I was strolling around MoMa with a friend the other day and we were wondering why some artists get to exhibit in museums while most don’t. Art, after all, is subjective, so it’s difficult to say that some piece of art deserves to be up on the wall while another doesn’t. My instinctive thought as we were debating on the subject was that the artists who end up in museums are not necessarily the most talented ones, but the ones better than their peers at meeting and attracting people. So I did a bit of googling when I got home, and apparently wasn’t far off.
The way museums select their art is through art curators. These curators go out to galleries, exhibitions, art fairs, and meet people. Over time, they spot the galleries and dealers that always discover interesting talent and build relationships with the owners or dealers of those galleries. They then buy their art for the museum. So as an artist, you need to meet gallery owners (or their dealers) and get your art bought (or exhibited) by them. That gets you seen by the curators, who purchase your art from the galleries and put it up on the wall in the museum. To me, that sounds familiar.
Let’s take venture capitalists. They have curators, generally the partners. These partners go out to their angel investor friends, demo days, incubators, accelerators and meet people. Over time, they spot the people or accelerators that always discover interesting startups and build relationships with them. Then they fund stuff. So as a startup, you need to meet angel investors or accelerators, get on their radar (or become part of their programmes), in order to get connected to the venture partners and raise the hard, cold cash.
This applies to everything - art, technology, funding, education and beyond. The world’s currency is the relationship, and relationships need to be started, nurtured and strengthened. It takes time, but it’s why some artists get their art up on the wall at MoMa, it’s why some founders get their startup acquired by Google and it’s why some parents get their kid into Harvard while most don’t. Certainly, all of this will most often happen only if the art is good, the startup is relevant and the kid is fucking smart - but more on this in another post.
The importance of building relationships is common sense. But where most fail over and over again is at investing the required time and energy in building real, meaningful, genuine relationships, repeatedly and consistently. You can’t meet the curator for MoMa and expect your art to be up on the wall the next day or have a coffee an investor and expect a cheque that very moment. At the very least, it takes a few months. Most likely, it takes a few years. In the same way, you can’t call up the investor you haven’t seen in two years and tell them you’re raising a funding round. It doesn’t work like that.
So there you go - art, venture capitalists and pretty much everything else in life have one thing in common: they happen because someone knows someone who knows someone who can make it happen. Make sure that someone is you. If you don’t, somebody else will.
The news hit the stands this morning that Brainient has signed a partnership with ITV, the largest commercial television network in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. This is big news for us, for a few reasons:
Firstly, it’s a sign that what we’ve been preaching as a company for the past four years - interactive video formats becoming the default in video advertising because they deliver substantial increase in performance - is finally mainstream and broadcasters like ITV are doubling down on interactive formats.
Secondly, it’s a testament to the quality of our product and our team’s ability to deliver interactive video formats at scale. In the first three quarters of 2013 we’ve delivered over 1,000 campaigns for customers in seven different territories. That’s a huge accomplishment for the small team we have here at Brainient.
Thirdly and most importantly, signing a customer like ITV is a key milestone for the company and one that’s already created a domino effect across many other blue chip customers in the UK and beyond.
I believe a company is only as good as the people it employs, and I couldn’t be more proud of the team we have at Brainient. I am fortunate to be able to learn new things from my team everyday and feel very lucky to be able to surround myself with amazing people.
You can read more about the deal here, and expect more good stuff from Brainient in the upcoming months. We’re only 2% into what we think is possible in digital advertising and we’re very excited about the new stuff we’re working on.
As companies grow, they inevitably start seeing some employee turnover. If the company’s culture is entrepreneurial, some employees will go and start their own companies. If it’s rigid, some will leave for a more flexible startup. If it’s chaotic, some will leave for corporates with a clearly defined structure. It’s inevitable and rather than trying to fight it, CEOs should focus on always having alternatives. This is easier said than done.
A good friend of mine is one of Romania’s most prolific entrepreneurs. He started the first advertising agency in the country, one of the first TV channels, a number of radio channels and his net worth is in the hundreds of millions of euros. We were speaking about his current ventures a few weeks ago and he mentioned he’s currently involved in over 30 different projects. I found that bewildering and was curious to understand what his involvement is with all these projects. As it turns out “all I do these days is connect people. My network is the single most important asset I have” were his words.
Great CEOs, investors and executives have an amazing, almost native ability to build and nurture relationships. Real relationships, not acquaintances that you bump into at conferences and say hello. I believe 100 quality, genuine relationships are more valuable than 1000 connections on LinkedIn. That’s difficult to create and maintain, because as a CEO you always have other priorities and never have enough time.
Personally, I only realised how important nurturing relationships is when I had a month to hire a replacement for a key employee and no idea where to start. As a rule of thumb, I think CEOs should nurture two-three close relationships with potential employees for each key position they have in their company (read: direct reports). It’s really difficult but I believe it pays enormous dividends once you’ve done it.
I’ve built a very simple system that helps me keep the relationships that I care about active: a spreadsheet. It contains the name, industry, location and the last time I’ve seen a particular person. When I notice that I haven’t seen someone for more than two months, I reach out and invite them for a catch-up. I currently have 60 people on this highly curated list and could probably actively nurture up to 150 people without it affecting any of my other activities. I periodically review this list and either add or remove people. It works like a charm and if you’re serious about being as successful as my friend mentioned above, you should start doing this now.
I read an article a few days ago about how drowning doesn’t look like drowning. “Drowning is not the violent, splashing call that most people expect”, says the author of the article.
Startups are a lot like that. There are great startups and there are failing startups. The ones that are failing don’t look like they’re failing. They don’t crash and burn. Failing startups, like drowning people, don’t make a sound. They rarely have anything to announce, rarely hire any people and often lose the best ones.
I think the biggest reason why failing startups fail is because the founders are as breathless as they’d be if they were drowning. They can’t call for help, either because they’ve lost faith in what they do, because they’re afraid of what others will say or because they can’t see how anyone could help them. All founders go through this. Whoever says they haven’t is lying.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve had a couple of friends whose startups have failed. The symptoms were exactly as described above, and the founders were as breathless as I’d ever seen them. So if you’re talking to a fellow entrepreneur and everything seems OK, don’t be so sure.
Most often the most common indicator that a startup is failing is that they don’t look like they’re failing. Generally the founder will start talking a lot when he’s asked how he’s doing, without mentioning any actual progress. He’ll mention he has some new interesting ideas he’s been thinking about. He’ll allude to M&A “discussions”. I’m sure there are more indicators, but the bottom line is that if it’s a friend you’re talking to, you will notice that something’s wrong.
There are two things to learn from this parallel: firstly, that one should let their friends and fellow entrepreneurs know when they need help. But more importantly, I believe it’s our duty as entrepreneurs to help our peers. That means noticing when someone is drowning and pulling them up. We don’t do enough of that.
Five years ago the Blackberry was the most loved smartphone in the world and Samsung was known for making refrigerators and TVs. Three years ago Groupon was the fastest growing company ever and Yahoo’s founder & CEO Jerry Yang was resigning. Two years ago Zynga was one of the most innovative technology companies around and Supercell wasn’t making any money (they’re now making $2M / day). It’s bewildering to observe how during the same timespan some companies have reached all-time lows while others have grown exponentially. And there’s a common denominator for the downfall and success of these companies: mobile.
The companies that have grown over the past few years or in recent months (Apple, Samsung, Yahoo, Supercell) focused all their efforts on mobile while the ones that are quickly becoming irrelevant (Groupon, Zynga, RIM) missed the mobile step and they’re now haemorrhaging talent and money (which is ironic for RIM, creators of Blackberry, as they are after all a mobile hardware company). But besides understanding the importance of focusing on mobile if you’re running a technology company, I think there’s an even more important lesson to be learned here: earnestly observing and adopting trends.
Trends are important because they indicate where a certain industry is going to end up, long before it becomes mainstream. There are obvious trends like mobile, wearable technology or digital currencies. But there are smaller, generally industry-specific trends that are harder to spot: in digital advertising, it’s the trend of personalising ads (by device, platform, person); in fitness, it’s the quantified self movement; in health, it’s putting medical data in the cloud. Observing trends is important because it enables entrepreneurs to identify gaps in the market before others do.
In terms of identifying trends, it’s not rocket science. Chris Dixon put it well in a recent blog post saying that “what the smartest people do on the weekend is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years”. Even more so, I think what the smartest people discuss online is also a good indication of what’s going to become a trend. I’m a big fan of discussion boards and community platforms like Reddit and Stack Overflow, because that’s where the geeks hang out. It’s how I first found out about Bitcoin three years ago and Ripple most recently (see? you should be on Reddit), and it’s why last year, long before our competitors, we started focusing on mobile at Brainient. Another way is to observe kids’ behaviour. Take any kid who’s ever touched an iPad and you’ll notice that they expect every electronic device to respond to touch: the TV, the laptop screen, the refrigerator.
All in all, I believe there are many ways to spot trends if you have an earnest desire to observe what’s going on around you and be willing to be laughed at by the mainstream (the way they’re currently laughing at Google Glass). But it’s an important skill to develop if you want to innovate and one that every entrepreneur should cultivate.
I’ve never been good with timezones. I understand how they work and why they exist, but it’s a hindrance in my day-to-day calendar management because I generally need to schedule meetings on three different timezones (Bucharest, London, NY).
Today however, I discovered an amazing feature that will turn me into a calendar pro: the ability to add another timezone to your Google Calendar. Just go to Calendar -> Settings and in the “Your current time zone” section you now have the ability to add another time zone.
I love it how Google creates these tiny, little features with the sole purpose of delighting customers. More companies should do this.
Fred Wilson wrote a great post today about working too hard and not getting anywhere, something I’ve felt intensely over the past seven years since I started my first company.
But while working too hard and not getting anywhere can be solved by something as elegant as just changing the business model, there’s another scenario that’s not as easy to overcome: working too hard trying to solve the wrong problem.
A few years ago I founded a startup called BrainTV, aiming to build a new type of media company, targeting what we called “smart people”. The concept was to produce video content on certain topics (business, investment, art, theatre) that would be partly informative, partly entertaining (think of it like The Economist meets The New Yorker). I thought it was a good idea at the time but in hindsight - there were so many holes in the whole thing, I don’t even know where to start. We were trying to solve an innexistent problem. We were also perceived as arrogant and even worse, the content wasn’t that good. When I acknowledged that, I shut it down. It took 12 months.
I see a lot of this most recently through my involvement with the Digital Catalyst Fund and I’ve become quite upfront with founders whenever I see it. However, not once have I seen a founder accept that they may be working on the wrong thing, which I can understand as they’ve invested so much time and effort into their idea.
The solution to this is for investors, friends and families to stop being nice. It’s hard to tell the truth when you know it will hurt, but if an idea is shit you would be doing that founder a much bigger favour if you say it’s shit rather than letting them bang their head against the wall for 12 months.
Every quarter, Brainient organises a breakfast event called - evidently - Breakfast & Brains. It’s a forum for our clients and friends, where we discuss the newest happenings in the video advertising world and the next one (happening on May 1st) will be all about mobile: the technology, standards and tracking across the multitude of mobile devices out there.
We’ll have George Dixon (Manager - Mobile & Digital at MediaCom), Paul Lyonette (European Sales Director at YuMe), Simon Andrews (Founder of Addictive Mobile) and yours truly speaking about how to create, run and measure mobile video campaigns at scale.
You can find out more about the event and register here. Tickets are free but seriously limited so go get yours now.
One of my favourite books of all time is The Great Gatsby. I must have read it half a dozen times over the years, but while eagerly waiting for Baz Luhrman’s adaptation of the novel (coming out this May), I decided to read it again.
One of the reasons why I love Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is that each time I read it, a totally different scene sticks with me for weeks, sometimes months. This time, it’s when Nick Carraway says “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” I find it such a beautifully complete way to describe the dynamics between people or organisations.
Take the startup ecosystem for example: you have the pursued (Stripe, Evernote, Spotify, etc); you have the pursuing (investors, VCs, lawyers, etc) who are generally pursuing the prior category; you have the busy (startups with flat growth being busy to get out of flat growth) and the boring (hipsters in Starbucks). So how do you become a pursued startup, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald?
It’s not that hard to deconstruct, really: take Gatsby (pursued by Nick): he’s successful (read: has traction), throws great parties (read: has great network) and is mysterious (read: is intriguing, unattainable), or Daisy (pursued by Gatsby): she’s beautiful (read: has traction), she’s part of the upper class (read: has great network) and she’s married (read: intriguing, unattainable). I don’t know about you, but I see a pattern here.