An Insider’s Guide to Silicon Valley

Event image Decoding Silicon Valley

Book Launch

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of hosting a book launch event of Decoding Silicon Valley: The Insider’s Guide in Palo Alto. Many people, both Danish and American, showed up to hear the authors, Michelle Messina and Jonathan Baer, talk about their new book and to get books signed.

It was an interesting evening with a small ‘fireside chat’ by the authors combined with Q&A’s from the guests who positively participated in the discussion. The authors also shared also their writing experiences: it has taken two years to write the book and resulted in a lot of rewriting and revising. It has been a long journey, however, they are still already planning to write a follow-up book about Venture Capital, entitled Decoding Venture Capital: The Entrepreneur’s Guide.

The event ended with networking, some wine and cheese, and a group photo of the guests and their newly purchased books.

book launch 1

Michelle Messina: author, serial entrepreneur and Advisory Board Member at ICDK

After the book launch, I had a little chat with Michelle about the book and her experience as an entrepreneur. Last, she provide her top 3 recommendations for entrepreneurs coming to Silicon Valley.

Why did you and Jon write this book? What was your motivation and inspiration?

“Jon and I were motivated to write a book that would help entrepreneurs everywhere be more successful. After working with 1000’s of entrepreneurs in dozens of countries, we realized that the further away you are from Silicon Valley, the bigger the misconceptions were about building and growing a company and how things really function in this region. Our objective was to provide a neutral and unbiased perspective of our Silicon Valleys’ best practices that can be applied to a startup anyway. Finally, we want to touch 1 million entrepreneurs with our book within the next year.”

 

What do you wish to be your readers’ outcome? And why should people read the book?

“After reading Decoding Silicon Valley, we hope our readers will better understand and appreciate how Silicon Valley is really organized (the ‘what’ of Silicon Valley) and then how they can be successful (the ‘how’ of Silicon Valley). The book also features 25 interviews with many different types of individuals all of whom provide a deeper understanding of what really happens in Silicon Valley.”

 

What has been your (most important) learning experience with writing the book? As an entrepreneur?

“This is the first book I’ve written and the same applies to my co-author Jon Baer. The most important lesson I learned while writing this book, and as an entrepreneur, is to work with smart people that you like and respect – Jon is exactly that – a great co-author. Other lessons were that it took longer and was much more challenging than I expected. Having a supportive group of friends, colleagues and mentors to talk with, made this long process a bit easier.”

 

You mentioned a follow-up book at the book event. Do you have any comments on that?

“Even though Decoding Silicon Valley: The Insider’s Guide has only just launched, we know entrepreneurs want more information and guidance about how to be successful growing their companies, entering new markets and raising capital. Our next book is entitled Decoding Venture Capital: The Entrepreneur’s Guide and is due out in 2017.”

 

Your top 3 recommendations to entrepreneurs coming to SV?

“The most successful entrepreneurs I have met around the world, do 3 things:

  1. Understand the market: They understand their customers and their market opportunity at a very deep level. Conversations with customers are a regular part of every business day and help them better shape their product, service, and support options. They do more listening than talking with customers.  And many of them have lots of skype and phone calls with prospective customers long before they come to Silicon Valley.
  2. Be surrounded by outside advisors: Great entrepreneurs inherently know they do not, or cannot, have all the answers. The best ones I have met, maintain a group of trusted advisors and mentors they talk to on a regular basis that provide objective feedback and help them to work through the difficult challenges every startup has.
  3. Be open-minded: What may have worked well for the company, in their home market, probably will require modification in a new market. So be open to what the prospective customers tell you they want with respect to their product, service, support, payment and installation needs. Then deliver it!”

 

Reach out to the authors:JBM2BookiStanding

For more info about the authors and Decoding Silicon Valley: An Insider’s Guide, go to:

www.decodingsiliconvalley.com. The book can also be ordered directly from Amazon.

Or contact the authors:

Michelle E. Messina: LinkedIn, Twitter & E-mail

Jonathan C. Baer: LinkedIn, Twitter & E-mail

Danish Ideas: Heaps – There’s a party nearby

heaps 3by Simon Lehnskov Lange, Innovation Associate

On a cold Sunday night in November, I pick Heaps CEO Niels Hangaard up in a bar in Palo Alto, CA. He has attended the introduction meeting for the 12th edition of SCALEit and is super determined on making the best of the program. That is, especially to scout for possible investors for a large expansion. His app, Heaps, is the leading player in its field. In fact, Heaps is the product that defines the market.

Niels Hangaard and I are old friends from high school. As we catch up after years of not seeing each other, Niels starts to explain what Heaps really is. It is not a dating app nor a Yelp for parties. In its simple setup, it lets users (e.g. a group of friends from school) take their social media profiles and merge them into friend groups in the app. Different friend groups can then connect through the same swiping system as is currently seen in apps such as Tinder. Once two groups match, they can chat and arrange to meet each other for socialization over drinks, a party or whatever they feel like.

Niels points out that the storyline of Heaps is such that it takes the awkwardness out of meeting someone in real life that you have acquainted online. Reason? You bring your friends to the meeting and you have an activity planned. As such, it is a more natural way of getting introduced to new friends.

And it works.

Since its launch in October 2014 in Copenhagen, Heaps has gained heavy traction in Denmark which peaked around New Year’s eve as the #1 app in the App Store. The success subsequently led Niels and his 5 co-founders to quit their jobs and studies to bet it all on an expansion into the US. Destination: Los Angeles.

There is no doubt that Niels has his eyes on the prize, and so does the rest of the Heaps team. The team is delicately put together to cover front- and backend app development, design, communications etc. A part of the job of launching a party app is furthermore to engage with the market and indulge the Heaps team into the pool of users. This means that the team lives the Heaps life by arranging and going to parties that can be covered by the app.

The Heaps app launched in LA this November. The team’s focus at the moment is to analyze their users’ feedback and create the best possible product. It might sound like a task that can be solved by simple methodology – however, figuring out how to support people’s behavioral patterns in the best ways is never simple. Especially not when your total user experience combines that of a digital and a real-life. Niels explains that they will work towards tailoring the product to the American market and building traction in the US. Once Los Angeles is closed down and the growth model is ready, they will push the app to all of the US.

It’s about timing resources right.

At the end of the SCALEit week, I adjourn with Niels to catch up on his SCALEit experience. He received tons of feedback on Heaps and started building network in San Francisco that might help him expand his business up along the West Coast. In the foreseeable future, Heaps will raise another round of funding and – if the product gets bullet proof – attempt the big take-over of the US market. Social networks like Heaps have been seen in the past to go viral, and being first-mover in their space between event planning, dating and nightlife, so this could as well be the case for Niels & Co. if the stars are aligned.

While being dead serious about Heaps and its plans in the future, Niels still smiles and laughs every time he points out what a cliché it is that six young guys move into LA with a party business.

Danish Ideas: Be My Eyes – a visionary startup

The Danish startup Be My Eyes has a lot of traction in Silicon Valley. We had a chance to talk with Christian Erfurt, CEO, about the story of Be My Eyes and what lies ahead.   

Be_My_Eyes_Logo

In January this year, a team of talented Danish entrepreneurs launched the app “Be My Eyes” for iOS devices. The app connects blind and visually impaired users with sighted people, who want to make a real difference in their everyday lives. At any moment, a blind or visually impaired person can request help through the app and is then connected to a helper in the same time zone, who can provide assistance via live video chat on an internet enabled device.

When asked how it all started, Christian Erfurt, CEO of Be My Eyes, puts it this way:

“The beginning of our story is actually quite straightforward. Hans Jörgen Wiberg, our inventor, participated in Startup Weekend Aarhus in late 2011, where I met him. After that weekend, development took off. It took twice as long and costed twice as much as planned, but timing-wise we were actually quite lucky since 3G and 4G networks, along with improved live video quality, gained momentum while we were in the development phase.”

Since launch, Be My Eyes has rocketed forward, and the company participated in Innovation Center Denmark’s 10th SCALEit program in March this year. First week after launch, the app was already featured on the world’s five biggest television stations. The interest has just kept growing since then and the company hasn’t had to spend anything on marketing with the app going viral.

Be My Eyes is now a network of eyes with more than 305,000 helpers and 23,000 blind or visually impaired, who have participated in over 107,000 sessions. This scale and impact has exceeded Christian Erfurt’s wildest imaginations:

“To get a grasp of the scale, I sometimes try to visualize how many people are on board by imagining soccer fields with our users on them. I am just really proud and grateful for the positive reactions to Be My Eyes. It has gone so fast and it’s crazy that we’re already in 140 countries.”

Lend Your Eyes to the Blind

Often blind people find themselves in situations, where they could really use a pair of helping eyes. Smart phones and their existing features sort part of this problem and have helped a lot of people with visual impairments, but the problem with the existing video peer to peer systems is that you have to call somebody. Be My Eyes solves this problem by bringing together a community of those who need help with those who are more than willing to provide it.

With Be My Eyes it doesn’t cost anything to help someone distinguish between a can of tomatoes and a can of coconut milk; something that can make a huge difference, if spaghetti Bolognese is on the menu.

Be My Eyes has also proven that the limits of the app are constantly being pushed by its users.

In one example, a blind woman went to her son’s first soccer match and if it hadn’t been for Be My Eyes and its eager community of helpers, she wouldn’t have experienced much of it. But the app put her in contact with a helper, who could see and comment the match.

Another example illustrates the value of Be My Eyes in helping visually impaired people orientate in complex situations. A blind man and his wife were driving in their car, when suddenly the car stops, and the wife exclaims “Accident!”. While she runs out of their car to lend assistance, her husband is left disoriented. Fortunately he was able to get a live overview of the situation by filming the events through the car’s sunroof with his smart phone and receiving updates through Be My Eyes.

These examples illustrate how a platform and its users can solve important problems in seemingly simple ways.

What’s Next?

Be My Eyes already has a lot of traction with it being the largest community of blind in the world. To leverage this position, the company has relocated to Silicon Valley and it speaks to the potential of Be My Eyes that the dedicated and skilled team behind it have been chosen for the prestigious Singularity University Accelerator.

“We have had our first weeks at the Singularity University Accelerator. It’s a great opportunity and we’re being pushed to go forward with full speed. The Accelerator had 400 applicants, but only seven were chosen, so we consider ourselves really privileged. It’s such an amazing program and the six other projects are great – we can learn a lot from them.” says Christian Erfurt.

The next step for Be My Eyes is scaling and doing some analysis:
“Our focus right now is to reach more users and make a difference for more people globally. We also have to try to understand the users we have and how they use the technology before we press the marketing button and start hitting the PR-drums.”

Word of advice

Christian Erfurt and his team have experienced a lot along the way and are full of great advice to Danish entrepreneurs considering taking the leap to Silicon Valley:

“The best piece of advice I can give to other startups is that they should pack their suitcases and participate in ICDK’s SCALEit program, which is a great way to network and get vouched into the system. SCALEit has been invaluable for us and made it a lot easier to get into places and establish contacts that would otherwise be out of reach. It is also highly recommendable to stay for a month afterwards to discern whether Silicon Valley is really the right thing for you and your business. But be warned, Silicon Valley is a really exciting place, and once you’ve been here, it’s quite probable that you’ll want to come back!”

Obviously, a lot has still to come for Be My Eyes and ICDK looks forward to following them on their exciting journey.

A sneak peak into the diversity of Silicon Valley start-ups

What is the next crazy idea that will be spun out of Silicon Valley as a massive, multi-billion dollar company? Do you think it could be a social media platform like Imgur, which has successfully managed to have millions of users request more advertisement from Walmart? Or what about an Air B’n’B for sea vessels, Boat Bound?

COLOURBOX8113628

In the beginning of October, more than 150 companies in Silicon Valley opened their doors to the general public during the NewCo festival. It offered an insight into some of the projects that are taking shape here. For instance, Planet Labs creates “cheap”, miniature satellites to map the entire Earth’s surface every day. They launch 30 at a time like baby turtles – some of them simply don’t make it all the way up and out. Meanwhile, here in the world’s largest consumer nation, public authorities have managed to cut Californians’ water consumption in half over the last decade with captivating campaigns. Perhaps this is why ‘luxury’ water with taste from Hint Water has subsequently become one of the fastest growing brands in the US.

Let us take a deeper look into 3 of the companies that we visited during the festival.

1) Alt School

Alt School is a network of micro schools founded by former head of personalization at Google, Max Ventilla. The idea is to bring the innovation of Silicon Valley into the classroom even on elementary level. Fundamentally, it means that each child gets a personalized curriculum that is constantly adjusting to fit the child’s needs and eradicate competition with others. This is done through technology in combination with a very high teacher-to-pupil ratio on the order of 5-8. Pupils of different ages share the same classroom that is constantly video monitored such that teachers can figure out what works and what does not.

Alt School’s ultimate vision is to make schools be ahead of their time instead of behind. Price for enrollment? $20.000/year. Actual expenses/pupil for Alt School? $150.000. This enormous gab is currently financed by venture capital investment of more than $100M for Alt School’s 3 campuses in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Brooklyn, New York.

Now that’s how you are visionary with big money!

2) Metromile

Metromile is an insurance and smart driving app. They offer pay-per-mile car insurance, which means that you only pay for what you drive.

So how do they do this? Metromile offers a free Metromile tag, which is a small GPS unit that can track your car. This means that they can accurately estimate the insurance premium, customized to your driving behavior. Therefore, drivers who only drive very little, no longer subsidize drivers who drive very much, which to a certain extent is an underlying mechanism of car insurance today.

However, the smart driving app also offers complimentary services enabled by accurate tracking of your commuting behavior.

For instance by using machine learning and algorithms, the app is able to provide you with driving statistics that can be used to better optimize your daily commute, saving you time and gas. The intimate knowledge that the app obtains about your car and driving behavior is also used to provide diagnostics of your car’s running condition and is able to find local mechanics when it is time for it to be serviced.

The GPS can also be used when you are not driving. The app allows you to always find your car, even when you park it in a small alley way, an Ikea parking lot, or your car has gotten stolen. Lastly, the app is able to alert you when you are parked in a street sweeping zone so that you avoid a sweeping ticket. And as a resident of central San Francisco, this feature should not be underestimated – trust me.

Overall, whether the technology of Metromile is going to become the new standard is still difficult to say, and how this fits into a future of driverless cars is impossible to predict, but right now, all Metromile is doing is trying to make every car a smart car.

3) Brigade

Brigade wants to become your online platform for civic identity

Our social and professional lives are already mapped online, whereas civic life isn’t that well represented. Brigade seeks to fill this gap by matching you with advocacy organizations and politicians based on your answers to online surveys and policy statements. The hope is that this, along with easily accessible records of personal political opinions, will motivate us to become more engaged in elections and the society that surrounds us.

The total number of elected officials in the US is currently around 520.000 and has been rising for a number of years. Meanwhile turnout has fallen to historic lows with only 36.4% turning out to vote in last year’s midterm elections. This can be seen as a sign of declining civic engagement levels in the US.

In this connection, the obvious Silicon Valley question is why digital technology hasn’t been applied more to civic and public issues? One answer might be that the sector has a bad reputation, especially with VCs. Another answer can be found in public disillusion and a lack of collective action due to an individualized zeitgeist. Also, voters have to form opinions on an increasing number of issues that are becoming increasingly complex. This especially goes for California with its plethora of referendums.

By making it easier to form opinions towards different policies and candidates, by reminding us of our attitudes and letting us compare them to others’, and by crowdsourcing reasons for stances towards issues, Brigade wants to empower action and opinion expression.

On top of all this, Brigade, by leveraging the opinions of its users, hopes to become a reliable provider of representative information to public officials.

Platforms like Brigade bringing the civic sphere into the digital age might be perceived as a consumerization and watering down of important issues, but wet issues might after all be preferable to a participatory drought.

Danish Ideas: Making Solar Power cheaper than Fossil Fuels

Welcome to our new series aiming to present a number of Danish developed ideas and new technologies that showcase what the Danish start-up scene is all about:

Heliac in action at Roskilde Festival. Photo by Trendsonline
The sun foil from this month’s start-up Heliac in action at Roskilde Festival. Photo by Trendsonline.dk

Despite a population of only 5.6 million people, Denmark boasts a large number of talented entrepreneurs as well as skilled developers, scientists, and engineers.

In the coming newsletters, we will highlight some of these ideas and start-ups.

Are you a start-up yourself, ready to present yourself to Silicon Valley? Then let us get in touch!

Danish technology start-up focus on sun-foil as an energy source
The Danish newly launched company Heliac produces cheap thin plates of plastic, a product using a “sun-foil” technology. Among other uses, the foil can concentrate sunlight in order to cook food or clean water, without having to burn wood or garbage. The ambitious target is to revolutionize the field of concentrated solar power through low cost micro-structured foils.

The foil is named SMILE: Solar Mobile Independent Low-Cost Energy system, and earlier this summer, the foil was presented in a rather untraditional venue – at Roskilde Festival, the biggest music festival in Scandinavia – that being the closest Danish comparison to a camp in a developing country.

Latest, Heliac has launched a Kickstarter campaign that runs until late August, where contributors can either get a SMILE-foil for themselves to be used for camping, or can donate kits to families in the developing world.

Check out the campaign here.

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