Will Koffel: Q&A Session

Q&A Session: Will Koffel

Will Koffel Q&A Session is happening on July 17th, 2019 at 10:00 AM PST (1:00 PM EST)

Will leads Google Cloud Startup Programs for the Americas, with a background building technology-focused startup teams for over 20 years. From the founding engineering team launched out of MIT to start Akamai in 1998, Will has held CTO roles at 5 venture-backed startups. Most recently, Will was CTO at Qwiklabs, acquired by Google Cloud in 2016. Prior experience includes roles as CTO at Thumb, a highly-engaging mobile consumer opinion gathering platform, and CTO/VP of Operations at Sermo, the professional social network for physicians. He launched the Boston chapter of Venwise and has served as an advisor and mentor-in-residence for many Boston area startups. Will received B.S. degrees in Computer Science and Music Composition from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In another part of his life, Will is a semi-professional musician, singing with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, and for fun recording gigs like the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack. He lives with his family in greater Boston, and online @wkoffel.

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Will Koffel – Transcript

Q&A Session with Will Koffel @ Head of Startup Ecosystems

July 17th, 2019

I live in a city (Edmonton, Canada) that is known for its academic research on Artificial Intelligence (specifically Reinforcement Learning) – we have great work done at the University of Alberta but we are struggling to commercialize that and produce home-grown AI startups that stay here. What are a few things a growing city can do to build that community better? Especially one as isolated as Edmonton?
I love Canada startup ecosystems, some great stuff happening up there, and definitely AI along the Waterloo/Toronto corridor, we see a ton of action there. A recent article I wrote has some thoughts on emerging ecosystems. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/335932 – It’s not an easy challenge, but I think patience is key. We all want success to happen overnight in new markets, but it’s a grind (kind of like building a startup!).

What do you think are the challenges of blockchain startups in terms of getting set up, getting funding, and making an actual impact in the world of today?

Blockchain startups first need to answer the question “why the blockchain” (vs traditional centralized data stores, for example). Investors are very skeptical right now if there isn’t an irrefutable answer to that question. We’ll see what effect Libra has on the global crypto dialog, but I’m still waiting to see “killer apps”. I suspect there will be a few important ones (government applications, supply chain fraud), but fewer than the hype would suggest.

What’s the best advice on leadership that’s had the most lasting impression on you?

I’m congenitally impatient, and an engineer, which means I’m intense about trying to “fix everything”. I had a co-founder once who was a bit older and a LOT more chill. He clearly reminded me that “You can’t solve all the problems at once.” That’s stuck with me and helps me remember that big things come from lots of small steps.

When dealing with a startup what’s the best advice you would give to someone who is working at one and who has never before??

Startups are the best place in the world to learn fast. About an industry, about teams, about your own strengths and style. It’s often *very* hard to predict how a startup will perform, even over the medium term (if it were easy, we’d all be venture capitalists). So if you are an employee (vs. an executive) at a startup, prioritize working hard in a way that you are constantly growing and learning. That way, if the company succeeds, you’ll be positioned to grow with it. And if the company fails, you’ll feel like it was time well spent and propels you to your next adventure.

What are some of the differences/opportunities or challenges you’ve faced helping aid ecosystems in LATAM or other global areas such as the African continent? Thanks again!

Some thoughts in a recent article (linked to from another thread too) https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/335932. I’ve spent time in LATAM, but haven’t yet visited Africa myself, we have a lead in Israel who has worked some in those emerging markets (South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana mostly). It’s easy to group LATAM together, and while that’s true, every market is also unique. We typically see some differences between Brazil (huge economy, Portuguese speaking) vs. SPLATAM (Spanish speaking LATAM). In SPLATAM, almost all startups are starting off as international. They need to address a big market. But many of the solutions are native to their region. For example, tons of startups doing things in mobile payments, which is prevalent globally, but not so much in the US.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts around how google cloud initially built out a “startup ecosystem.” So more broadly I guess I’m asking for companies and protocols that are prioritizing a similar business goal, what are the top things to focus on as you initially build out a startup ecosystem?

I think there are two elements here.
1. Relationships with all the ecosystem players who touch startups, like VCs, accelerators, incubators, code-schools, and universities.
2. “Community” for startups, through events, online channels, newsletters, building connections between startups.

The first can be done in an organized way, blocking and tackling, much like you would approach a sales process. You have to identify what your strengths and opportunities are there (your “go to market” with those ecosystem players). For Google, that’s things like the strength of our technology, the strength of our developer brand, and consumer brand. The second, “community” is much more nebulous. Takes patience. And you need to establish a dense core. Trying to create a global community is too big a challenge, there’s too much noise to cut through. I also believe that communities rarely form around “vendors”. Google is big enough that there are some exceptions there. But for the most part, corporates will be an enabler/sponsor, and ideally a trusted/valued participant in startup communities. Especially ones who are local and have a regular voice and presence at events, demo days, etc.

I’d love to hear you comment on your favorite (go-to) data-analytics stack, how the stack usually evolves, and when you see it as the best time to level up? And if you could go back in time 3 years and talk with a younger version of yourself, what lessons would you share with him (you) on this topic?

In the beginning, you’ll likely have one DB that serves both your transactional needs, *and* your business intelligence/analytics needs. General RDBMS like MySQL or Postgres (likely hosted on a public cloud-like Google’s CloudSQL offering). On top of that, my favorite tool these days is Looker (which coincidentally Google has announced the intention to acquire). Unfortunately, they’ve gotten so successful that their pricing has gone up to a degree that it’s expensive for startups. Lots of others are lightweight and easy to start with, things like Mixpanel and that ilk. The hardest thing about early analytics is having the discipline to tag and record your own data in a sensible way. Don’t make it overly complicated, start with a few key indicators, build the muscles around looking at them daily, and then grow from there. At some point (usually around a series-A/B), companies will often split off into a separate BI data warehouse (like Google BigQuery), and grow the sophistication of those tools. Typically when the team grows to include dedicated analysts on the marketing or sales org, and the workloads become separate from core product engineering.

I find it’s important to acknowledge two kinds of analytics:
1. the consistent structured, and pre-defined metrics. These are typically in your dashboards, weekly reports, the KPIs, etc.
2. the exploratory, serendipitous metrics that come from smart people being about the poke around the data, slice, and dice it different ways. The data science fangirl, or the half-drunk developer running SQL queries (against a read-only replica DB please, especially half-drunk!) and then coming to the team and saying: “You know what’s weird? Check out this pattern. And did you know that unrelated metrics X and Y seem directly correlated with each other? I wonder why…”

Give breathing room to your teams to accomplish both of those at a measured pace.

Can you share some insights about marketing to startups at this stage? Do you have personas built out? What have you found effective in targeting them? Engaging them? Converting them

Startups are a tough audience! I know because as a startup founder for 20 years, I basically ignored all the inbound, I was so busy trying to get the product built and keeping my own company afloat! In general, we know that startups don’t like to get on the phone. They don’t want “consultations”. And they don’t want “strategic partnerships”. You should identify a short list of problems that you can solve right now for a startup. Pitch those solutions clearly (no inscrutable jargon or lofty promises), and ideally make them self-service (a founder should be able to heed your call to action on their own at 2 am on a Sunday).

I’d love your feedback on getting big culture wins on a new/small team. We often operate as an agency within an agency (core business is web design) and I want to make our team something special.

Be Bold, Audacious, and Fun. Embrace the quirks, highlight them, celebrate them. Don’t be afraid to try things, like weird meeting formats/times, or internal awards, or authentic personal and emotional elements threaded into the work culture. Start open, transparent, human. As companies grow, they don’t get any *more* of those things than you have now. I find cultures are either:
1. Defined. Everyone sits down and says: “This is what we believe in, and how we want to behave”
2. Emergent. Everyone sits down a year later and says: “This is what we like about our culture, let’s write it down so new people can adopt the best parts of us”. I’ve seen both work, but make sure you know which you are doing.

How do you lift off a startup in different worldwide regions? Also, how are you able to have the budget for startups in different areas around the globe?

Almost all startups we see at launch in a given region/language/culture first. Some of those have an easier time expanding (think: Slack) and others need massive capital to go global (think: Bird). Typically, global expansion is something that would happen very consciously and is often correlated by a new large round of fundraising to help support the necessary budget. You’ll see a lot of announcements about a “Series-C” fundraising that talks about how the money will be used to fuel global growth.

I run a Startup Program for our Customer Service SaaS Product, Stella Connect, and would love to hear about your success with driving interest for your product with startups. Specifically, what channels have worked best for you in getting in front of startups? It seems like you do everything from partnerships (VC, accelerators) to events, and so on. Would love to hear where you focus most of your time.

I can certainly point to some specifics, but they are a lot of the typical go-to-market stuff. Understand your audience (for us, that’s early-stage startup CTOs. For you it might be a COO or director of customer service). Building awareness, then intent/interest, getting them to try, ultimately adopt and ideally become advocates for your product back into their circles. Classic funnel stuff. We divide our efforts among various parts of that funnel. The top is very important for us because Google Cloud is a challenger in this huge market. We find that startups who try GCP *love* it. So marketing and getting people to try it is half the battle. But we also work closely with top startups, helping them get better connected inside Google. Being a team at a very large company creates challenges, but also means that we can collaborate across lots of other programs. For example, we joined forces with 5 other startup-related programs last year for a big presence at SXSW, something that I wouldn’t have done on our own (or suggest that smaller companies try since it’s very expensive to have an impact there).VCs are good for awareness, but honestly don’t promote products to their startups very often. Accelerators and Incubators are better at that. There’s no substitute for a human connection, having your best people speaking, doing office hours, and introductions. Startups don’t really do webinars, they are too busy and webinars often come across as too generic.

Is it important for founders of an early-stage startup to have experience working with #BigCompany? Or if they don’t have, can an accelerator/incubator program help them get more funds even without a good background/experience.

I’m not sure that raising money is correlated with having experience in a big company. Startup founders come from many different backgrounds.

Typically investors are valuing subject matter expertise/passion, coupled with a very high rate of output and bias to action.

Those skills can be gotten at big companies, other startups, or even developed early and during the process of launching your first startup. I find that accelerators and incubators provide two areas that help you achieve funding:
1. Focus. The good ones keep you on track against the most important goals. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the most important goals are until you have experienced mentors and advisors challenging and guiding you.
2. Visibility. The best accelerators have good connections and the attention of the best investors, who will be watching to see what startups were selected and what they’ve achieved over the course of a program. But ultimately, the hard part is up to the founders and their ability to execute. No shortcuts, I’m afraid!

As an early-stage startup, how can a founder with not much tech knowledge utilize GCP? Should we hire people at this stage, or learn to use it first?

I wrote these thoughts on the topic way back in 2013, but I think they are still relevant today: http://www.clearlytech.com/2013/12/05/learn-code/ — It depends a lot on what you are trying to do. But in general, learning GCP is unlikely to be the best use of your time towards building a great product. There are amazing ways to test your product, prototype without code, and more. Once you’ve proven that the idea has legs and that people want to pay for it, you’ll have no trouble attracting funding or partners to help you build it (well, maybe not *quite* that easy…but that’s the basic gist of it!).

I’m a marketing guy and have startups in my blood. I see many (as well as older companies) who struggle with the basics of marketing. I’m thinking of putting together a simple, visual marketing roadmap with a couple of layers – what to do, the value in doing, key potential tools, and resources to help do. Simple and visual. I’ve seen a lot of “marketing for startups” presentations and often they seem overwhelming or not actionable or they’re very narrowly focused. Long intro to my question – do you think this would be of real value or am I fooling myself?

Yes, almost certainly it’s of real value! Especially if you have a particular skill in threading that needle between too-generic/specific and too-abstract/tactical. The hard part (like with any product usually…) is figuring out how to get the word out among all the noise (and there’s more noise in the marketing-resources world than anywhere. Those marketers love to promote their own stuff!). If you do have tools and resources you are recommending, see if you can get those teams to help promote your materials as well to get additional traction on them. I often like to ask “why doesn’t this already exist?” You should have a thesis on why you can’t just Google for “startup marketing playbook” and find something useful. Maybe no one will pay for that? Maybe no one has quite nailed the simple visual presentation that will cause it to go viral? Maybe there are a ton of them, but no one can figure out how to get them highly ranked?

What do you think about Google AMP4email?

I haven’t looked much at it as a developer, and I haven’t built any email workflows personally since it was announced. But as a user, I can tell you that it’s been used to deploy more interactive emails inside Google for the last 6 months or so (e.g. reply to Google docs comments from inside the notification email) and the user experience has been quite slick. So my layman opinion is that I’m optimistic!

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