judging elevator pitches, debugging code and connecting startups to resources through Microsoft’s entrepreneurship program.

So, why am I telling you this story?

Well, over the past few years, I have identified five things that differentiate smart and sexy startups from average startup. Here’s how you can transform your startup to be smarter and sexier to shine through this crowded landscape and maximize your success.

Build a rockstar team

Shying away from the comfort of casual and loose, these startups prefer a tight ship. A solid, committed and diverse team helped us reach the top 10 teams in Stanford’s venture lab. Our team delegated according to strengths, balancing the art of leading and following with trust. Our initial meetings were about getting in sync and challenging each other respectfully to create high-quality outcomes.

For example, SoLoMo connects customers and businesses via social, mobile and local solutions and based in Chicago. It has a tightly knit, well-balanced team that dates back several years into inception, and that's one of several things it owes its longevity to.

Create a cancer drug, not candy! Then, make it innovative and viable.

As one of the top teams at the end of the Technology Entrepreneurship course, my team at Stanford’s venture lab pitched to a VC in the Silicon Valley. The feedback we got was, "Build a cancer drug; not candy." In other words, build something people actually need, not something frivolous. 

This doesn't mean you solve world hunger or have to create the next Twitter, it just means you should create a solution that is solving a real problem and addresses a gap in the market. As you research for problems to solve, look for solutions that reduce time, cost lesser and save effort for your customers while maintaining a barrier to entry in the market. Our team pivoted several times before landing on our final value proposition, and that's okay.

Chicago's Elevate Digital revolutionized advertising though it’s interactive digital kiosks and created a solution for advertisers, marketers, and consumers and wrapped with a pretty bow!

Find the right support system to doll you up inside out

Angels, VCs and top accelerators such as TechStars Chicago help build connections and get businesses off the ground. The sassy startup also keeps an open mind to everything else. Large technology companies like Microsoft support entrepreneurs via the BizSpark program that provides technology, marketing and funding resources. Media companies for startups such as Tech Cocktail routinely invite entrepreneurs to deliver key notes and promote networking. Venture challenges and business plan competitions held at universities are great to connect with the community and make the right connections.

No startup is an island and a smart, sexy startup always needs experts to glamorize and succeed.
Take for example, SkyVu from Omaha. It partnered with WildBrain Entertainment to bring its Battle Bears mobile game to Hollywood and are expanding to a full season TV series, action figures and toys.

Win the hearts and minds of customers

A stellar startup is always on the lookout for strategies to widen its sales funnel and consistently explore ways to connect with customers including but, not limited to social media. A few ways to connect regular folks to experts include: embracing new technology ecosystems across Windows 8, exploring ways to gamify and reward and also connecting regular folks.

You will never hear from your customers if you don’t leave the building! Meet your customers in person. Listen, feel, observe and absorb their feedback into your product where it makes sense. Identify a target segment that works best with your mantra.

Emerging startups such as Georama from Chicago, engage their fan base via travel trivia each day. This has led to 11,000 likes from 150 in three months. The well-known Quora has redefined search and answers by connecting users to people they admire and respect.

A startup of substance works hard to create a strong business model

Keeping marginal costs low and activating customers at scale is a balancing act mastered by the successful startup.

Iowa's Dwolla creates a mobile payment solution that side-steps credit cards and links directly to bank accounts taking 25 cents for every transaction, and is already moving 30-50 million per month on its platform.

If you understand the lifetime value of customers and tally it against the high-heel cost of customer acquisition, and if you can iterate with limited data points, you’re setup for nothing but, success!
The key is to test out every hypotheses and be open to the trends of change with a clear focus.
About the author:

Sonal Mane is a startup technologist based in Chicago, IL. She writes at Windows of Words and you can connect with her on Twitter. Her team creates a platform for startups to gain visibility and technology support and is also looking for the next high potential startup to nurture longer term. A variety of events form the backbone of Microsoft’s program for entrepreneurs, Windows Startup challenge, Accelerator for Windows Azure, supporting the 500 Startups Demo Day, Startup Weekend and DevCamps. The program is also engaged in financial funding and providing great mentors all over the country. Thirty-seven thousand fans on Facebook and 27k followers on Twitter are a testament to the growing support entrepreneurs and stellar startups are receiving from Microsoft.

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