I’m always fascinated with how the internet is impacting other creative industries beyond music.
On Saturday I took my little sister to The Vogue Festival as a birthday present, and we watched 4 of London’s most exciting young designers (JW Anderson, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katrantzou and Erdem Moralioglu) discuss how they have grown their businesses from the UK.
As designers who grew with the web, there were a few really interesting insights on how the internet has affected their work:
1. Changing aesthetics: Shopping online for clothes typically involves scrolling through pages and pages of images. Mary Kantrantzou believes that this has lead to shoppers paying more attention to designs that stand out - in particular unusual colours or prints. She believes this has been a factor in the resurgence of print
2. Designing for more climates concurrently. Sites like Net-a-porter clothes allow smaller designers to sell to more markets, and so a designer has to hold more markets in their head when designing - thinking about how a dress will feel in Singapore summer or Brazilian winter.
3. While critics and artists have always been intertwined, the fashion blogosphere has sped up the pace at which a new designer is decontructed and analysed. Kantrantzou shared an interesting story about how very early on in her career she had been exploring various designs, when a fashion blogger wrote a piece which explained how they all fit into a theme from her first piece to her last. That helped to solidify her aesthetic, perhaps faster than would have happened in the past.
Grilled Polenta with mushrooms
Every VC talks about ‘value add’. The unique ways in which they believe they can help you build your business, be a great partner, and increase the chance of your start-up being a success. These include their network, recruitment, strategic advice, operational experience etc.
I have observed that a great angel/VC partner/firm can add enormous value. As a simple example of something concrete that changed Songkick’s trajectory, Saul Klein our board member from Index knew we were urgently looking for a world class designer, and introduced us to Gideon Bullock who he knew from his days at Skype. Gideon became our Creative Director and is a core member of Songkick’s management team. That’s just one example and I have hundreds more examples of things that our investors including Greg McAdoo from Sequoia, Peter Read, Paul Graham and many others have helped us with in building Songkick/Detour.
But there are other investors that I have encountered or learned of who do not add meaningful value beyond their capital, and in some cases, actively destroy value by distracting, confusing and generally offering poor advice to start-ups. I’ve lost track of the number of off the record conversations I’ve had with founders where they tell me about a VC pushing them to do something they know to be fundamentally wrong for their business, and the distraction it is causing.
Clearly there are qualitative signals of who adds value - you could look for example at which VC firms great angel investors steer their companies towards. You can look at how effectively VCs win deals etc. Just as there are qualitative signals around product market fit, the most important concept for start-ups. With product market fit, the most valuable contribution I believe anyone has made to the discussion is Sean Ellis’ concept of ‘% very disappointed’ as a way of quantifying how close you are to to achieving PM fit and moving it away from a purely qualitative discussion.
I’d like to suggest a comparable metric for VCs to track, as they question how much value they add beyond their $$. They should ask their portfolio companies “If I had provided zero capital, how much equity would you give me in your business for the advice and support I provide”. Let’s say the founder came back with an answer of 5%, but you own 20% of the company, you know that 15% of your value is in the capital you provide and 5% in your ‘value add’. YC have taken this to the extreme by offering so little capital that the 6% average equity stake they take is close to entirely value add.
This statistic will be somewhat inflated as founder worry about wounding their investor’s egos, but it should nevertheless provide a good sense of how your value add compares to your equity stake. More interesting, an independent 3rd party with the trust of enough founders, could establish a clearer index of investor value add across a wide set of start-ups, and help to rank value add across the investment community.
Over the long term as an increasing set of funding mechanisms emerge (Kickstarter, Angellist, Upstart etc), this may be an increasingly important question to ask as VC itself is disrupted and partially/completely decoupled from the capital it provides.
I am coming to Europe this summer to visit my old school in Italy (I spent my junior year abroad in Florence). While I’m all the way over there on that side of the pond I would like to play a concert or two.
Where should I play? I usually travel to a distant place because a…
Pork loin simmered in milk with slow cooked fennel and polenta. Turned out pretty well.
For such a vital and rapidly shifting art form, hip hop has been unusually self-aware of its past . With founding production rooted in samples of funk and soul, the culture respects looking backwards to take things forward. Many of the MCs I grew up listening to had a rich and hyper-aware sense of the giants whose work had influenced them. Quoting verses from years gone by in a new rhyme acknowledged your influences and demonstrated how deep your love of hip hop culture went. Premo combined both, sampling past tracks to create new beats and past verses to create his legendary scratch choruses.
As a fan I remember the strange sense of nerdy achievement that came from understanding that an amazing line you had naively attributed to one artist was actually a hat tip to the inspiration a generation took from another. Cuts were like the wordsmiths version of samples. Breadcrumbs to relate the past to the present. If you don’t know, now you know. From Biggie back to Heavy D and Marley Marl in the same verse. That sense of joyful recognition those references trigger in you as a fan was captured perfectly in 8 Mile when ‘P Rabbit’ slipped in a line from the Shook Ones chorus in his closing freestyle over that classic Mobb Deep beat. Like they say – the crowd went wild.
It’s that self-awareness of its own history, along with that of broader culture, that leads people to describe hip hop as the most postmodern music form.
Take ‘Black on Both Sides’ by Mos Def, one of my favourite records of the ‘90s. If in The Wasteland T.S. Elliot packed in an impressive volume of historical shout outs, everyone from Baudelaire to Chaucer to Yeats, that’s nothing compared with the Mighty Mos. Across a lazy late night re-listen to the first few tracks of that record I counted references to over 10 ghosts from hip hop’s past from Rakim, Rap Attack, Tribe etc.
Well I’m not seeing that anymore. Yes there are pockets of Retromania that Noz chronicles hyper-eloquently in this Pitchfork piece, but to my ears they’re not the most exciting areas of rap right now. Everything I’m listening to sounds divorced from the ghosts of hip hop past. Take a listen to recent Future, Waka, Juicy J, Chief Keef, Earl Sweatshirt, Angel Haze etc. You’ll rarely hear a direct reference to a past MC. I’m more excited about where Chief Keef will go next, than being taken back to 1999 by Joey Bada$$.
I’m seeing the same thing from the still vital elder-statesmen of the game. Kanye and his clique are relentlessly looking inward. Have a listen to Mercy, Cold, or Ni**as in Paris. The sound is solipsistic, paranoid, icy, and fixed in the present. You’re more likely to get a reference to Prince William than Biggie. When there is a reference to past ages “I was born on the day that Fred Hampton died” it feels sharply disconnected from the present sentiment. Even those who were there in bygone eras avoid the past more than in their earlier records.
Assuming this is true, I’ve been wondering why that might be. My take on it is that it comes down to two things: 1. mainstream rap was fucking boring for much of the past decade presenting fewer canonical reference points, and 2. the internet has lead to a broadening of rap’s musical influences.
On the first point, to my ears there was an unbelievable drought from 2003 to 2008 relieved by occasional flashes of genius (Hell Hath No Fury, Boy in Da Corner, The Black Album, The Cool). Rap, to my ears, sounded staid, chasing it’s own tail and increasingly trapped by past sounds and themes. Maybe hip hop’s canon is less visible now partly because of this creative discontinuity. It feels like rap got restarted recently and most of pre 2000 rap is as disconnected from a track like ‘Don’t Like’ as early rap would have felt from disco. The contemporary equivalent of a scratch chorus is your own voice chopped Houston style into a ghostly sparring partner.
Historical references if they exist look backwards across a broader expanse of musical culture. I think this is the flipside of Simon Reynold’s brilliant thesis on Retromania. With everything available on YouTube, past and present separated by one click, rap’s base of influences has broadened. A Lil B verse on top of an Imogen Heap sample. The moment that hit me was listening to Blame Game by Kanye – a Chris Rock skit, an Aphex Twin sample, a John Legend chorus. And it felt of it’s era.
Overall I think the loss of self-awareness of hip hop’s pas is a positive shift - if only because it has accompanied the most fertile explosion of new voices in a while. I increasingly feel in the right place when a new track reminds me of precisely nothing.
 So I’ve written this piece with an expectation that you’ll take my opinions as that of a total amateur rap critic. I’m painfully aware of the bounds on my knowledge of rap, and the irony of trying to make any kind of commentary on whether hip hop is or isn’t getting less postmodern, without a Noz Scaggs level of scholarship. Unknown unknowns and all that. Anyway rather than continually caveat this post with self-evident disclaimers like ‘to the best of my knowledge’ I’m stating what I observe to be true. If I’m straight up wrong about something - please let me know in the comments.
Excellent Billingsgate haul with Dan.
Razor Clam & Blood Orange Ceviche:
I really do enjoy filleting fish.
Dan and I had some fun cooking a pig’s head torchon. We were going to do the Dave Chang version, boiling it first then making the torchon. Dan sensibly argued that the Thomas Keller version ‘had more butchery’, so that’s what we made.
Step 1: buy a pigs head. give it a good shave. This was £10! Bargain.
Step 2: use amateur butchery skills & a good knife to remove all the meat from the cheeks (you can see the teeth from the inside in this one.) Try to keep in 2 big pieces. Remove the ears and slice into strips.
Step 3: Carefully remove the skin from the cheeks (we made crackling with it). Assemble the torchon on cling-film. Layer 1 is big cheek pieces, layer 2 is ear, layer 3 is darker meat from inside face. Salt and Pepper. Roll the torchon.
Step 4: Chill, transfer to cheesecloth & tie up with string. Some fresh veg for the braise. Deploy nose for comic effect.
Step 5: braise for a few hours. Chill again. Remove cheesecloth and behold. Slice ready for breading & frying.
Step 6: bread with panko, fry. Serve with sauce Gribiche. OH MAN IT WAS GOOD.
I did kind of a long talk tonight at the London Hacker News Meetup. People seemed to find it helpful so I thought I’d put it up online as well. If you weren’t there you can just skip the italicised bits if you like. I’m not embedding the slides because it stands alone more easily as an essay.
I’m really honoured to be here today to speak to you guys. It’s actually kind of a special moment for me because 5 years ago there was a suggestion on News.YC from tpatke asking “if anyone has the leadership ability to organise a meetup - I would be very interested”. My co-founders and I got pretty excited about the idea of meeting other start-up minded people in London and made an event happen. We did a few more, enough to really seed the idea. But didn’t have the time to see it fulfil its potential so I’m so happy to see what Dmitri and many others have transformed a gathering of 50 people in our first office into! I heard that this event has had almost 1000 people show up in the past, that’s a long way from the 30 or so folks who came to the first one. It’s so cool to see how far London’s start-up scene has come since then.
So I was trying to figure out a good thing to talk about to you all today. Thinking back to everyone who stood in that room back in 2007 and wondering how much the audience has changed. My guess is that most people here are a bit like we were back then. Anxious to do something great and looking to learn how to do that from likeminded people. I thought back to some stuff I wish I knew back then and thought I’d talk about the non-technical side of start-up building, aka selling, aka talking to people you don’t know.
First just as a bit of background I guess I should tell a bit about myself. I grew up in South London and have always been happiest when I’ve been making things. I’ve done that in various guises - I made fighting robots in Japan once, studied Machine Learning at university and worked on a computer vision system to classify breast cancer biopsy scans and various other projects. For the past 5 years I’ve been building Songkick with my co-founders Pete and Michelle, and an amazing group of people, based in East London. We were part of the summer ‘07 YC batch along with Disqus and Dropbox, and the second team from the UK to do YC.
Our dream at Songkick is to make the world of live music as great as it can be. We believe that an amazing concert can change your life. That it’s the most intimate connection between and artist and a fan. We believe that live music should be for everyone. But the industry surrounding live music, whether ticketing or other has drifted to a place where it is failing fans and artists. And as a result the experience of seeing music live has drifted to a place where it is niche. We believe we can fix that by using technology to rebuild the connection between artists and fans.
We’re now the second largest concert service in the world, after Ticketmaster, with over 7 million people using Songkick on the web, iOS and Android every month. We’re partnered globally with brands like Foursquare, YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud and many more. We’ve been fortunate to partner with some great company builders in YC, Index and most recently, Sequoia.
Many of you will hopefully be users of Songkick, but you may not be aware of a new product we’ve been working on called Detour. It’s kind of the natural extension of Songkick, and I’m incredibly excited about it, because it has the potential to dramatically improve the live music experience for artists and fans. Essentially it’s predicated on the belief that when a true fan really wants to see a band live, they’ll do more than just leave a comment on that artists facebook page. They’ll step up and pledge to buy a ticket. And if enough fans self-organise to pledge to bring a band to say London, that de-risks the system for everyone involved and makes more and better concerts happen. We’ve done Detours now, on top of Songkick for artists like Hot Chip, Andrew Bird and Tycho, and it feels like we could be onto something really special. Most importantly the Detour experience it feels authentic to the experience of seeing your favourite artist live.
So over the time we’ve been building Songkick, as co-founders do, I’ve played a variety of roles. I wrote part of the first version of Songkick, and as soon as we found people who were far better at creating web apps, I stepped back from that and put my copy of Agile Web Development with Rails back on the shelf and tried to figure the next most valuable thing I could do. I ended up spending some time on product, then we realised that my co-founder Michelle was vastly better at that than me, so I looked around for the next place to help out. I ended up spending a lot of energy on the hacker side of marketing, which as I’m sure everyone in this room knows has been rebranded as ‘growth hacking’ in the last few years, but for a while I was all up in them traffic acquisition forums figuring out how to get fans to discover Songkick with our zero dollars marketing budget. We found an amazing guy, much more talented that me to take that on after a while and I then spent a while working on distribution partnerships and business development. And at various points in our life I’ve spent a ton of time on hiring, and some on investors and press. I didn’t really know how any of that stuff worked when we started out, and today I want to try to share some of the key things I’ve learned so that if any of you end up stepping into those roles, you have a few helpful abstractions to keep you on course.
Firstly I want to start with something that another YC founder said in a recent article that just felt so succinct:
“If you don’t like shoveling, then don’t work at a startup.
If you like “managing stuff,” then don’t work at a startup.
You build or you sell. There’s nothing else to do.” - Christopher Steiner
I think that’s such a great distillation of start-up roles. You build or you sell. I’d modify that to allow that selling is a form of building. Hiring is all about selling, getting people engaged and excited enough to see how your little start-up could make something they love, genuinely better. So selling is the route to building your team. So is it selling, or is it building? Bus Dev for consumer start-ups is about doing partnerships that define a distributed version of your service. So it’s that building, or is it selling? You go out there and you persuade a great VC to fund you and join your board. If that person becomes a core part of your team, someone who you call up when things get hard, who helps you navigate the real challenges of building a company is that building or selling. And to invert things one more time, when an engineer gets excited about a new product idea and they excitedly run around telling everyone in the company about that idea, is that building or selling.
I think my conclusion has been is that building a company is about making and selling. And you will not succeed by neglecting either. Today I want to talk about a specific version of selling:
Talking to people you don’t know.
Before we go much further I want to just be clear about what I mean by selling. I don’t mean that glengarry glenn ross dude with the leads, or that pushy guy trying to force you to buy something. Fuck that shit. I think that selling is about authentically sharing with someone what you believe in, carefully listening to to what they believe in, and finding the places where those are in alignment.
So selling can take on various guises, from sitting down with a key reporter who covers your industry and explaining why your company is relevant to their column. It can be persuading someone you’ll get 15 minutes with why they should invest in your company. Here are some of the areas it touches:
And I think those are roughly in priority order. Let’s take an example of a couple of well known YC start-ups. I think if you talk to the founders of Dropbox or Airbnb, they’d probably agree that the most important ‘sales’ they have done have been to convince people who became incredible core team members to join the company. People like Joe Zadeh who joined Airbnb really early on and manages big parts of their product. Who architected one of the cleverest and most scalable schemes for recruiting hosts you could ever imagine (look up his sxsw talk on their system for managing professional photographers. It’ll blow your mind). In the case of Dropbox they focused on consumers for the early years, so there has been relatively little BD/Sales, but for Airbnb, the time they spent in person with home-owners, understanding the value they provided them was probably the next most valuable use of founder time out of the building talking to people they didn’t know. Then based on our experience working with Sequoia with whom we share investors, I’m sure that they have come to see their respective partners there as an extension of their core team, and value that ‘sale’ as one of the best things they did. Finally press is a funny one because of its multifarious impact on a start-up’s prospects. It kind of greases all the wheels, it’ll help with hiring, with partnerships, with fundraising and for some companies it can be a scalable means of customer acquisition.
So with that hierarchy laid out I thought I’d dive in and try and share some really specific advice on the top 2 variations of selling to people you don’t know: hiring and BD/sales. In general, this stuff about selling is kind of generalisable. Once you learn how to do it well and scalably in one area, you can transfer a lot of that over to the rest.
There are kind of 2 stages to hiring in my mind.
1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity
2. Persuading them to join you
The second bullet is kind of the beating heart of all the sales you’ll do as a founder or start-up team member. Explaining why what you are doing really matters and why they would have the time of their life doing it with you. You can’t fake that bit, it’s basically about uncovering the most open hearted and authentic motivations that drive you to do what you’re doing, and finding words to quickly and easily explain that to people who haven’t yet realised how important the work you’re doing is. For people who aren’t natural verbal communicators a good hack is to do a 5 why’s analysis of why you’re spending your time on this company. That’ll force you to try to articulate your intrinsic motivations. And hopefully those motivations are large hearted enough to get others inspired to join you.
1. Making the best people in the world aware of your job opportunity
The first part is really interesting and by far and away the hardest part of hiring. It’s what everyone underestimates and it’s a big part of the reason the recruitment industry is so utterly broken. Figuring out how to crack it is probably the most important thing you can do if you’re a seller at your start-up.
Now this is all with the caveat that you’re an exceptional team looking to hire exceptional people. Many start-ups don’t set the bar that high, and in which case hiring is pretty easy. You just hire the best person the recruiter sends you. We have an extremely high bar at Songkick. I think from what I’ve heard from our investors one of the highest in the European start-up scene. And for most of the start-ups I truly admire, companies like Dropbox, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Stripe and others, having a high bar is a defining characteristic. I would argue that with the pace of change in technology it’s the only way to build an enduring company in our industry.
Having a high bar should be an incredible asset as a founding team/start-up, but only if you can reach enough people with your message to keep pace with your growth. If you don’t reach enough people it can flip to being a potential cause of failure. I remember having board meetings in the early days of Songkick where we would have arguments about how quickly we were hiring. Looking back we were both right - we were right to set our bar where we do, and they were right to say we should have been hiring faster. The missing piece what that first and hardest step - making more people aware of your opportunity.
So how many more people? I think a good way to force the average start-up founder to think about this right is to say that for every exceptional person you hire, you will need to make 1000 people aware of the opportunity.
WHUUUUUUT. I imagine people are saying. So if I want to hire 10 people I have to reach 10,000? That’s crazy, I don’t have time to do that, and it sounds crazily inefficient.
I think that’s the reality. You want someone truly world class, who is a great culture fit with your team and who will get obsessed with the problem you’re solving? Then 1000 people is a good proxy for the job you have ahead of you. And if you’re listening to this being like “yo, but the first person that recruiter sent me was perfect, who is this crackpot”, you’re probably not setting the bar high enough or you got very lucky.
So how do you make 1000 people aware of your role? There are 4 main things that I’ve discovered that make a real difference:
1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have
2. hire your users
3. produce unique content that people you want to hire want
4. get out there
1. build a community that doesn’t yet exist around an interest that people who you want to hire have
So for the first one, this is kind of simple. If you can spot an opportunity invest your time in helping people who share your interest connect with each other. That typically results in an opportunity to reach a large number of people you’d possibly hire at scale. Some examples:
- when we started the Hacker News meetup, we figured that it would help people interested in start-ups and technology in London meet each other. We thought that beyond our interest in sharing ideas and support with other start-ups it might lead to a hire or two for us and others. It did and one of our longest standing team members, Dan Lucraft who is a truly exceptional guy joined us via those meetups. He’s the guy with his hand up in this photo at our annual festival trip. Some other examples:
- the news.yc job board is a great example. News.yc is an authentic community but has also been an inspired way to make the worlds best hackers aware of YC and apply, and from there help those start-ups to hire
- Stack Overflow’s entire business is predicated on this insight
- We recognised that the London technology start-up community was being dramatically outspent and out marketed by the big banks and companies like Google in reaching new computer science graduates so we created Silicon Milkroundabout as a community jobs event. That has lead to close to 1000 hires for the London start-up community as a whole and some key people joining our team in the process
So if it’s such a great way to hire, why don’t more start-ups do stuff like this? Bottom line - organising a meetup for 1000 people takes up a fucking lot of time! And it involves talking to a lot of people you don’t know, which many people who just want to get on with building a great product don’t enjoy. It seems excessive as an approach to hiring 10 people. But I’d argue that it could be one of the best things you spend your time on as a founder.
On the off-chance that you actually love the idea of doing that sort of thing, we’ve decided to spin out Silicon Milkroundabout as its own start-up, from Songkick and are looking for co-founders to build that company going forward. So if you’ve spent time thinking about how to fix recruitment let us know.
2. hire your users
This is one of the most epicly scalable ways to reach 1000 people who might be a great hire for your team. If you’re a growing early stage service you might be reaching tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who care about your market every day. Some of whom are developers, some of whom are designers, some of whom would love to work on partnerships for you. Put the time in to engage them in your jobs. From a jobs page that really articulates your company culture and gets people excited about open roles and a career with you, to creative ways to engage the people who engage with you.
I love this Easter Egg in SoundCloud’s source code “You like to look under the hood? Why not help us build the engine? http://soundcloud.com/jobs”
3. produce great content that people you want to hire want
This a really great technique for reaching people at scale. One of the hires I’ve struggled with the most at Songkick is a truly exceptional sales person. Someone I can entrust the biggest and most evangelical sales meetings too. Just like every other role I’ve hired myself out of, someone better than me at getting people excited about working with us.
I’m looking for someone who is kind of a needle in a haystack. Someone early in their career, who will be charmingly determined in service of Songkick’s goals who is personable, creative and brings a hacker spirit to sales, who is on course to start their own company at some point. So I started thinking back to what that person would be looking for as they planned their career. I figured they’d be reading a lot about start-ups and trying to figure out where they fitted in. I wrote a couple of pieces for my blog about what the hustle looks like at a start-up which got over 10,000 visitors between them. I’ve gotten hundreds of applications for that role from that and some of the best people I’m interviewing have come from that.
4. get out there
You can do all the super scalable stuff in the world, but for senior hires, often the only way you’ll know someone might be bored in a role, or a potential fit is if through your network. Unfortunately I don’t really know any scalable hacks there. You just have to put in the time. Help people out in London’s start-up community. Help other start-ups hire. Make intros. Stop to give the advice you’re asked for. Show your true colours as a founder or team member. And eventually people start helping you with some of the hardest hires you’ll make.
Whew. So that’s some of the stuff I wish I’d known about sales as it applies to hiring. Let’s move on to the equivalent for BD/selling to customers.
So if sales in general is about talking to people you don’t know. BD is basically about persuading people you don’t know to do things with you no-ones ever done before.
If that sounds like a challenge then it is. Hopefully once you’ve successfully done that a few times though, you move into what I think most people call ‘Sales’:
persuading people you don’t know to do things with you that someone else has done before.
I’m going to focus on BD, because I think it’s probably more helpful to discuss the bit you’ll do first, where the sale is harder. In some ways you could think of it like this:
BD: Product Discovery :: Sales:Product Execution
So BD is closer in spirit to the early stages of customer development and prototyping that many product designers will be familiar with. The difference is that rather than building something for an end user, you’re building something with another company for both of your end users.
So 8 lessons I’ve formulated about how to do distribution centric BD well. The rest is a reformulation of what I wrote here. So go there for the BD theorizin’
So hopefully all this has been a helpful guide through what I’ve learned about selling at a start-up, and the role that plays in building a company. I hope it’ll help you avoid some of my mistakes or at least know when you’re making that mistake earlier! I hope it’ll help you all hire better, and partner better and I hope this make a tiny difference to London fulfilling its potential as an amazing place to build technology companies.
I’m not normally one for end of year lists but have been inspired to make one after discovering loads of good stuff through them over the xmas break.
Books (most published before 2012):
Caveat: haven’t seen Amour, Zero Dark Thirty or This is 40 yet.