Expa Labs – Some Lessons Learned

With the first group of Expa Labs companies moving on to the next phase in their development and the application period for the next Expa Labs group now open, I wanted to take a step back to share some of the lessons I learned from working with each of the companies in our first group. The platform and learnings Expa has built by launching companies over the past three years was foundation on which Expa Labs was built. We didn’t set out to create “another” incubator program — we wanted to make something more entrepreneur-friendly, that valued company creation over all else. We didn’t want to rely on what others had done, instead coming up with a set of Founder First Principles gathered from interviews, discussions, and founder conversations with people who have created products, managed teams, been through programs and more.

When Expa announced our new $100M fund in March, 2016, it was to continue our mission of creating new companies, but also use our learnings to form the Expa Labs program. Starting from only a mention in the NYTimes to companies funded and starting work two months later is a testament to the work ethic of my colleagues at Expa. A lot of naysayers and folks said creating and putting into motion a program like this wasn’t possible, but we did it. And though Expa Labs will evolve over time, I am very proud of what we accomplished in the first version of our program.

Now that the inaugural program is over and I’ve had some time to reflect on the experience, I wanted to share some lessons learned;

“Coachability” Matters

Before the Expa Labs experience, the founder attributes I would most often cite almost sound cliche´ at this point; technical abilities, executional excellence, vision, ability to attract world class talent, etc…. What I didn’t have on my list was “coachable.” Though some might argue this isn’t necessarily a trait to look for, I think it’s essential. I worked with teams who, from the beginning, showed they could take feedback well and incorporate it into their thinking. There is a fine line between “I’m right” and “here are some facts” and teams that are coachable can make a big difference. They also know how to filter feedback from lots of people to make an informed, data-driven decision. Their vision may be directionally right — but tactically wrong — and it takes a strong team to change the course.

Ship it earlier

There’s an old expression that says “If you are not embarrassed by your first version you didn’t launch early enough” and it’s absolutely true. Shipping early provides many good lessons. Nobody knows what will happen — despite the loudest pontificators. Launching also quiets the naysayers — nothing speaks louder than actions. This lesson comes into play because whether you are a B2C company or a B2B enterprise company. Nothing gives you better feedback and usage patterns like a live production environment with real customers. Even if you have 10 beta users, it’s better than sitting around inside with limited info and lots of ideas.

Startup knowledge looks like an equalizer

Remember those old stereo equalizers that controlled all the audio settings? Startup knowledge is a lot like that — some entrepreneurs are very high in certain areas while others are very low. As head of Expa Labs, my job is to get everyone to at least a level set — so folks can tackle most problems with information and knowledge to create a solution. It is amazing how much information is out there about starting up a company, entrepreneurship, and almost any topic around starting a business — and yet the knowledge gap is large. Some founders are well informed about the details surrounding financing terms and definitions, while others are new to the topics. Others have deep technical knowledge about building and scaling systems, but have little to no information around hiring and HR policies. Nobody can be expected to know everything about every topic and that is where Expa comes in: We provide resources, experience, and a level set of knowledge in the areas where gaps might exist. My goal is to either fill in the knowledge gaps where I can, or pair founders with the right people.

Plans Change

I can’t say this any more directly: plans change. It reminds me of the famous Mike Tyson quote: ”everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” and it’s true. The two types of plan changes I struggle with (but shouldn’t) are when a timeline changes and when a product launch changes the plan. Both are totally reasonable, should be expected, and yet remain difficult. For me the lesson is go with the flow a little more and let things change. Change, after all, is the only constant when building a company.

Fundraising is hard

Ok so this isn’t a lesson I discovered or needed to learn, but it’s a good reminder. Naveen Selvadurai, one of the Partners at Expa, has a great expression for founders; “it’s only going to get harder” which is funny and true. From the moment a team is funded they should be focusing on how to keep the business alive with the only thing that can guarantee it — cash in the bank. At the end of the Expa Labs program we also send out a “first look” to the LPs of Expa, which is a way for them to see the progress and status of each company and have the option to reach out if they want to get more involved or invest directly. There are no guarantees but it’s a great way to use the Expa network.

Learning never stops

I truly learned something new from every team, and I hope they learned from me. My applied knowledge from experiences and situations made sense, but I also added to my own toolkit as each company launched/built/iterated/shipped during their time in Expa Labs. I realized many things of my career convictions are now in flux — for example what worked in sales in 2014 may not be the case for 2016.

The end of a program isn’t “The End”

In conclusion I want to say thank you to the Expa Labs 2016 teams; DoveTale, Listen, Radar (NY) and NINAYO, Promote, and Chalet. I loved working (and still working!) with all of you. While the program is “officially” over, it’s only the beginning for you, with some difficult, frustrating, absolutely fun and satisfying moments ahead of you. You are now a part of the Expa family, and I am excited about what the future holds for each of your companies.

We have officially opened up applications for Expa Labs, and planning on more than doubling the size of the program. We have also introduced a new investment tier $250,000 for 10% equity along with the previous $500,000 for 20% equity. Applications are now open through March 31st 2017.

In addition to expanding the size of the program, we are now open to accepting companies from anywhere, that can work in the US. This means if you are in a city outside of one of our core locations, you can apply and potentially get into the program and work from where you are located.

With our offices in NY and SF, and now a Partner operating out of Vancouver our goals of growth and working with more entrepreneurs from more places is happening. If you are interested in learning more please checkout Expa Labs.

Hardware as a SaaS business (HaaS?)

With CES in full swing, I have been thinking more about hardware businesses that have a SaaS component for ongoing revenue and support. I have personally experienced this with a Dropcam (now part of the whole Google Home system so technically a Nest Cam) that was an initial hardware purchase($199.99) with a $9.99 non-required component to get a 7 day history of content the camera collects. This is a great example of a hardware sale that probably happened at a nominal profit (maybe loss?) that is definitely now “in the green” because of my 2+ years subscription. The simple math is that $9.99 x 24 = $239.76 which has cleared the price I paid for the device. I forgot the original source of my purchase, but there was certainly a low CaC for them.

The latest I saw today was the Norton Core which is a device from Symantec that is a home router that has a $99/year SaaS security service. In a world plagued by malware and networked devices being taken over, this is primed to prey on the fears of IoT owners. It is unclear to me how it protects those devices.

I see this as becoming the norm, as more connected devices have a support requirement that goes beyond the purchase from a shelf/ecom store. With OTA updates happening in cars, firmware updates being required, and a list of other requirements to keep connected devices up to date, it is clear that companies need this revenue stream to sustain this support. Embracing this outcome vs. shunning the inevitable “smart” everything. Just see Internet of Shit for some hilarious tweets. I take a positive approach which is; how can this business model affect small startups entering this space, and what can we learn from building businesses this way? Can hardware costs come down to $0? Can a locked in monthly SaaS fee cover the business model needs of a new startup to compete with a large hardware co? Does this introduce a new business model for crowdfunding a product? Time will tell.

Other examples include things like a FitBit which has a physical cost, then an upgrade to “pro” with a monthly subscription underneath. Loss leading hardware products have always been around but seeing a proliferation of options and scenarios brings me back to the early 2000’s where folks were giving away computers/laptops for the option of a monthly subscription fee + advertising on top of it. I have always appreciated this model — even if it resulted in some of the biggest failures of the dot com era. Anyone remember eMachines?

Good examples of this include networked cameras, wifi routers, smart watches, phones (financing or data contracts), readers/tablets, and more. What am I missing?

The biggest issue is bringing a product to market, getting initial sales, and getting folks over the penny gap of a monthly subscription. Not an easy feat, but if you can do it and have low CaC and high LTV it makes for a great blended business model of Hardware + SaaS (HaaS).

Turning coffee into Bitcoin

I few months ago I had to lower my coffee consumption and was struggling to find the best way to “force” myself to do so. Nothing major prompted the change, but wanted a catalyst to really stop. I have been following Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency for awhile, and thought I would use this as a way to get more. In looking at all my options I figured out a way to turn coffee into Bitcoin…sort of.

To really motivate myself I figured I would lower my costs by stopping purchasing coffee every day (easy!) but then divert funds into purchasing Bitcoin dollar cost averaging into the currency (hard!). This prompted me to start looking for a recurring purchase into a cryptocurrency that was liquid and growing and quickly settled on BTC. They say that using Bitcoin is key to its success and by purchase more and forcing a use case, I can help the overall ecosystem better. Having more will create usage, which will create value in the network, which will drive more use and hopefully the ecosystem as a whole.

Enter Coinbase (they have a referral program!) which is a great solution for setting up a reoccurring payment buy in platform. Below is what I setup to

The trick to dollar cost averaging into more Bitcoin was setting up a simple reoccurring transaction every week. This would prevent me from making a few coffee purchases (let’s be honest — about 1 in some places in NYC) and built my BTC balance. While not the most economical approach, Coinbase has their fee structure, it has really worked. I have been doing this for the past 6–9 months and it has worked well. Inadvertently I have lowered my spending habits too, being in less stores and coffee shops which evens out the fees a bit.

The question of course is where to store things, and I may wait for another post for that. In the interim BTC/USD has been trending in the right direction — although technically I shouldn’t care as I am now better equipped to weather a downturn.

While I am not quite there yet, I was partly inspired by my friend Steve

I think it is entirely possible that the value generated from purchases will yield a result, I think it’s far more likely that I will spend it first thus helping the ecosystem as a whole.

I have always been a tinkerer, and to really understand something you need to use it — this project has given me a great solution to coffee consumption and a BTC balance to spend on things.

Making an amazing introduction via email (via John Exley)

John Exley takes relationships seriously. We have been friends for a number of years and after his latest email intro I wanted to share how he does it.


With the permission of Mike Falb and John, I wanted to share the following exchange that recently took place.  I have never seen someone as thorough or thoughtful about an intro and John does this *EVERY* time.  He abides by the double opt-in on both sides and then follows up with a masterpiece like this.

Screenshot 2016-07-11 17.33.42

After checking with myself and Mike first John made the following intro and WOW, what an email! (the double opt-in #respect)

Let’s break down why this is a qualify email introduction. For clarity, below is the play-by-play;

Hi Mike:
I can imagine you’re racing a bit in between meetings in LA right now, so I’ll get straight to the intro:

Diving right in and saving everyone’s time — appreciated!

Mike, please meet Eric Friedman (AngelList: https://angel.co/ericfriedman; Twitter: https://twitter.com/EricFriedman ; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericgfriedman ; Blog: https://www.ericgfriedman.com/). Eric is the General Manager of Expa Labs, an incubator in Soho backed by $100MM that is investing $500k each in its first six companies (TechCrunch story here). Previously, Eric was the Global Senior Director of Sales and Revenue Operations for Foursquare. Eric graduated from George Washington University in 2004 with a degree in Marketing.

I was introduced to Eric by my former roommate, Brian Watson, four years ago at a USV holiday party (Eric was actually the first Analyst for USV). Eric is a great guy and I like to think of him as the “Chief Domain Officer”, given his unique gift of acquiring rare domain names. I trust Eric deeply and vouch for him with everything I have.

CONTEXT. IS. KING. Where to even begin?!?!

First of all, John took the time to link up all of my profiles and made Mike’s job super easy to click around and learn more. He gave great context on what I am up to now and my background (he even got the details right!). Going so far as to include jobs and education its a great summary intro.

Second, John gives great context on how we know each other. Well beyond the typical intro, he cites our mutual connection and gives props for my side business doing domain consulting (ha!). Then he is explicit with his trust and vouching — rare! (PS John I feel the same)

Eric, please meet Mike Falb (AngelList: https://angel.co/mikefalb; Twitter: https://twitter.com/MikeFalb; LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikefalb). Mike is an Associate at KEC Ventures, an early stage venture firm here in NYC. Previously, Mike was the Co-Founder & COO of Tunetap, a crowdfunding platform for musicians to raise money for their concerts. Mike graduated from Cornell University in 2014 with a degree in Hotel Administration.

I was introduced to Mike by Julian Moncada from Lerer Ventures a few weeks ago (April 30th). Mike and I have spent considerable time together since, connecting across our mutual obsessions for consumer Internet, culture, and working with emerging artists. I trust Mike and am happy to vouch for him.

John does the same thing for Mike’s background, providing deep context and links to back up where I can find out more info. Previous job history and what Mike was doing and studying help complete my picture of him before we even meet in person.

Mike, Eric is gearing up to help Kit (an Expa Studio company) raise their next round. Given your focus on consumer investing at KEC, I recommended you and KEC as a potential strong fit. Eric was psyched to discuss Kit and its momentum with you. Eric, I caught up with Mike about the company and he was immediately excited at the prospect of meeting with you and the team there.

Saving us both SO MUCH TIME, John explains the reason for the intro — Kit.com — an Expa Studio company that could benefit from a jam session with someone like Mike. The links here are not just company home pages, but thats actually a link to the latest TechCrunch article explaining what Expa is all about.

We basically saved ourselves a ton of time and energy getting to the meat and potatoes of a meeting from all the heavy lifting John did for us.

Being able to parse all this material on the go, via mobile, prior to even responding was incredibly valuable. I am very thankful that John does this and I have never seen anything close to it before in my life.

Thanks gentlemen, let me know if I can be helpful further here….

Finally, he means it. You know that after an email like this if either of us reach out you have a trust bridge that has been built that things are going to get done. A lot of people use this phrase — but in Johns case I actually believe it.

Not everyone can make intros like this and not everyone should, but after getting this note I am thankful he took the time and wanted to share with the world.

Now back to your regularly schedule one line emails 🙂


Product Hunt – Part of Your Launch Plan

I submitted Ando today to Product Hunt, which is a new restaurant that is delivery only co-founded by David Chang (from Momofuku)  and Hooman Radfar. Check it out Ando on Product Hunt for a special combo for those in NYC.


Since I have been submitting products for awhile now (10! see below), I thought I would share my thoughts as I have been a fan since the beginning.  I went through my old emails and it seems that Product Hunt came onto my radar when it started.  I remember signing up and giving some feedback to Ryan Hoover, who is incredible at interacting with his community.

Product Hunt

Given that Product Hunt has provided so much value to me, I wanted to share my thoughts on how it should be included in a launch plan if you are launching something new.  I am very thankful to the PH community for always asking great questions, submitting great feedback, and being open to participating in things I submit.

What is Product Hunt?

Product Hunt is a great way to share something special with a focussed community that is very active and helpful.  I typically lean towards tech oriented products and services, but they are doing a great job of building a platform to support many different categories. There is a focus on getting participation from the creators, or Makers, of products which gets real questions and answers – something missing from a lot of other places.

Why Product Hunt?

I have found that having PH a part of your launch plan is very helpful for a few reasons;

  1. Forces you to get organized – you need to iron out things like descriptions, one line explanations, how you will handle FAQs, and overall vision.
  2. Forcing function for launch – I always tell folks to launch things on Tuesdays away from other big events (think WWDC) and this gives you a launch date which is great for teams to rally around.
  3. Feedback – The community is great and you will get a TON of great questions and comments from all kinds of folks.
  4. Attention/PR – Obviously, but down on my list as I don’t think its the main reason to participate.  This gets you on the radar of people who write about your app or products category and helps tell the market about what you are working on.

When should you post on Product Hunt?

As the saying goes “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”


Once you are ready to have a public beta and get real feedback, its time to share it with the world.  I alway recommend posting first thing in the morning, the earlier the better, so you can check it off your list and get onto other things.

Who should post on Product Hunt?

The “Makers” of the product, service, feature, app, or “thing”.  This doesn’t always mean the founders.  Some of my favorite posts are from people that are not the “CEO” or “Co-Founder” of a product.  Obviously near and dear to my heart because I worked there for so long was the comment from one of my good friends Jonathan Crowley, now head of product at Foursquare about big changes in Swarm.

How should you post on Product Hunt?

Posting on PH should be a part of your Launch Checklist.  If have spent time with Naveen Selvadurai (partner at Expa) he will talk to you about the importance of checklists and probably hand you a copy of The Checklist Manifesto.

By making PH a part of the checklist you will get things organized and completed the right way.  This is certainly an entirely separate post, but the gist of it is to have a list and make sure you have an owner and a timeline.  Thinking that you can throw something together is not the right approach.  Rather, its a great way to coordinate sharing what you are working with alongside things like an official blog post on your own site, coordinating with any social media accounts you may have, and if you can outside press and embargoes.

Screenshot 2016-07-10 20.50.46

Finally, I wanted to share that although some of these projects have been my own, I am especially proud of seeing friends and companies I advise launch on this platform as it has been so valuable.  From meeting prospective hires and investors, to connecting with competitors and others who have tried similar things in the past the community is incredible.

Finally, I thought I would share what I have posted which is also a fun walk down memory lane…

  1. Skillshare for iOS (my friend Mike’s company – he didn’t know I was submitting!)
  2. Casual Spectator
  3. LRN
  4. Input
  5. Metabase (Expa Studio)
  6. Kit (Expa Studio)
  7. Abovo42
  8. Spatula
  9. Current (Expa Studio)
  10. Ando






An Advisor Equity and Advisor Pool Breakdown

I have been sharing the below with folks via email and privately, but realized I should do so publicly**.


(also a huge shout out to Ben Alden, GC at, Betterment for contributing heavily, and encouraging me to post – go follow him on Medium @BenAlden)

Regarding some of the plans I have seen work well — I am going to give you two answers; one wearing my advisor hat for the company, and one wearing my non advisor hat.

As an advisor looking out for the company;

You should look to get 2–4 competent advisors that can shore up on areas that complement you well. Think about the things you DON’T know. This is the classic “hire people smarter than you” which is harder said than done. Typically these folks get between .01-.25% for regular advisors, .25-.50% for mid range to expert advisors who are willing to spend the time, .50–1.0% for very special circumstances where you have someone that is deeply involved with the company and you might want to recruit later.


Advisor 1 = 0.25%
Advisor 2 = 0.25%
Advisor 3 = 0.25%
Total = 0.75% for 3 advisors that vest as you see fit to help you over the next 1–4 years (more on vesting below)

This leaves plenty of room for a final 4th advisor for .25%

Bigger/better advisors who get more equity have things like; excellent domain expertise to help you avoid pitfalls, deep connections within the industry to help with the intros, partnerships, and more.  I try to recommend people bring on advisors that can 10X a business.

Big strategic advisors are the folks that add credibility to your co. and provide everything above, but have expertise and knowledge that you can’t find anywhere else. Think former CEO of the biggest player in your space, former lead exec. from a 10 year old co. in your space that is a public company — that sort of thing.

Advisors refer to these percentages as “basis points” such as “25 basis points” which equals 0.25%. You might already know this but just in case you hear it, wanted you to know.

As a potential advisor looking to get involved with the company;

MORE EQUITY! Lots of people here build up their portfolios by asking for 1%-5% to advise and I think that’s crazy. People claim to be incredible, but you don’t know until you work with them. Tread cautiously here. I have seen what I call “predatory advisors” come in and really mess up a cap table by promising big intros and sales contracts only to disappear after the first 6-12 months.

The funny thing about these moves is that it ends up being bad all around, even though the advisor thinks they are getting a great deal.  I have seen cap tables with these folks and investors question who they are, why/how it happened, and how someone who doesn’t work as an FTE own so much.

Here are the questions I like to see founders ask potential advisors;

1. How much time do you have for this company on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis?
2. Do you currently work with companies that are competitive or could conflict with my business?
3. How many companies do you advise today?
4. What would your current companies you advise say about you?
5. Could I speak with one of them?
6. What do you hope to gain out of this time and energy you spend?
7. What/when/how is the best time to reach you if we need something? (this one is great as its telling about how your time will go)

Much of these questions are based around time and engagement.  A standing call or meeting with an advisor is great, but when you really need them will they be there for you?

Now that you have a potential advisor lined up, how should you engage the relationship?

Good lawyers will tell you the best contractual relationships are those in which you never have to look back at the contract once it’s signed. The relationship is strong, both sides know their roles and goals, and neither side has to resort to external mechanisms (e.g., contracts, courts) to force desired behavior. The world isn’t a perfect place, though, and sometimes it makes sense to add a little more contractual protection.
It is always recommended to spend time with someone before bringing them on as an advisor.  I refer to the close confidants of a company as a “kitchen cabinet“, and always feel like you should be able to break bread with an advisor in your own home/kitchen.

What tools exist to protect both sides of an advisor relationship?

Vesting Schedules

Advisors typically ask to vest in equal installments over 48 months. However, I have seen many derivatives of schedules and you have to find a timeline that works best for you.
Another schedule is to use a traditional FTE grant; 4 year vesting with a 1 year cliff.  This is the standard 25% of the grant vesting on the one year anniversary of the grant date, with the remaining 75% vesting in equal installments monthly over the next three years. Another innovative approach is to change the cliff to something shorter such as six months.
This gives the advisor an incentive to add enough value that you want to keep them on the team for at least a year; anything less, and they’ve earned nothing. This requires a lot of trust: the advisor in your good faith and the advisor in his/her ability to add value.
Note that an advisor may reasonably push back on a request like this, however: they don’t want to potentially work for free.

Setting The Option Strike Price Above Fair Market Value

Remember when I talked about getting an advisor that can 10X a business? This is putting them on the line to actually deliver for you.

A little bit of background first on options: In order to issue options, your company must have a valid 409A valuation setting the fair market value (“FMV”) of a share of common stock. You cannot issue options at a strike price below FMV without incurring serious tax repercussions. So what most companies do is get FMV from a 409A valuation and use that for their strike price. Companies are not prohibited, however, from issuing options with a strike price greater than FMV.
So why would you do this? Say your current 409A puts your FMV at $0.25/share of common stock, and you’re negotiating with an advisor who’s promising to 4x your company value (beware of promises like this in any event…). You can offer the advisor options with a $1.00 strike price. Unless your company actually 4x’s in value, those $1.00 options will be of no value. Why would an advisor pay $1.00 to exercise an option for a share worth less than $1.00?
This is flexible: you could issue a number of options with the current FMV, and some with a heightened FMV to provide an additional incentive to hit certain targets.

Letting your Advisor Go

Hopefully you are setup for success, but in the event it doesn’t work out it is best to be prepared. This is why vesting makes so much sense.  If things go south after two years, you have 50% of the unvested shares to revert back to the Company.
For example, if you give an advisor 0.4% grant, and they work for you for one year before you decide to part ways, your company won’t be out the full 0.4%. Rather, an advisor in this circumstance would likely have only vested in 1/4 of that amount, with the unvested 3/4 returning to the company. Playing out the math they will walk away with 0.1% of your company, and the remaining 0.3% will revert back.
All of this is one way of saying that the initial grant you provide isn’t set in stone. If a relationship isn’t working out, you can terminate it or renegotiate to mitigate costs.
If an advisor is confident they can add value (and you have a reputation as a fair dealer), these aren’t unreasonable asks. That said, while these tools may get you to a better place directionally, you can see they’re far from perfect. For example, if you set an advisor’s strike price greater than FMV, what happens if FMV rises for reasons completely aside from an advisor’s efforts? At the end of the day, there’s simply no replacement for a good relationship, and that’s what you want to spend your time–not in more nuanced contract negotiations.

**LAWYERLY DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice. Before embarking down this path, please check with your outside counsel, Board of Directors, and equity plan and financing documents etc… before making moves. Every company’s plan is different, and just like a contract isn’t a substitute for a good relationship, a blog post isn’t a substitute for legal counsel.

Founder First Principles — Creating Expa Labs


I have spent the last few months helping to create and launch the Expa Labs program. The first group of Expa Labs companies started last week, and I am excited to have them in our offices building. They are incredible founders, with amazing backgrounds, working on great ideas.

To understand how we got to this point its worth taking a step back and looking at the foundation this program was built upon, as well as understand why we build Labs in the first place.

To be able to create this program from the beginning was a main driver for me to move into my new role, and a challenge I have always wanted to tackle.

From the original post at Expa.com

Expa is a startup studio that works with founders to develop and launch new products. After 10 years of designing and building consumer services, Garrett and the Expa team have identified many techniques that help create successful companies. This experience has been integrated into a platform to help founders increase their startup’s chance of success.

Expa Studio has created an incredible framework for founders to build, scale and launch companies, and using this for outside founders is a natural evolution. We wanted to take what we have learned building inside, and leverage the same platform for founders. The Expa Labs program was built using this same system, and I am excited to deliver on the initial vision of helping more founders. It has been great working with the existing team at Expa and leveraging the work that has been done to date.

Since the program didn’t exist before, I wanted to share how we approached building it, and share some of my thoughts along the way.

I started building the program thinking about first principles. There are plenty of other startup programs that exist, and I didn’t want to compare and contrast them. Rather I want to focus on the things that I believed to be the Founder First Principles so that we could create something entirely focussed on the people in the program. If you are not familiar with the topic, here is a quick video that explains nicely the thinking behind this method;

The first task was to come up with Founder First Principles which I defined as;

  1. Capital: Investment in the business to conduct business
  2. Talent: Bringing in the right talent into a company
  3. Office space: A place to conduct business and come to work to collaborate
  4. Feedback: Getting early user and customer feedback from people outside the office
  5. Network: A group of peers to brainstorm, conspire, partner, help, collaborate and vent to
  6. Advisors: Individuals that can 10X a part of the business that a founder or employee cannot
  7. Future Funding: Access to materials and people that can help in raising outside capital
  8. Frameworks of Success: Access to frameworks that have worked in the past, but not set in stone (there is no formula!)

I spent a long time thinking about this list, and going through what Expa could offer. I came up with the following;

  1. Capital: Expa will capitalize each business with $500K
  2. Talent: We will attract top talent leveraging the platform/success built to date with people, products, and companies
  3. Office Space: Expa will provide office space in NY and SF to companies to work alongside other founders
  4. Feedback: Expa will provide office hours, 1:1 time, and feedback when need with key individuals within the organization
  5. Network: Expa will provide a bi-weekly breakfast with individuals that can help Expa Labs companies + share materials with our limited partners at the end of the program
  6. Advisors: Expa will leverage its own advisor network for the breakfast series, announce the companies on our channels, and introduce folks who have interests
  7. Future Funding: Expa will send out a “first look” to the limited partners who have invested in Expa (something they are very excited about) before the end of the program
  8. Frameworks of Success: Expa will provide guidance and coaching (that’s me!) + leverage the team, and lean on the frameworks we have seen work in other Expa Studio companies.

Given this list, and reviewing it now, I am reminded that there is no magic formula for startups — an important reminder when looking for the answer.

Although many of these seem obvious, creating this list and working with all the stakeholders to create this program was an amazing opportunity.

I tried to imagine myself in the shoes of an entrepreneur reading through the Expa Labs website for the first time and thinking about the future of my company and where I wanted to spend time. I thought about what kind of people I wanted to work around and what would motivate me every day to be energized to go to work. I thought about the difficulties facing most founders, and what things I could provide that would make the process a little bit easier for Labs companies. I thought about the crossroads that many founders come to, and the best ways to provide the right advice at the right time. In doing so we created what you see today at Expa.com/Labs.

Throughout the creation process it was great to leverage the smart brainpower within Expa, not only from the partners, but also the incredible team they have assembled over the past 3 years.

I also sat down with founders who have been through every stage of the lifecycle of a business. I sat with folks who never raised a dime of outside capital, and got their thoughts on the early days of their companies life. I met with founders who have been through accelerator and incubator programs, and listened to their feedback. I spoke with CEOs who have raised millions of dollars in venture capital, and pried into what they would do different today if they could “start from scratch”. The most fun question to ask this group was simply; “if you were doing this again today, what would you do differently?”. Variations of this question made these founders gush about ideas and brainstorming about how they get started.

Everyone has their own unique origin story and, because of that, there’s no singular/perfect formula. Hearing from real people was my Customer Development Process for Labs, and it felt good to “get outside the building” and talk to prospective “customers”.

Once the program details were setup, I created a simple 15-question form for companies to share there vision with us. We received ~500 applications, which included answers and videos from founders — to which I reviewed them all. This not only was a great way to see and hear from prospective Labs companies, but also to gain insight and further sharpen my own pattern recognition into what is happening in the market today. I am in awe of the incredible caliber of the applications I reviewed and the entrepreneurs I got a chance to speak with. After reviewing and combing through applications, with a huge amount of help from Roberto Sanabria, we worked our way down to a group of finalists. We invited a small group of companies to SF for a final interview, and spent time with each going through their business and trying to understand what they wanted to build. The exercise was a logistical challenge, but something that was worthwhile in the end, as I got great feedback from most folks who went through the process.

We recently announced the first 6 Expa Labs companies and I am excited for the next six months. I would say that the main driver of such a small number of companies was the amount of time and energy we wanted to spend with each team.

Thinking about school is the closest analogue I can come up with; a classic example where a group that wants to learn (students) from a select few (teachers/professors/experts) — the ratio matters most. Even the best schools in the world take the ratio of students to teachers to heart, and in crafting a new program I wanted to do the same. I can’t predict what will happen in the future, but it will certainly make the framework of Expa Labs that much better for a bigger group in the future.

With this first group already in the office and focussed on building and shipping, I am thinking about the future and how we will do. We are certainly not going to get everything right at first, which is why we are constantly going to test and evaluate and measure how we are doing. Both from a logistical and tactical standpoint, to a pattern recognition and return on investment standpoint.

Although the Labs program has begun, there’s still a lot of work to be done — including taking time to reflect on the process and make it better for the next iteration. I am looking forward to working with this first group, and opening up applications again in the future if you are interested.

Putting out the biggest fires

I am usually a very regimented person, and crave process and structure. Some would even say too black and white, as I need to allow for some grey areas and unknowns. I agree with this feedback and take it to heart. It wasn’t until I started to build the inside sales team at Foursquare that I really saw it as a something to work on and something to watch out for that I realized its importance. To help with this I use an expression that I first heard from my former colleague and friend Dave Greenberger, now head of sales at Splash, which is; “put out the biggest fires”.

Dave came onboard to help manage the inside sales team we were building at Foursquare and there was a lot to do.  During his interview process he brought up his methodology to handling things like; recruiting, hiring, churn, customer service, technology woes, everything really…
At first I was taken back as it went against my need to prepare and plan, but I knew my approach also wasn’t working. I went with my gut that this was the right approach – and seeing it in action it was.
Putting out the biggest fires has become a startup mantra for me because it goes well beyond inside sales. It is a more tactical version of the cliche of building a startup “it’s like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down” This phrase  is almost too glamorous and non-genuine as it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter. It doesn’t capture the actual day to day maneuvering that is necessary.
Putting out the largest fires is embracing the fact that there are fires in the first place. Everything is not perfect, and that is perfectly fine.  It is probably half the reason most people join a new startup in the first place.  Any attempt to sweep problems under the rug and hide from them isn’t a good approach, and this gets them out in the open.
You can’t prevent all the turmoil, but you can influence how you deal with it. This was WHEN someone comes with an issue (not if) you can process and fix vs waste time and energy on WHY. Doing a Post Mortem and placing blame are not helpful in the moment. They can help after, but if you are only focused on the end and the potential bad outcomes, you are not adequately preparing for reality. Things happen. Stuff will break. Fires will burn. By taking on the “put out the biggest fires” you are stating that you know things will go wrong but you are willing to do something about it.
So thanks Dave for making this part of my startup strategy book. As I work with teams and companies more and more this advice comes up, and writing it all down gives me a chance to reference it in the future and check myself with folks who have opposing views. Let me know if you have seen this work, or have a different approach.

Next after next

One of my favorite interview questions is “what is next for you after this role?” Or put another way “what is next after next?”


I added it to my list of go-to questions for almost every role as it gives me insight and information into a candidate beyond anything else I have asked before.

Accepting that most folks are not going to join your company and retire after 40 years is a healthy way to have the rapid career change conversation that is a sticking point for so many. Embracing that someone is not going to stick around forever is a good thing. The hope is they are going to be around and give you their all for 2-4 year(this is a good outcome in my book). Anything longer and their role will probably change anyway. Anything shorter and there is some other issue.

Hearing from candidates about what is next is also just plain interesting. Some folks talk about what they “really” want to be doing and I have heard things such as; run product, start my own company, be an investor, go to grad school, write a book, become a professional singer, run a sales team, pivot their career and start over, break into startups, go to grad school the list goes on and on. Some folks are about finding a stepping stone role. Some people want stability. In the words of Mark Suster some folks want to learn and others earn – and this is great advice.  I like to get at the root of where they are coming from from asking this question. Giving them a platform to talk about their own story arc and where it’s going is a refreshing way to get at what motivates them.

If you end up hiring the candidate, this is a great thing to discuss in 1:1s and reviews (not every time but as a macro goal). Questions like; are you learning what you want to learn towards your next gig? Is the work you have challenging you to get to your next role? Do you have the skills you need today to do this next level job? Knowing where someone wants to get to later on (what is actually next) can be a way of actually gut checking the answers to these questions.  Sure, someone needs to know how to do their job within your org. but if they are acquiring skills that can help them in their career they will do a better job and be more invested in the results.  These results are going to be what they talk about in interviews, put on their CV and LinkedIn, and reference later on.  If you can connect the goals of the individual with the macro goals of your company you can ensure you have someone that is truly dedicated to mastering their job.

It’s also not about leaving a company or job. I have spoken to lots of candidates who divulge that they actually want to be in a different department or role within the company and they see this as a way in. For small companies I see this as more of an issue, but larger co’s I have no issue. People also talk about role models in the current company wishing to aspire to be like them (or be them if/when they leave).  Having this conversation early can ensure you don’t end up in a bad place during a review period.

So next time you go into an interview ask “what’s next after next?” and let me know how it goes.

Please Repeat Yourself (PRY)

The principle of DRY (Don’t repeat yourself) in software engineering is about brevity, efficiency, and reducing repetition.  However paradoxically, the management side of any business suffers from the opposite problem of needing to continuously share information about the mission, vision, values, and areas of focus for colleagues.  I hear the advice time and again that founders should repeat the goals of a Company and what they and the team are working on – but not a great way of remembering it.

I propose the following principle; Please Repeat Yourself (P.R.Y.)

red-building-industry-bricksThis gives not only a name and mantra to a necessary goal for founders, but also an easy moniker for those on the receiving side of the information.  Many teams encourage questions, have office hours, and do town hall type discussions – all opportunities to cover the main mission and vision, yet you cannot repeat them enough.  I have witnessed many questions from colleagues to founders rooted in confusion around core mission, core values, or attempting to measure what they themselves are working on.  In many of my own 1:1 discussions I joke that my dream is to have someone come in and tell me “I know exactly what the team is working on, as well as what I need to be doing, and what our goal is as a company.”  This is obviously an oversimplification, but knowing this statement will never happen makes me realize that this management principle of P.R.Y. should exist.

By asking folks to please repeat themselves, we can all get into the habit of divulging the core tenants of the business over and over and over again.  If you think about the average tenure of employees, especially those of startup folks, around 2 years you can see the need for this principle. When someone first starts they are thrown into the fire and expected to get up to speed on all that is happening.  If your small team is anything like the rest of them, the docs that onboard them and internal company language probably hasn’t been updated in awhile.  Expecting someone to understand the “why” behind all the decisions that have led to this point without understanding the language behind it is just unfair.  Coming back to my premise, PRY gives you a way to tell a new team member the background and knowledge behind things.

When teams begin to grow, everyone can’t be at every meeting, and you expand beyond the dunbar number, it becomes even more difficult to make sure everyone knows what is going on.  Repeating yourself here is the key to a cohesive and knowledgable team.  A good test at this phase is to ask folks how they explain what they do to a friend or family member.  You would be amazed at how folks that work at the same company can describe things in such a different way – even being on the same team.  If you think of every employee as an evangelist to your brand, then PRY is a great way to get everyone aligned.

Growing a team is critical to every startup, and everyone says that word of mouth referrals for new employees is how the best teams grow.  For this reason PRY is a great way to ensure that someone can explain what the core mission of the Company is to those prospective employees.  I have seen candidates unable to decipher what a company is doing fall back on larger established companies as they are able to grok “what is going on”.  To lose out on someone because the mission is unclear should be unacceptable.

Layering the message over and over (like the brick example) builds a great foundation that founders should be proud of, employees can contribute too, and be a part of the defensible culture of a company.

Let me know if you agree with the PRY principle.