What It Takes to Grow Your Startup 500% in Months

Superhero business man flying with jet pack rocket above the city concept

This article is by Paul Arnold, angel investor and advisor, who has helped several startups achieve hyper-growth.

It’s 3 a.m. and my phone vibrates. “This can’t be good,” I think, rolling over to read the one text message I never wanted to see: the AppDirect platform is down. No one has been able to use our partners’ applications. And if we don’t fix it now, tens of thousands more will be locked out by morning.

Frantic, I start making calls to engineering leads. “Someone has to know what’s going on,” I think. “But who?” Finally, I’m able to round up an ad hoc team to get the site back up, but not before wasting precious time, waking a dozen colleagues, and spiking the team’s blood pressure.

A year later, we had protocols in place for these types of challenges. But it didn’t happen overnight. We had to learn on our feet as we grew over 500% in that time. Ultimately, several very practical lessons emerged. My goal is to save you the time and trouble of learning them the hard way.

When you’re growing beyond 10 or 20 people, there’s a truth you’re probably reluctant to accept: You need organizational structure. New faces keep showing up wondering where they fit in. And people need to be empowered to lead. At AppDirect, we had to reinvent our approach several times before it worked.

We started building our teams with a simple functional structure: product managers working as a product team, account managers working as an account team, and so forth for engineering, sales, marketing, customer support, QA, and partnerships.

But we hit a wall quickly — the new functions created gaps in how teams were collaborating between groups. It is hard to close deals if you can’t pull in expertise from marketing, engineering, or anywhere else you might need in the company. We eventually moved to a more diverse team structure around big accounts. But to make this possible, we had to put stakes in the ground.

How to Build an Org Chart

To say we were nervous about rolling out our first org chart is an understatement. People who work at early-stage startups are not easily confined to boxes and lines. Most of them are generalists, and here we were trying to split them up into more specialized roles, narrowing the scope for some of the earliest employees as we brought on more people. We were also anointing managers where there were none before. We didn’t expect easy buy-in.

In two years, Paul Arnold helped grow cloud service marketplace AppDirectfrom 20 to 120 employees while leading end user acquisition, marketing and business operations. He has also advised a number of startups through hyper-growth. Find him [email protected]_arnold.

What we discovered surprises some people: the team actually embraced having more org structure. Defined roles freed people to do better work, take clear ownership of projects and drive results. As we grew, we rolled out second and third versions of the org chart, and each time we received a positive response. Looking back, there are several reasons this worked so smoothly:

  • Most people actually like structure. It’s human nature to a certain extent, but even entrepreneurial employees appreciate guiderails to direct their focus. More on this later.

  • We rallied our stakeholders. We discussed the changes in advance with key and influential team members so they understood our rationale and became internal advocates.

  • We communicated improvements. Every time we changed team structure, we made it clear how they were improvements from the status quo. We reinforced changes until they became ingrained as part of our culture.


At a startup, boxes-and-lines organization can run against the grain. Entrepreneurship is typically defined by its flexibility — an “everyone pitches in” energy that makes initial momentum possible. But this breaks down when you add more people.

By introducing structure early — even earlier than you might want to — you set the scaffolding for excellent teams: small groups of talented people working together on shared problems. Org design becomes core to your success. And if you do it right, teams are able to accomplish more than the sum of their parts.

If creating effective teams is half of the problem, learning to delegate is the other half.

Organization can rub founders the wrong way, but only those who can pass off authority survive. 


It starts with trusting your employees, and that starts with hiring. You should only hire people you would trust to make decisions without you. That’s the bar. Especially for leaders.

When are ready to create structure, ideally when you have 20-something employees, there are a few tactical steps you can take to implement a strong organizational structure:

1) Decide what kind of company you are. Start by actually writing down what you will need for your company to win. What is truly important? Do you need to nail product design? Do you need to allocate more resources to sales? Do you need to internationalize to stay competitive?

Most companies need to excel in several areas to succeed. For example, enterprise software startups must deliver not only world-class sales, but also tailored product integrations that meet customer expectations. But some competencies will matter more than others. You can’t be good at everything, so know what you absolutely have to be good at.

2) Create groups that make sense. Start breaking out teams with the above in mind. Certain roles should be empowered within teams to align with the type of company you want to be. For example, if you’re a product-first company, PMs should occupy leadership roles unifying teams. If marketing drives most of your business, marketers should be placed in key decision-making positions.

Remember to make choices with future employees in mind. Where will they fit in? To drive this home, actually sketch out an org chart — or even several variations — filling in existing employees and leaving blanks to inform your hiring plans. Of course, you will need to revisit and refine your org chart after initial rollout, but this will keep you thinking ahead.

Product Organization Example

Functional Organization Example


As you draft these charts, roles will inevitably become more specialized. For instance, as we added account managers at AppDirect, we created two groups: people who were good at relationship building, and people who were good at product implementation. Similarly, as our sales team grew, we decided to bring on sales engineers, freeing up other engineers to focus on improving the product.

3) Get input from key players. For any org chart to take root, you need it to be embraced by the most important people at your company. You know who they are — at minimum they include your cofounders, active board members, trusted outside advisors, and senior executives (if you have any). Depending on the size of your company, this could include the head of HR. Focus these conversations on refining what you’ve already sketched out, rather than going back to the drawing board each time.

4) Clearly (and loudly) communicate your plan. This is probably the most important yet most delicate step. Organizational changes require employees to buy-in for it to be successful. And for many employees — especially those most affected — org changes are very sensitive. Not only do they impact everyone’s day-to-day activities, but often their perceptions of themselves as valuable members of the team.

People may be reporting to someone other than the founders for the first time — this could feel like a demotion, or like their contributions didn’t matter. Others may see their responsibilities significantly narrowed. For these people in particular, you need to invest one-on-one time before a broader announcement to explain your reasoning and have an open dialogue. Otherwise you’ll end up with unnecessary friction.

Surprising people creates friction and hostility. 



Layer in Process

Not too long after I started at AppDirect, I came in to find one of our senior executives panicked over an email from one of our most important partners. “This is no way to work together,” the email began. The partner was angry. And with good reason. We had just pushed a major interface change without first notifying the partner, derailing a major promotion they had in the works. It was painfully obvious: We hadn’t (back then) built a good process for communicating major changes to partners.

Rapid growth requires serious focus on process. As soon as you start adding new people, roles, departments, you add more handoffs, more breakdowns, and more ambiguity about who does what, when, where, and how. The hard part is introducing process without the heavy bureaucracy that slows startups down.

At AppDirect, our most complex process is the way we design, scope and deliver new products. Early on, bringing on a large new customer would often take weeks or even months from initial discussions to completion. And it would take dozens of people across functional areas (plus lawyers) to move a product along. Too often people didn’t know what their involvement should be, leading to bottlenecks and breakdowns, wasted time, inconsistent standards, and a lot of frustration.

We knew there had to be a better way. But we also knew that our product integration would always require a lot of people. There was no way out of that. So here’s what we did:

1) We consolidated ownership and accountability in as few people as possible.

2) We identified what routines, needs, and actions were frequent — and we standardized them. This allowed us to break big efforts into more digestible steps and assign them out.

3) We positioned account managers and technical project managers as the two end-to-end owners of deals. They became accountable for overseeing everyone else involved, in essence reducing dozens of handoffs down to one. This dramatically reduced miscommunications and dropped balls. Generally speaking, you want as few owners as possible.

4) We vigilantly documented every step required to complete the work. Then we went back and killed innumerable steps until we arrived at the simplest flow possible.

The goal is always to anticipate and implement process before there’s a problem. As you grow, several of the highest-priority processes include:

  • Product sprints, code reviews and QA

  • A/B testing, product change requests, product roadmap planning

  • Financial planning, budgeting, expense approvals

  • Hiring, performance reviews, bonuses, equity grants, promotions

  • Customer support flows and escalations

  • Sales contracting and pricing

Most processes are little more than listing out the steps someone needs to take to get the work done. Few people take the time to write down the who, what and when.

There are many ways to get fancy about process. Don’t. 



Focus first on creating lists of repeatable steps to get common workflows done — and make them as short as you can. At AppDirect, our quarterly product roadmap process was essentially three steps and a calendar of deadlines. Even our most complex process — scoping and negotiating contracts for novel product integrations — ended up being only 20 steps. It started out much longer, but after dozens of tweaks we got it streamlined.

Most importantly, rely on the employees closest to the work to help you craft these lists. They have the most insight into the day-to-day challenges and ways to do things better. Listening to them will also create a feedback loop that allows you to continually adjust and improve. One hallmark of good communication is that employees will come tell you when things are broken.

Use Metrics to Your Advantage

At AppDirect, I worked closely with our customer support team to build a custom monthly dashboard of metrics. We felt that off-the-shelf reports from our customer support software didn’t really reflect what we needed to know. Building custom metrics was worth the effort: I remember how the insights jumped off the page of the first dashboard — there were whole clusters of technical tickets routed to engineers that could have been handled much earlier by our support and QA teams. With this data in hand, we were able to overhaul how tickets were routed the very next day, freeing up hours of engineering time.

The bigger you get, the more vital it is for leaders to have tools that give them quick snapshots of what everyone is doing and where decisions need to be made. To build these tools, you must 1) decide on the metrics that are most critical to executing your business (and not too many), and 2) put systems in place to collect and track these numbers efficiently.

A few key considerations for designing better metrics:

  • Make sure they are relatively easy to collect.

  • Only use metrics that are tied directly to your goals and values.

  • Most importantly, keep your metrics actionable.

Numbers are only as valuable as their ability to drive decisions and change.

To get the most out of your metrics, cascade them from the top down. Start with your top company goals (for example, user engagement or revenue). Then ensure that your functions and teams have metrics that directly drive toward these goals. After that, look at the individuals who make up these teams. They should each have personal metrics, also aligned with their team and the organization. With this approach, you make sure everyone is motivated and aligned toward true north.

Example of Cascading Metrics

Experiment and Drive Change

Across all these areas, there is a common thread for success: Always be experimenting. Create new roles, processes, dashboards, and communication channels. Be creative. But remember to go back and ruthlessly prune. Rethink how things can work better, faster, simpler.

No matter how hard you try to get things right the first or the fifth time around — you won’t. Focus instead on generating new ideas, killing the bad ones and starting over. Growth requires constant reinvention. And if you can bring everyone along for the ride, you will succeed.

In two years, Paul Arnold helped grow cloud service marketplace AppDirect from 20 to 120 employees while leading end user acquisition, marketing and business operations. He has also advised a number of startups through hyper-growth. Find him at @paul_arnold. [First Round Capital]

December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , ,
10 Best Growth Hacking Tools to Watch for in 2017



Growth hacking has come a long way since Sean Ellis coined this word. Every startup now wants to have a growth hacker – a person who knows marketing with a blend of programming. A growth hacker is directly responsible for the growth team of the organization. Today, I am listing out some tools to watch for in 2017 that can help startups grow exponentially when properly used. So, here we go.


1. Zapier:

I must say, not many of you have heard about this tool but trust me, this is one of the best tools out there for any type of content marketing automation.


Zapier - Best Growth Hacking Platforms by Prowly Magazine


One important formula of growth hacking is ‘Automation,’ making some marketing activities do their work with minimum effort. Zapier can automate your emails, social media activities, campaigns, etc.

There are so many apps listed. You can connect any app and automate your workflow. You just name it – this tool has all the potential to take growth hacking to the next level.


2. Email Hunter:

Email Hunter - best growth hacking tools by Prowly Magazine


You are in a marketing team, and one of your major tasks includes finding email addresses of prospects, influencers, and whomever your company and your work revolves around. Email Hunter can do this for you. Get the Email Hunter extension, log in to your LinkedIn account and start searching for people. When you land on a profile you are interested in, just click on the extension, and you will get their mail address with the confidence level mentioned by this tool. Cool isn’t it?


3. Mailytics:

Mailytics - Best Growth Hacking Platforms by Prowly Magazine


Who wants to know what their competitors are doing? Of course, everyone. Mailytics is a great tool to consider to know your competitor’s emails, newsletters and analytics. This tool will give you all the stats required about the mails and newsletters sent by your competitor to their audience. The stats can give you a good idea of what was their content focus and how it worked, which you can see through the click through rate and open rate.


4. Shippable:

Shippable - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine
Shippable is developers’ new love. Continuous integration and continuous deployment, both are the buzziest words in the developer zone. In software engineering, automation is the key to reducing a lot of mundane tasks, and platforms like shippable are making many developer and software organizations’ lives easier by automating the process of software development.

If you’re a growth hacker who knows coding, you can suggest this platform for your organization to speed up the deployment process.


5. - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


This is the best tool out there for social media automation. This tool acts the way you tell it to. Automatically publish content from your favorite websites. You can see all the stats on how your social media automation did and which particular link/post gained a lot of attention. Connect your social channels and automate content, sit back and relax to see what works and come to amazing conclusions.


6. LinkedIn Pulse:

Linkedin Pulse - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


This place is slowly gaining momentum, mainly if you are into B2B, get onto LinkedIn Pulse and share things. Best place for interactions and can get good traffic. If you notice, lot of bloggers are shifting their focus slowly towards this platform.


7. Hey Press:

HeyPress - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


This is an amazing tool for PR people who want to get up-to-date articles, publishers, and journalists. You can get their email ID’s and send emails and contact them for any queries. Enter your strong keyword in the given box and it will show you the list of authors and articles published by them. So you can now easily growth hack your way to amazing PR pitches.


8. Start a Fire:

Start a Fire - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


Want to see how your small banner looks on the world’s most popular websites like Forbes, Techcrunch, etc. for free? No worries, Start a Fire will help you to set up a banner easily. Easy to get started. See what’s trending on the web, go to that page/blog/article and get your modified link with a small banner along with customized content that’s clickable. Many social media growth hackers use this tool, and this is going to be among the best tools in 2017.


9. Keyword Spy:

Keyword Spy - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


If you want to know who is advertising for particular keywords and what type of ad content they are using, then it’s better to log into this tool, and it will show you amazing insights about ads and trends. Who is doing them and what’s the CPC (cost per click).


10. SpyFu:

SpyFu - best growth hacking platforms by Prowly Magazine


Want to know what your competitors’ best keywords are? Ask SpyFu, and it will tell you along with some extra insights. Just type your URL, and it will share an amazing keyword competition analysis and suggestions on which keywords will do well for you.
I want you guys to give it a try and let me know how cool it is. It’s one of my favorite tools.

I think these tools are going to make a lot of noise in the digital marketing and growth hacking fields. Try them and give us some feedback. Happy Growth Hacking!

[via Prowly]

December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , ,
6 Traits of Highly Successful Serial Entrepreneurs
6 Traits of Highly Successful Serial Entrepreneurs

There are entrepreneurs and then there are serial entrepreneurs.

While it takes an incredible amount of skill, creativity, and determination to carry either label, the latter takes a very special person.

Only a small percentage of entrepreneurs ever launch more than one business, and most possess a handful of common traits.





Three Successful Serial Entrepreneurs

Over the years, multiple studies have shown that the majority of entrepreneurs who fail with a business venture will never try to launch another one in the future. And with failure rates so high for first-time entrepreneurs, this means only a very small fraction of people are ever successful enough to grow multiple startups into thriving companies. This special subset includes folks like:

1. Richardson Branson

When you hear the term “serial entrepreneur,” Richard Branson is someone who often comes to mind. He’s the founder of the massive business conglomerate Virgin Group, which owns more than 200 businesses in industries such as manufacturing, music, professional sports, healthcare, energy and more.

2. Jeff Kinney

You may not recognize the name, but you’ll recognize his work. Jeff Kinney is the mastermind behind the best-selling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series. Not only has he authored a handful of books, but he’s also turned some of these books into films, and acted in them. Additionally, he’s the creator of the child-friendly gaming site Poptropica. As an author, game designer, and actor, you can officially call him a modern day Renaissance man.

3. Michael Rubin

Being a serial entrepreneur means always looking for the next opportunity, even if you’re currently busy with one. This is a concept Michael Rubin understands well. Before ever going to college, he acquired a chain of ski-shops in Pennsylvania. Since then, he’s founded more than five sports-related businesses, including Fanatics, Inc. and ShopRunner. He’s also invested in the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers.

While each of these entrepreneurs works in a different industry and enjoys varying degrees of success, they can all classify themselves as serial entrepreneurs. And when you compare their careers to those who have only ever launched a single business, you begin to see just how noteworthy it is to be called a serial entrepreneur.


The Six Common Traits of Serial Entrepreneurs 

Whether you’re looking at Branson, Kinney, Rubin, or anyone in between, you’ll notice that they all share some common traits. In particular, you’ll see the following:

1. Good Time Management

While it may not be the sexiest trait, good time management plays a crucial role in an entrepreneur’s ability to juggle multiple ventures at once. If you don’t have the ability to compartmentalize, tune in, tune out, and shift from one responsibility to another with little hesitation, you probably aren’t going to be capable of efficiently managing and growing multiple businesses.

Good time management comes across just as much in the little things as the big things. How do you react when your inbox reads “107 New Messages”? When you open up your Internet browser, do you immediately go to Facebook or are you focused on whatever you’re supposed to be doing? Can you schedule meetings throughout the day without compromising and overlapping? These are all positive signs of someone who stewards their time well.

2. Ability to Set Concrete Goals

There are soft goals and there are concrete goals. A soft goal is something like, “I want to be successful one day.” A concrete goal is something like, “I want to build a software company that generates $1 million in annual revenues by the end of 2018.”

Do you see the difference? One goal is totally arbitrary and vague, whereas the other has concrete measurements attached. Serial entrepreneurs set concrete goals because they understand that this is the only way to consistently accomplish tasks.

Learning how to set concrete goals takes time and a conscious effort. Many like to use the SMART goal-setting model, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

3. Strong Discipline

If you’re good at managing your time, then you’re probably a very disciplined individual. This is good, since discipline is an important component of being successful over and over again.

As an entrepreneur, you’re essentially your own boss. Sure, you may have investors and peers who hold you accountable, but you’re ultimately the one in charge. If you don’t have a driving force inside to stay on track, you’ll eventually falter and spiral out of control.

When you look at serial entrepreneurs like those mentioned in this article, you’ll notice that they all have a strong sense of discipline. They don’t need anyone else to tell them what to do or light a fire underneath them. They simply work hard because they have a desire to succeed.

4. Unwavering Optimism

It’s easy to look at someone like Richard Branson and think, “He sure has it made.” However, the truth is that even Richard Branson has encountered failures and setbacks. Regardless of how many companies you start and how much money you make, there will be times where everything will look bleak. They key here is to be optimistic.

Serial entrepreneurs have unwavering optimism that guides them through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. This isn’t to say that they’re happy all the time, but rather that they don’t let circumstances dictate their future goals.

5. Creativity and Innovation

You can’t discuss entrepreneurship, and especially serial entrepreneurship, without mentioning creativity and innovation. In order to continuously churn out successful ideas, you have to think differently.

Unfortunately, this is one of those intrinsic things that you’re either born with or without. While you can surround yourself with people and things that spark creativity, you’re limited by the brain inside your head. Do you see things the way the world sees them, or do you look at situations differently?

6. Strong and Stable Leadership

You can’t grow multiple businesses without being able to lead people. While you can certainly hire good leaders to handle many of the different aspects of growth, you ultimately need the ability to lead these executives. Leadership can be learned to a degree, but it’s also a trait we’re born with.

Along these same lines, serial entrepreneurs are able to adopt new leadership strategies depending on the situation. What works with one business may not work for the next, and vice versa. Being able to shift leadership styles without compromising morals is a special characteristic to have.


Do You Have What it Takes?

Very few people have what it takes to be a serial entrepreneur. Even if you have the traits mentioned above, you also need the intangibles that are more difficult to quantify. And, of course, you can’t forget about the gratuitous amounts of luck that it takes to be in the right place at the right time.

However, the biggest key is that you don’t give up after failure. Research shows that nine out of ten startups will fail. That’s a strikingly poor success rate. You need the strength, patience, and fortitude to hang on when times get tough. Eventually, you’ll succeed, and that’s when you’ll build the confidence to do it all again. [Business]

December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , ,
7 Unusual Business Tips from Entrepreneurs Around the World
7 Unusual Business Tips from Entrepreneurs Around the World

Small and mid-sized businesses are playing a pivotal role in today’s global economy, contributing up to 50 percent to the GDP, providing employment for up to 60 percent of the workforce, and accounting for 30 percent of exports.

The robust nature of an entrepreneurism is so great, it has the ability to disrupt existing industries and create entirely new ones.

It’s no wonder more and more people are resorting to self-employment. But business ownership is not without its challenges.


Here are seven tips for new entrepreneurs from successful business owners around the world.


1. Find a Supportive Environment

Around the world, countries are playing an active role in creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurs with policies designed to encourage small to mid-sized business growth. There are five major tenants for creating this environment.

It’s important to launch your business in a country whose policies include an access to funding, an entrepreneurial culture, supportive regulatory and tax regimes, educational systems that accept and explore entrepreneurial mindsets and a coordinated approach that link private, public and non-profit sector. Business ownership can be difficult, but it’s a lot easier if you launch in a supportive environment, under the right conditions.

2. Learn the Laws of Your Industry

Considering the role entrepreneurship plays in stimulating economic growth, policymakers actively search for ways to create an integrated approach that brings together both government and industrial agencies. But it’s important to understand the laws and policies that govern your industry, and you may need to hire an attorney to do it. From setting up your corporation to obtaining licenses and permits and hiring employees, it’s best to get your business on solid legal footing from the get-go, so you don’t run into issues later on.

Joseph Borg, a successful businessman from Malta who serves as Director for a series of online businesses further explains the concept: “Ultimately, the people drive the market. They tell companies what they want and government works with these merchants to make it legal and safe. Be sure to launch your business the right way, to avoid legal issues down the road.”

3. Learn to Be Flexible

By necessity, entrepreneurs are highly adaptive people, who see new opportunities in a constantly changing landscape. While large businesses have enough of an inner-supportive structure to create a one-size-fits-all company, entrepreneurs find their common ground in developing trends and their ability to quickly adapt to changes in the marketplace.

Don’t become so attached to your business ideas and strategies that you fail to adapt to changes in your industry. Consumers are changing rapidly, and if you fail to be flexible in your business approach, you may be left sorely behind.

Related Article: 6 Essential Growth Hacks for the Frugal Entrepreneur

4. Understand How Millennials Are Changing the World

The Millennials are rapidly changing the world, as well as shaping the future of businesses everywhere. With the oldest among them now entering their mid-thirties, this imposing group demands transparency, collaboration, a work-life balance, and the opportunity for growth with each position they fulfill.

Highly dependent on Internet technology, the globally connected Millennials are the most likely to exchange information concerning new products and services, which creates huge opportunities for entrepreneurs to pay attention to what they’re saying. If you’re launching a new business or growing an existing one, it’s important to understand how Millennials will fit into your workforce, and in your target market.

5. Don’t Ignore Your Web Presence

For the vast majority of new businesses, the greatest opportunity for visibility is online. Social networking channels help entrepreneurs to stay in close contact with business associates, interact with customers or clients, announce special events or stimulate interest in new products and services. Internet-based technology also helps small businesses to exercise more control over brand development, marketing and customer engagement.

Bottom line, don’t ignore your web presence. Lauren Wilkison, founder of CSC Digital Marketing in the United States says, “Your website is your biggest opportunity to connect with potential customers, clients and business partners. It’s one of the first things you should focus on when you launch a new business, product or service.”

6. Assess the Competition

When you land feet first in new territory, it’s best to know something about the competition. Study the tactics of those who succeeded, and also those who failed, to make a good comparative analysis. Success leaves clues.

Instead of paying attention to what your competitors are saying and doing, pay attention to what they’re not saying and doing. Finding the gap in their products, services and messaging can be your biggest opportunity to stand out.

7. Perfect Your Pitch

The same pitch you used to sell your company in one country may not work in another. Learn to adjust your pitch by observing the general business climate of your chosen target audience and the environment.

For example, in many developing countries, it’s expected that you’ll give back something to the country that will create a  better standard of living for society. Your pitch should portray respect for the existing culture, appeal to the demographics involved and help create a sustainable future.

Related Article: 6 Traits of Highly Successful Serial Entrepreneurs


Finding business success is largely a matter of research, fortitude and perseverance. To increase your odds of business success it’s important to launch in the right environment, take advice from successful business owners who came before you and adapt to changes in the marketplace. [Business]

December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
How to build a unicorn: Drew Houston, Dropbox

Drew Houston, Dropbox CEO and co-founder

Drew Houston, co-founder and CEO, Dropbox

Named as one of MIT Technology Review’s top innovators under 35, Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston sat down with Ann O’Dea for an in-depth chat by a digital fireside.

Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston started coding at the age of five. As a teen, he aspired to be a game developer and signed up as an intern with an online game-maker. He was beta-testing a game and – bored and curious – discovered some security problems under the hood.

Houston contacted the developers, who asked if he wanted to fix it himself. He offered to work remotely with the team in Colorado (he was in Boston), then asked if his dad could sign the paperwork as the young entrepreneur was not yet 18.

“That was my first start-up experience. I ended up getting stock options that were worth nothing – and that was the first of a few experiences like that too – but it was really fun,” he told the audience gathered at his company’s Dublin HQ.


Today, Dropbox serves more than 500m users around the world. Like many great and practical tools, Houston said it was “born of frustration”.

“The first lines of code for Dropbox were written on a bus ride,” he revealed, recalling a situation familiar to many: when you have work to do but forget to bring the necessary files to do it.

Facing a four-hour bus journey of “frustation and self-flagellation” for his forgetfulness, Houston’s active mind got to work. “This [was] 2006, when this happened, so this was before the iPhone. These were the days when, if you didn’t have anything to do, you really didn’t have anything to do,” he said.

“I opened up the editor and started writing some code, having no idea what it would become.”


Team building

Houston later teamed up with fellow MIT computer science student Arash Ferdowsi to develop this idea. “I graduated, he dropped out, so we have that start-up checkbox done thanks to Arash,” he joked.

There’s no childhood friends backstory to these two founders and Houston admits that they hardly knew each other before starting the company. What they did know was that they were both talented coders who could build something useful.

Throughout the evening, conversation constantly turned to the necessity of building a strong team. Of course, hand-picking the best people is made that bit easier when you come from the talent pool of MIT. “A lot of the earliest folks in the company were the smartest friends that we knew from there,” said Houston.

The pedigree of Dropbox’s leadership team is undeniable. COO Dennis Woodside came from Google. Aditya Agarwal, now Dropbox CTO, was one of Facebook’s early hires.

This process of pairing up with great, talented people – whether friendly and familiar with them or not – still informs the assembly of Dropbox’s workforce. The problem is that every company wants to recruit the best.


‘Every good person you want probably already has a good job, and they’re rarely looking’



“Every good person you want probably already has a good job, and they’re rarely looking,” said Houston.

Houston claims that every new recruit is asked to name the best people they have worked with, and Dropbox is keen in its pursuit of those recommendations, sometime spending years tempting them to join the company.

“I think the record for this was, we made someone an offer and it was, probably, between getting his first offer and finally accepting an offer from us was six years,” Houston revealed.


Adding values

As well as building a cracking team, Dropbox ensured early on that this team understood the company’s values. As a quickly scaling company, they had to become “systematic” about their culture.

“Arash and I and a small team obsessed over every little syllable and letter of our five company values,” said Houston.

The goal was to define distinctive core tenets so that, if the founders were to disappear and return years later, they would still recognise the company they created. They also wanted to be specific and tie their values into the hiring process, so that the right qualities could be identified at interview stage.

And so, Dropbox’s values are: first, be worthy of trust; second, sweat the details; third, aim higher; fourth, we not I. And fifth? Well, the fifth isn’t so literal. In fact, it’s a drawing of a smiling cupcake. A reminder of the fun side of the company.


‘We obsessed over every little syllable and letter of our five company values’



In the uncertain political climate of the US, Houston also wants to be certain that the values upon which his native country was founded are upheld. “Being welcoming to everyone, and the fundamental ideas of equality and taking care of people from all backgrounds – that’s what we’re keeping an eye on, in particular,” he said when discussing the incoming administration of president-elect Donald Trump.

“Really, it starts with the fundamental values of the nation – the constitution, the bill of rights and the decisions by the supreme court. Regardless of who’s in office, I think those things are bigger than any particular leader and really important to uphold. And then we translate that within the company, extending a lot of those ideals to how we recruit and the kind of place and culture that we built,” he added.

“We want Dropbox to be a really welcoming and inclusive environment and we do a lot of work on that front, both within the company and then in our local community.”


Pioneering Paper

Dropbox exists as a tool of necessity and it’s evident that the team and members behind it pay close attention to user needs.

“I just found this problem fascinating,” said Houston. “It intersected with a lot of my interests from school, like I loved algorithms, I loved distributed systems, I loved design and operating systems and all these things.”

Houston was so drawn to solving this problem that he became “obsessed with it”.

“I think that everybody’s going to say do something that you love or are passionate [about], but I think you want to do something that you can be totally obsessed with, but that also is something that the world really needs.”


Over time, Houston says the products they build have evolved from helping individuals work smarter to supporting greater collaboration. “We talk a lot about evolving Dropbox from keeping your files in sync to keeping teams in sync, and keeping people in sync.”

By all accounts, collaboration is key to the tech ecosystem, and minimising the time spent on management and administration will, naturally, maximise output. Houston cited a McKinsey study which found that roughly 60pc of our time is spent managing work, not doing it, and the Dropbox leader sees this as a “shocking waste of human potential”.

“I might as well just take Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and just light them on fire. I might as well not even have shown up … for this week and every work week for the rest of my life.”

Thinking about the next five to ten years, Houston hopes to see Dropbox chipping away at that 60pc and knocking it down as far as possible. “There’s a lot of exciting things that we have cooking and new ideas for better ways of working.”

One of these ideas is Dropbox Paper, currently in public beta. Moving beyond mere file-sharing, Paper aims to be a complete repository for teams; harbouring tasks, ideas, feedback alongside real-time document editing, and more.



“Within Dropbox, already, [Paper] has really changed how we work and it has changed how we run the company,” said Houston. “That’s just one of many ideas, that we have to make your life at work a little simpler, a little calmer and a little better.”

Simple and cleanly designed, Paper addresses the fact that much of our work has become digitised.

“A lot of the other tools you use were designed when the most important thing you did with the document was print it out,” said Houston. “We’re taking advantage of the blank slate we have to redesign a completely new experience.”

Unsurprisingly, Houston is excited by the prospect this presents.


Watch the full interview with Drew Houston, filmed at Dropbox Dublin:



December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
State of Startups 2016

This is First Round’s effort to provide an in-depth snapshot of what founders across the entire tech ecosystem are thinking and doing, what they’re excited about and worried about, and how they’re seeing the market. We surveyed venture-backed founders from within and beyond the First Round community — and received over 700 responses, volunteering their experience and opinions.
December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , , ,
10 female founders who have turned science into a business



From pharma giants to medtech start-ups, science and business go hand in hand. But who are the women performing alchemy and turning their groundbreaking research into gold?


As we continue our Science 50, we take a look at the entrepreneurial women who have turned their scientific backgrounds and innovations into successful businesses.


Nina Tandon

CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, Nina Tandon is a tissue engineering researcher who may have the future of medicine figured out.

Currently serving as an adjunct professor of electrical engineering at Cooper Union in New York, Tandon studies electrical signalling in the context of tissue engineering, with a goal of creating spare parts for human implantation or disease models.


Tandon studied electrical stimulation for cardiac tissue engineering at MIT and Columbia, and continues to focus on electrical stimulation for broader tissue engineering applications. As a Fulbright Scholar in Rome, she developed an electronic nose to sniff out lung cancer.


Rana el Kaliouby

Egyptian-born Rana el Kaliouby is on a mission to bring emotion to digital technology by enabling cameras in smartphones and computers to read human expressions.

The co-founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Affectiva, el Kaliouby is commercialising emotion-recognition technology based on her research.


Rana el Kaliouby

Rana el Kaliouby. Image: Web Summit 2015/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

At MIT, el Kaliouby spearheaded the applications of emotion-sensing and facial coding. She holds a PhD from Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

El Kaliouby was recognised by Entrepreneur as one of the ‘7 Most Powerful Women to Watch in 2014’, inducted into the Women in Engineering Hall of Fame, and named one of Technology Review’s ‘Top 35 Innovators Under 35’.


Sally Cudmore

Dr Sally Cudmore is general manager of the APC Microbiome Institute, which launched in University College Cork (UCC) last year.


Sally Cudmore, UCC

Professor Fergus Shanahan and Dr Sally Cudmore of the APC Microbiome Institute at UCC. Image: UCC

Formerly known as the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, APC is a partnership between UCC, Teagasc and Cork Institute of Technology, and explores the importance of microbes in health and nutrition, specifically gastrointestinal bacteria.

Since its foundation 13 years ago, APC has made several seminal contributions to the field and was ranked second, globally, in the area of science by Thomson Reuters.

Cudmore has a biochemistry degree from UCC and a PhD from the cell biology programme at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.


Claire Gormley

Dr Claire Gormley is one of two women (alongside Emily Duffy) behind the award-winning start-up Game Changer. Dr Gormley is an assistant professor in statistics at University College Dublin (UCD) and a researcher with the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. Her start-up won UCD’s commercialisation award earlier this year.


Claire Gormley and Emily Duff

From left: Dr Claire Gormley and Emily Duffy at NovaUCD. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The company is developing a platform to provide post-match sports performance analytics for individuals, teams and organisations. Interestingly, Game Changer also provides a bespoke statistical tool to identify key players for team selection or potential recruitment.

Game Changer won the 2016 UCD Insight Innovation Sprint Programme, a one-day initiative designed and held at NovaUCD.


Jane Farrar

Prof Jane Farrar successfully co-founded Genable Technologies, a gene therapy business that hit the headlines earlier this year after its €5.4m sale to Spark Therapeutics.


Jane Farrar, Trinity College DublinProf Jane Farrar, Trinity College Dublin. Image: Aidan Crawley

The company started in Trinity College Dublin when Farrar was a PhD researcher. Along with her colleagues, Farrar was looking at the genetics of an inherited form of blindness called retinitis pigmentosa (RP). After devising a gene-therapy approach to suppress the problematic, mutant gene involved in RP, Genable Technologies was formed and immediately impressed.

Farrar’s work has been supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research BoardWellcome Trust, EU Framework programmes, Fighting Blindness Ireland and Foundation Fighting Blindness US.


Ciara Clancy

Chartered physiotherapist and Inspirefest 2015 speaker Ciara Clancy launched start-up Beats Medical in 2012, when she was just 22.

Beats Medical is a smartphone app designed to support those who suffer from Parkinson’s. Utilising individualised metronome therapy, the app improves mobility and reduces instances of gait freezing. It also provides users with daily assessments and regular progress reports.



Last year, Clancy was named Laureate for Europe at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, and Beats Medical beat off the competition in Google’s Adopt a Start-up programme.

Just last month, Beats Medical became the first Irish company to present at Google’s demo day.


Sinéad Kenny

Despite being unsure which scientific avenue to go down during her early years of school, Sinéad Kenny quickly realised that the rapidly advancing world of materials science was for her.

A few decades later, Kenny was co-founder of DiaNia Technologies, one of Ireland’s fastest-growing indigenous medical devices companies. From the Inspirefest 2016 stage, Kenny announced that the company had received €2m in seed money in a recent funding round.



Kenny has spoken of a major void existing in the market, which DiaNia’s strong materials, science and project management capabilities can maximise upon during the early development phase of devices.


Emmeline Hill

Dr Emmeline Hill, an equine genomics researcher at UCD, co-founded Equinome (alongside horse trainer Jim Bolger) in 2009.

While analysing genes in thoroughbred racehorses, Hill identified a genetic marker that linked to a horse’s athletic performance. This discovery led to the development of a speed gene test to help match horses with courses, and to inform breeding and training decisions.


Emmaline Hill, Equinome

Equinome co-founder Dr Emmeline Hill with her 2014 NovaUCD Innovation Award. Image: Nick Bradshaw

This test was instrumental in this year’s decision not to run 2000 Guineas winner Galileo Gold at the Epsom Derby.

In 2015, Equinome was acquired by Plusvital. Hill is Plusvital’s chief science officer, continuing to drive research into genetic tests and performance potential.


Áine Behan

Áine Behan is the founder and CEO of Irish start-up Cortechs, the company behind wearable tech that uses brainwave-sensing technology and gameplay to improve attention in children diagnosed with ADHD.

Behan has a background in neuroscience and neuropathology. Her research expertise focuses on the effects of stresses like drugs on mental health and neurodegenerative disease. The Cortechs technology aims to bypass the need for drugs in the treatment of certain conditions.



Behan was the only Irish finalist at 2014’s Lady Pitch night in Paris.

A former Start-up of the Week, Cortechs is already enjoying success, having been named as winner of the 2015 FutureHealth pre-accelerator at NDRC.


Sinead O’Sullivan

Northern Ireland native and aerospace engineer Sinead O’Sullivan has had an interest in space since she was a child but, after a trip to NASA, she soon realised that it was where she wanted to make a career.

Going on to work at NASA, where she developed parts of the technology that would take spacecraft – and future humans – to Mars, she has now entered the entrepreneurial game as CEO of Fusion Space Technologies.


Sinead O'Sullivan, Fusion Space TechnologiesSinead O’Sullivan, CEO of Fusion Space Technologies. Image: Fusion Space Technologies

Now describing herself as part of the ‘space mafia’, she and her start-up are creating the first ever platform for crowdsourced drone data. [SiliconRepublic]

December 3, 2016 / by / in , , , , , , , ,
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