March 29, 2013
The goal of a media-focused startup.

Let’s be honest, the goal of any media-focused startup should be to make it onto this list of suggested sites to block, as provided by a “focus app” I recently downloaded. Oh no, you are no pariah - far from it, you will have qualified as one of the most addictive sites on the internet!

[And yes, I took a screenshot and jumped onto Tumblr so I could post before lockdown takes effect. ]

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February 20, 2012
StartupBus, Mexico and the Next Wave of the Digital Age

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When Mexico City stormed its way to 1st place in our Regional Unlock Competition late last year, we at StartupBus HQ were taken completely by surprise. Included in a moment of topographical whimsy, this south-of-the-border ecosystem had thoroughly dominated a selection process designed to gauge regional scale and support. Robust community? Latent capacity for talent discovery? Energy out the wazoo? Tick! Tick! Tick! 

So it transpired that I found myself on a short plane ride from the king of tech hubs- San Francisco - to one that is as underrated as it is misunderstood. I had arrived at a burgeoning ecosystem undiscovered (or at least untouched) by the riches of Silicon Valley, the bubble of speculation and the distraction of populist hype. Its mere existence is a testament to the charisma and sheer willpower of the many locals who have reinvested their time and experience back into those around them (a special shout-out goes to Santiago Zavala and Cesar Salazar of MexicanVC, and the other linchpins whom I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet). 

Countless hours of community organizing have finally manifested into a beautiful circumstance where local idealism lives up to the competitive standards of a global marketplace. The purist in me knows this as a marketplace of ideas; the pragmatist recognizes it as a race to execute. In both respects, Mexico is on the map

Despite first impressions of cultural conservatism, bureaucratic rigmarole and mild-chaos on the freeway, Mexico could represent a gem for any outward-looking investor. It has an under-invested base of talented engineers and designers (for those preferential towards geographic arbitrage, read “under exploited”), and their startups are comparatively less expensive in investment terms - ideal for the spray & play nature of seed and venture capital. Most importantly, Mexicans are culturally innovative, resourceful and inherently entrepreneurial - it’s a fact that they must innovate to survive, both in business and in life. 

Yet while the focus of the article appears StartupBus-focused, this isn’t a story about us. We just happened to have stumbled head first into the second wave of the digital age where the cost of factors of production are low, education levels are high, and the disparity between raw ambition and opportunity has never been greater. As developing ecosystems come to the fore, American startups are in for a massive surprise: life is about to become a whole lot more competitive

Maligned immigration policies may deny entry to foreign workers (a topic for another rant) but ideas transcend such borders. Facebook and Pinterest are not unique to the American marketplace, they are human-centric and appeal to our core desires to communicate and share experience. Foreign engineers are acutely adaptable to the American marketplace - they speak English, were raised on US-exported pop-culture and their very “foreignness” gives them an expanded worldview. 

Silicon Valley may be unique, but no bastion is impenetrable. En masse, the tide of innovation is changing: Skype and Spotify are name-brands, Shaker (Israel) won TechCrunch Disrupt and Stripe (Irish brothers) just raised $18m from powerhouse investors including Peter Thiel- but this is just the beginning. As increasing numbers of developing ecosystems come into play – as Mexico has done – the second digital wave will have an increasingly foreign flavor.

So what’s holding them back? 

Capital: 

For both seed and scaling, foreign-based startups have less access to capital - this is just a reality. In a Darwinian sense this leads towards a profit-or-die mentality, but in a big-hits world this is prohibitive to allowing fringe-dwelling aberrations to exist until reaching their full potential (hint: the fringe is where the big profits lie). LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook all required bold capital commitments in order to thrive. De-risking early forays into product discovery is a necessary step to creating big hits in this new-technology paradigm.  Investors that get in on the ground floor (seed & pre-seed round) will accrue reputation and portfolio benefits. 

Mentorship:

Skype is just a key-stroke away - this won’t last long. Experienced entrepreneurs willing to connect with foreign ecosystems will have the most to gain here. Likewise, inflexible Silicon Valley firms have the most to lose. 

Conservative Culture:

Developing-ecosystem entrepreneurs have more to lose than most middle-class Americans. StartupChile’s entrepreneurial pull strategy, Tec de Monterrey Zona Norte’s StartupBus commitment and New Zealand’s Kiwi San Francisco-based Landing Pad are all steps in the right direction. This will be the slowest factor to change - interestingly, it will also make the boldest entrepreneurs the easiest to spot in the short term. 

Team Mexico’s involvement in StartupBus may be no more than a metaphor for the rise of developing ecosystems, but for all they embody it’s going to be a wild ride. Watch this space (http://startupbus.com) March 5-11 for updates.

p.s.

* David Andujo (http://rewards.to) thanks for all your help on the sponsorship front! 

* StartupBus Mexico would not exist without the support of Tec de Monterrey Zona Norte. Their bold leadership and willingness to invest in a competition with “fuzzy” networking returns will pay dividends to the Mexican ecosystem for years to come.

* As an Australian, I am unaccustomed to the foibles of political correctness re Mexico/US relations. Please excuse any inferred connotations as purely coincidental.

July 17, 2011
The Starting Line…

With my first product launch imminent, I gaze out the Caltrain window and reflect upon the journey thus far.

Five months ago I arrived in San Francisco with little more than a laptop, a camera and a pile of sketchbooks; the assorted remnants of a few years’ worth ideas that I had happened to remember to archive on any particular day. It was these and a fascination with the internet that had led to my arriving in San Francisco on that particular day - a measure of blind optimism certainly helped.

My network of the time was zero; a circular, though not particularly useful number. My formal experience: also zero, although I had been exposed to the vicissitudes of product development through a good friend and many nights spent imagineering over beer.

The number zero thus became a concept and a challenge. The concept of being disconnected from the startup world - the source of tomorrow’s ideas - and the challenge to rectify this predicament, not through small incremental steps, but in a manner that reflected the timeline under which I was operating: December 20, Judgement Day Visa Expiration Day (VE day?).

With little funds and a distain for spending them, I leveraged the most valuable tool I had: a Canon 7D, a beautiful camera the size of which carries sufficient gravitas to say "I’m a professional, I belong here”. And so off I went, exchanging my services for entry at events, conferences and parties; all good occasions for finding large numbers of like-minded people with one primary objective: to network.

For experience, I sought environments with the greatest learning curve. Recruiters, habitually prioritizing master’s theses over life experience, were a foregone surrender - that left competition. So I hustled my way onto The Startup Bus (scholarships from Capgemini’s Accelerated Solutions Environment & the ANU School of Business helped defray the costs of competition & SxSW entry, respectively), launched headlong into a Startup Weekend (special mention, it is here that I found my current team) and stumbled across The Lean Startup Machine (builds your customer development chops). Each event with different challenges and benefits and all sharing a common theme: actors who thrive under pressure.

They are a special breed, these startuppers. They crave the long hours, shitty pay and high levels of uncertainty - all for a shot a making it their own way and the allure of a “non-linear progression curve”. The culture in the startup world is not a normal one: security is sacrificed for self-sufficiency, obsession is encouraged and long hours are almost a competition in itself - especially with the perennial deadline approaching (death). 

After some time of being embedded within startup culture, interaction with “regular” folk is often interjected with outbursts of “what the f*#k is wrong with you?!!” and “this is fun how??”. But the reality is that it IS fun, at least for the right kind of person -my personal motto being move or explode. In fact, if I weren’t doing this I would most likely be miserable or dissatisfied at the very least. I am a firm believer that we make our own destiny and opportunity comes to those who seek it. Hard work is just preparedness for the luck we may find along the way.

A special mention goes out to the United States Government, whose immigration policies consist of a myriad of obstacles designed to thwart even the most conscientious entrepreneur, whose only crime was a desire to create a viable business which in turn would create jobs. You are my greatest stress factor and my biggest motivator, so in the most perverse sense of the word: thanks.

So here I am, at the edge of the abyss. My camera sold for stickers (3000. Vinyl. Die-cut: the best that my money can buy) and what little reputation I have is on the line. 4 days until launch. 4 days to make an impression, validate hypothese, get sign-ups, prove traction, refine monetization strategy.

I have bootstrapped my way to the starting line.

p.s. To the friends and family who helped me get this far, thank you. Your continuing encouragement means more than you know.

—-

[See our product at picture.ly, network with us at facebook.com/picturely and tweet us @seepicturely. The Picturely team consists of myself, Hadiyah Mujhid, a stellar engineer and Bosco So, who is coding away from his hotel room in Bali as I type. A special mention also goes out to Chris Bennett who was with us for the beginning at Startup Weekend SF but has since withdrawn to focus on running his startup, Centrally, and Black Founders]

[If you would like to see our original Startup Weekend project go to imaiku.me]

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