Top tips for entrepreneurs

27 May 2015

At the EIE15 conference in Edinburgh on 14 May 2015, as well as there being pitches from the companies selected to present, Heidi Roizen and Kim Polese delivered a joint keynote with their top tips for entrepreneurs.  Roizen started her career as co-founder and CEO of T/Maker Company, an early personal computer software company, later became Vice President of Worldwide Developer Relations for Apple and is now a venture capitalist and lecturer on entrepreneurship at Stanford University.  Polese led the launch of Java at Sun Microsystems, later co-founded an internet software company which went through to an IPO and then acquisition, currently serves on several boards including TechNet and University of California President’s Board on Science and Innovation and was named in Time Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Americans”.


1 – Make yourself easy to help


This sounds obvious, but people get it wrong so often it is definitely worth highlighting.  In my job we are often able to make introductions for our Hub Members to potential mentors, investors, corporate customers etc.  Roizen does the same thing for her investees and students. After offering an introduction she’ll sometimes receive an email saying “Hi Heidi, thanks so much for making this introduction for me, please find attached my latest slidedeck.  Thanks!”. This type of email goes straight to the “bottom of the email stack”.  Send an email that can be directly forwarded, personalised to the particular person to whom you want to be introduced. In Roizen’s words – bring your ‘connector’ a can of cookie dough, not a request to help them bake cookies!  Polese said making yourself easy to help was so important that it would be her top tips 1, 2 and 3; including that if someone does help you with a connection, follow up to let them know how it went. Make yourself easy to help for the connection too.  Roizen advocates requesting 10 minutes of that person’s time, and specifying the questions you want to discuss with them. An hour of their time is much harder to schedule and if you have piqued their interest in 10 minutes, the meeting might turn into an hour, or a second more in depth meeting.  Roizen also recommends suggesting you offer to go to them to meet, rather than suggesting buying them a coffee somewhere half way. It shows commitment and an appreciation of the fact they are a busy person.


2 – Lead with your humanity


This is perhaps bit of an Americanism, the British way of saying it would probably be something like “You’re both just people” – the investor will be considering not only your technology proposition, but whether they can work with YOU.  A VC investment is probably going to mean you need to work together for the next 5-10 years.  Roizen reflected on an occasion where she went to meet someone for a pitch just after dropping her eldest child at college for the first time. She was feeling rather emotional and teary, and had clearly been crying.  After explaining the reason for her red eyes to the pitcher, he said something along the lines of “well let’s get started then” and opened his laptop for the slidedeck.  She knew instantly that she didn’t want to work with him.  A simple “that sucks, I am not looking forward to that day and my son is only 3! What is your daughter going to study?” (for example) would have shown empathy.  That’s not to say Roizen would have definitely invested, but it wouldn’t have been an immediate no!


3 – Exploit the power of controlled randomness


Engineers and other people in tech have a tendency to try to remove randomness – because that is their jobs – but this can cross from product development into life generally.  Polese and Roizen have chosen to ‘say yes’ - to accept lots of opportunities that didn’t have any immediately obvious direct benefits.  Accepting a steering group member position at a trade association led to Roizen being able to influence national policy, as her commitment to the steering group led to other positions and eventually nomination to president of the association, which was then asked to give evidence at Capitol Hill.  Polese attended a multitude of events and ended up finding herself a broad network of mentors who helped her get where she is today. Like Roizen, she is also serving as an adviser to various bodies including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, TechNet, the Public Policy Institute of California, the University of California President’s Board on Science and Innovation, and the Long Now Foundation; this gives her a chance to give something back and potentially help the next generation.  One of the things I like about working at the Academy is that we get to increase the number of such serendipitous incidences by providing more opportunities for them to happen – such as by running our showcase events and speed mentoring afternoons.  Our building refurbishment will be underway soon, and I can see the beginnings of an environment where entrepreneurs bump into other entrepreneurs and such ‘controlled randomness’ may lead to new and exciting collaborations.


4 – Find the maximal intersection of mutual need


Roizen remembered this specific sentence from a lecture during her business degree – “Negotiation is the art of finding the maximal intersection of mutual need”. Prior to this, she thought negotiation was “about greasy car salesmen, and always winning and getting what you want”.  In negotiations, she advises to focus on the long term; you have to remember you still have to work together! She also highlighted that “There is no point having a big piece of a pie that doesn’t exist”. Don’t just focus on what you want and don’t assume you know the wants and needs of the other party – ask what the other party needs. ‘Principled negotiators’ are more likely to be successful in the long run, preserving relationships, not causing a hardening of position in the next negotiation, and getting as much as possible of what both sides wanted to achieve.


There wasn’t time in the fast paced timetable of the conference for Roizen and Polese to continue sharing more of their top tips but I imagine they had a lot more to offer. Other speakers during the day had provided other snippets of advice for the entrepreneurs attending in amongst the content of their talks. The first keynote of the day had been on the history of the waves of innovation in computer, delivered by Hermann Hauser KBE FREng, who also highlighted the importance of teamwork for entrepreneurs with a nice little anecdote: while his colleagues worked overnight to build the first prototype of the Micro after a meeting he had with the BBC, he made sure he supported them – by bringing them cups of tea.

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