Startup Vitamins and Maximizing Energy

Running a startup is like nothing else I’ve ever done. It’s an exhilarating 24×7, always-on series of experiences, interactions and product evolution. If you’re running or working at a startup, you’ll probably understand the need to have your brain (and body) functioning at 110% at all times.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always trying to squeeze another hour out of the day — answer 5 more emails, return 3 more phone calls, finish up one more proposal — however you want to justify it to yourself. Then you get home super-late, just in time to shovel down something that shouldn’t be described as “dinner”, spend a few moments enjoying the company of family and friends, and then hit the hay for the night. Oh, and you may have skipped a few meals during the day as you were plowing through some back-to-back meetings.

Well if that sounds like your normal routine, it’s probably not a huge stretch to say you’re also constantly striving to maximize your energy, performance and endurance, and minimize the stress that you put on your body — so that you can do even more! If you’re a poor eater, then you may also find yourself with a foggy mind. That’s no fun for anyone.

I’m no nutritionist, but I recently went to see one and learned some great things. So… I thought I’d share my learnings with the community for it’s collective good.

In less than 2 weeks, I’ve gone from from having a foggy brain, feeling light-headed and slightly dizzy (after working solid for most of the day), exhausted when I got home at the end of each day to feeling sharp in the morning, no signs of dizziness throughout the day and feeling full of energy when I get home at the end of the day.

It turns out that there are a number of factors that contributed to this change. Nothing hugely substantial, just some basic changes, some scientific rationale/reasoning and finding a small bit of time to cook and eat better foods.

My learnings have shown the following to make a huge (positive) difference in my energy, mental clarity and general well-being (in no particular order):

  • Cut alcohol and caffeine
  • Drink 3-5L water each day
  • Sleep more than 6.5 hours each night
  • DHA and other healthy oils are important
  • Supplement with other energy boosting vitamins
  • Increase protein intake at breakfast and other meals
  • Avoid problem foods (food sensitivities)
  • Graze throughout the day to keep blood sugar steady
  • Stop making excuses, go back to the gym

The first three points above are fairly straightforward; however, if you’re sleeping from 3:00am-10:00am your sleep will not give you the same restorative effects and benefits as a sleep that is from 10:00pm to 5:00am. There are built-in processes tied to your circadian rhythm and if you’re awake and not sleeping during those times, your body essentially skips those cycles. Do this repeatedly and you’ll feel like crap in no time.

DHA is one of the Omega fatty acids (healthy oils) that is primarily derived from fish. I recently learned that it is absolutely critical for a high-functioning brain. Also, I don’t eat fish. Your brain is a very fatty tissue and DHA is required for a number of synaptic signaling mechanisms; if you don’t get enough DHA in your diet, your brain can’t signal as effectively and hence runs slower or becomes foggy. Boom.

Of course, I had an added issue which was that I didn’t really eat much fat or cholesterol-containing foods — stayed away from butter, fatty meats, yadda yadda — in efforts to be healthy, but was achieving an opposing end. Again, I was recently reminded that the cells in our bodies have a phospholipid bilayer (a cell membrane that is composed of fatty acid molecules as well as cholesterol to keep it loose and fluid) and mine was leakier than it should be because I didn’t have enough fats in my diet. The leaky membrane causes more water to flow out of the cells, leaving them slightly dehydrated and more susceptible to oxidative damage (hint: eat lots of anti-oxidants, they’re good for you too)! Nonetheless, this has been a fatty, tasty and scrumptious problem to solve and cure.

To get my required oils, I’ve supplemented my diet with DHA (2 capsules / day) from Metagenics, Omega 3 capsules, liquid flax seed oil (added to my green smoothies), coconut oil (used to stir fry at higher temperatures) and butter.

To improve my energy, I’ve supplemented with an active form of Vitamin B12 called Methyl-cobalamin, B100 complex (warning: your urine will turn a highlighter form of yellow), and Siberian Ginseng (caution: don’t take for more than 30 days; don’t use Korean or Canadian Ginseng, it’s not as good as the Siberian stuff, they know how to make it right!). Take these in the morning and not before bed, or you’ll find yourself wired all night. Also, I believe big contributing factors include proper sleep, drinking over 3L water everyday and working out at least twice per week (at a minimum, and even for 30 minutes if time is tight). Cutting caffeine and alcohol will help here.

If you’re stressed out, Vitamin B complex will help you cope, add Vitamin D (if you don’t get much sun) and consider yoga/meditation — or if time is even more constrained — find 5 minutes every hour to get up and walk down the hall while doing some deep breathing. You’d be surprised, but it makes a difference, just don’t let people catch you in the act or they may think you’re a bit strange.

One last tip: I’ve been starting my day with these green smoothies and they rock because it’s a fully balanced meal packed with protein, fats, carbs, antioxidants, fibre and calories to burn. My green smoothie contains spinach, kale, frozen blueberries, frozen raspberries, fresh kiwi, banana, POM juice (optional), 1 serving of whey protein powder, 2% fat yogurt, kefir, flex seed oil and water. Blend it up and you’re good to go!

Let me know if you decide to adopt any of these recommendations, I’d be curious to know and hear about whether or not any of the changes worked for you as well.

Disclaimer: As I mentioned above, I am not a nutritionist so please consult one or a physician before you add any vitamin supplements to your diet, especially if you are taking any prescription medication.

Improving Canada’s SR&ED Program for Startups

Today, during Ontario’s Civic Holiday, I finally got around to filling out Deloitte Technology Fast 50™ CEO Survey. There was an interesting question that sparked a thread that I’ve been thinking about lately:

“Specifically, do you think the SR&ED tax credit program is pretty good as is, or needs improvement? If it needs big changes, what would be the first change you would make?”

For those of you who don’t know what the SR&ED program is, go learn more because it can save your business tons of cash over time and help you finance your business with non-dilutive government assistance.

For those of you running (or have previously run) early-stage stage startups, here are my thoughts: Currently SR&ED will refund a portion of a startup’s R&D costs based on expenses incurred during the previous year – some of those earliest expenses claimed were incurred 18 months prior to the claim. For startups, this is an eternity. Today, startups can grow and die violently before they get their first SR&ED claim, which could have helped them to pay one more employee, solve one more problem or help one more customer.

The Canadian government should consider modifying the SR&ED program to include a faster-reimbursement timeframe for startups (making less than $1,000,000 in revenue per year). For example, this could mean making claims quarterly and being reimbursed within 60-90 days – this would massively improve startup financing in the short-term. A modification, as requested, would help startups build value and growth potential more quickly and help the overall competitiveness of the Canadian technology sector.

Will anyone help to stand behind an initiative to get the Canadian government to improve the SR&ED program for startups? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Guardly: The First 300 Days

Originally posted on the Guardblog at:

Guardly has transformed from an idea to a best-in-class application that helps people stay safe everyday. There’s an exciting story behind our journey, and it has only just begun. I already have many people to thank for getting us this far so quickly – so, let’s get started!

Litmus testing.

Great concept, but will it work? That was the enigma facing Extreme Venture Partners’ Amar Varma, when I first pitched Guardly to him in its early days. He wasn’t sure if Guardly would be successful, but he liked the market opportunity and that we were solving a real world problem. So, Amar (and Farhan) let me squat alongside the Xtreme Labs team, fellow portfolio companies and Xtreme University startups. That gave me an opportunity to connect with other bright minds, leverage some of their resources and build my team within of the best startup-culture environments I’ve yet to see in Toronto. Even for technology startups, sometimes Location, Location, Location is everything. Thanks Amar and the Xtreme family for helping to raise young Guardly.

These times have been recorded in the Guardly Culture Book and it will be a time to remember: working at random desks, storage areas and even the floor, at times; taking important phone calls in closets, stairwells and every meeting room or abandoned office. Two to a desk all other times – it was a team bonding experience.

Toronto’s startup community and a bit of luck!

I’d like to personally thank all the organizers and facilitators that run events and bring the Toronto startup community together – namely David Crow (and Albert Lai) for DemoCamp, Sarah Prevette and Erin Bury for SproutUp, and Bryan Watson for Startup Drinks. You all make Toronto a better place to launch and run a technology venture. It was at a Startup Drinks that I first met Nolan Dubeau (now Guardly’s VP Product Engineering) through a mutual friend – Steve Dixon (now at Wave Accounting – another very cool Toronto startup). Only a few weeks later, I would be introduced to Mark Pavlidis (Lead Mobile Engineer at Guardly) and Bretton MacLean (UI/UX Designer at Guardly) through Ken Seto, who runs Massive Damage (previously EndloopX) out of YearOne Labs.  Thanks Steve and Ken! In October 2010, Guardly grew its team by 300% in 2 short weeks. And then we were four.

Government programs, university incubators and industry organizations.

In fall 2010, Guardly was awarded a FedDev Advanced Research and Commercialization (ARC) grant and access into OCAD’s Mobile Experience Innovation Center (MEIC) incubator. We owe a big thank you to Michele Perras, who listened to Guardly’s mission and vision, and decided to support us in our grant and incubator proposals. The FedDev ARC grant has led to Guardly’s development on Android (still in progress) and the MEIC incubator was home to Guardly for just over 5 months, when Guardly grew from 4 to 6 FTEs + a few interns. Welcome Robert Lendvai and Kamran Shafi! We have fond memories of the incubator, starting our Guardly BINGO square and our domination of every whiteboard in our immediate vicinity. Thanks Michele, OCAD, MEIC and FedDev for the opportunity to take our next step.

In early winter 2011, I learned of a great program run by the Ontario Centre’s of Excellence (OCE) called – the First Job Program. It’s a fantastic grant that startups can apply for and redeem up to 80% of a recent grads first-year salary. In just a few days work, with the help of Martin Lord at OCE, we put together a winning application and were awarded one of only a few grants during this granting period. Thanks Martin – you’ve been an instrumental help during Guardly’s early days.

Closing the seed round.

Any startup founders that have had to raise money can attest to the time and dedication it takes to convince other people to part with their money to back your vision. Before starting Guardly, I had the opportunity to work in venture capital, on the other side of the table, as an Analyst at RBC Venture Partners and the BlackBerry Partners Fund.

In that role, I had the chance to work with some extremely intelligent folks and learn more about how the mind of the typical VC works, the attributes that make businesses exciting and the dynamics that lead to making deals happen. By understanding the economics that VCs look to achieve and bringing that mindset to the table, it makes the funding conversation much easier. I’d like to thank Kevin Talbot for bringing me onto the team as well as Matt Golden, Rob Antoniades, Dave Unsworth, Alex Baker, JD Begin, Jeannette Wiltse and the JLA Ventures crew who all contributed to my learning experiences.

Even with this hyper-focused entrepreneurial education, as I sometimes refer to my VC Analyst days, I still had to have approximately 70 conversations with family, friends, angels and VCs before I was able to find the right group of investors and close the seed round. Ultimately, Guardly ended up with a fantastic mix of investors that includes employee’s family members (so they could increase their ownership), friends, angels and VCs, including Extreme Venture Partners and Bryker Capital. Most importantly, we have patient investors that care about our success and are aligned with our vision of success. Thank you to all our early investors, for taking this early-stage risk and for believing in our ability to execute and build a strong, sustainable company.

DEMO Spring 2011.

Neil Silverman (DEMO organizer) and Matt Marshall (Editor-In-Chief at VentureBeat) came through Toronto to screen companies to invite to launch on the DEMO stage. We applied (~50 applications) and Guardly was selected (1 of 10 companies) to pitch to Neil, Matt and the Rogers Ventures crew; shortly thereafter, we received an invitation to launch at DEMO Spring 2011.

It was a fantastic opportunity for Guardly. The whole team flew down to Palm Desert, California to take part in this historic unveiling. It was an all-hands-on-deck type experience. We worked around the clock perfecting our demo application, the demo script, selling at the pavilion and networking at the bar! While traveling to the conference, a number of us pushed code from the plane (Virgin WiFi, YYZ to LAX) en route to DEMO; more interesting, one final tweak was made to our server-side code-base during on-stage setup, just 2 hours before the demo. A single flaw would have been devastating, with an eager crowd of 600 media, VCs and technology professionals watching – faces behind laptops and various Twitter clients – and waiting to see how Guardly works.

Fortunately, the demo went off without a hitch. Soon, you should be able to see the full-story behind Guardly’s DEMO experience since Microsoft commissioned a documentary and we were selected as 1 of 2 startups to participate from over 50 demoing companies. Daryll McDade at Microsoft was awesome to work with and the film crew at Ten100 made “acting” loads of fun. The feature-length documentary, called “Inventing The Future”, is set to complete editing this summer. Details to follow.

Guardly for iPhone

Of all the early accomplishments we had as a company, launching Guardly on iPhone has been the most rewarding for me (and hopefully for the team as well). It was the culmination of everything we had been working towards for the 6 months prior.

I want to thank all our employees for the hard work and dedication they’ve shown, working long days and nights to make sure Guardly would fulfill its mission – to help people stay safe. You guys rock!

When a product is built, most people only see the finished product, but don’t have an opportunity to see all the attempts, failures, redesigns and thoughts that go into making a product. One of the things that I love about the Guardly team is their attention detail and their passion for making sure that each component of the Guardly service is as good as it can be for our customers. Their collective creativity, resourcefulness and teamwork have already led to a number of post-launch product iterations that better address customer needs, recommendations and feedback. Improvements continue today.

And beyond…

Since we live in a poly-smartphone world, we’ve been busy bringing Guardly to BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Android. Sign up to be notified when Guardly becomes available for your device.

We are also building a platform for the educational sector, which will disintermediate the way the college and university campus emergency phones work to connect students and campus security. Today, most post-educational institutions have emergency poles on campus (sometimes called “Code Blue” phones). Unfortunately, emergency phones are relatively hard to find, predators can avoid them, they require maintenance and most importantly, they are fixed and not mobile during an emergency. Guardly works to make student and faculty phones into emergency poles that are location-aware; further, Guardly would let students reach campus security by phone or instant-message. Today, campus security can only be reached by phone. We are looking to work with universities and colleges that are innovative and forward thinking – please contact us and ask how you can become an early partner.

Advisors: The supporting cast.

Any early-stage management team is only as good as the people that surround it. Guardly has been fortunate to have a group of strong, responsive and caring advisors.

Our earliest advisors included Matt Golden and Mark Ruddock. I had the pleasure of working closely with Matt on three investment transactions at the BlackBerry Partners Fund. He brings a wealth of knowledge in operations, building teams, business development and securing financing. Mark and I first got to know each other around a similar timeframe, back when he was CEO of Viigo and I was an Analyst at RBC Venture Partners (Viigo was our portfolio company). Mark has been helpful in vetting early hires, providing insight into contracts and negotiations and acting as a great sounding board for several key decisions made in our early days.

As we’ve grown, we’ve added April Dunford and Louis Toromoreno to our advisors. April is a local marketing maven, who has given us some extremely insightful advice on the D2C and B2B marketing fronts; she’s super responsive and extremely thoughtful in her suggestions and recommendations. Louis manages campus security at OCAD University and sits on the Board of the Ontario Association of College and University Security Administrators. He is active in thinking about how Guardly can be continuously improved to suit the needs of post-secondary institutions.

Guardly is also a MaRS client. We’ve been lucky to have not just one, but three advisors that have taken interest in Guardly and have provided useful feedback and a number of introductions to relevant people in our space. Big thanks to Mark Zimmerman, Peter Evans and Sue McGill for constantly offering your help and support to our team.

The next 300 days.

Guardly’s future is bright and boasts a number of exciting opportunities to pursue. We’ll be launching a number of new products and programs.

If you’d like to contribute to the Guardly story somehow, here’s a few ways that you can get involved:

  • If you’ve used Guardly, please help us improve by giving us feedback.

  • Work at or attend a college or university? Mention Guardly to your IT/Security department or contact us and we can help.

  • Want to join our amazing team? Apply to a job opening.

  • Do you mentor, advise or invest in other startups? We are always open and eager to work with great people – so please reach out and see if there’s a good potential fit.

  • If you like our story and would like to cover Guardly on your blog, newsletter or podcast, or would like to feature our story in more conventional news outlets, please check out our press kit and send us a note.

The Five Whys and Three-Minute Rule for Startups

Over the course of the last few weeks, I’ve come across some great “rules” and “methodologies” for customer development and understanding your customers.

The Five Whys

The Five Whys, which has its origins in the Toyota Production System, believes that the root of every problem (including technical problems) is actually a human problem. As demonstrated by Eric Reis on the HBR Blog, here is The Five Whys applied to a startup:

  1. A new release broke a key feature for customers. Why? Because a particular server failed.
  2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way.
  3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer who used it didn’t know how to use it properly.
  4. Why didn’t he know? Because he was never trained.
  5. Why wasn’t he trained? Because his manager doesn’t believe in training new engineers, because they are “too busy.”

The Three-Minute Rule

This rule can and should be used to better understand your customers. The Three-Minute Rule should be used to better understand the broader context around how your customers are using your product (and what other features may make sense, given their typical use cases). If you’re a CEO or a Product Manager, chances are you are living and breathing the product. Typically, surveys and focus groups can tell you a lot about your customers, but sometimes other approaches can be much more valuable. Enter, the Three-Minute Rule: call up a customer and ask them what they are generally doing three minutes immediately before using your product and three minutes immediately after using your product. Having them run through this scenario allows you to better understand their challenges and complexities; you may learn new sales techniques, develop new insights for potential product features or identify a cross-selling opportunity with another product/service that your company already offers. Anthony Tjan offers some additional insights on this at HBR.

Explaining the ‘lack of’ Venture Capital in Toronto

I figured it would be appropriate to write about the lack of a growing and robust venture capital community in Toronto since it cropped up in three places over the last 2 days  — once with several folks at Startup Drinks last night, today over coffee with Jeremy Laurin of OCE’s Investment Accelerator Fund and on Quora (the new social network launched by the ex-CTO of Facebook). On a side note, Quora is actually pretty snazzy with super-high-quality people.

Back to the main point of this thread — I’ve been talking about this situation for roughly 3.5 years now — first in the biotech/life science VC community in Toronto and now with the ICT community. I believe there is one problem at the root of both sectors — we need a kick-start in Canada.

What does that mean, a kick-start? Well, most people believe that there is a fundamental funding gap in Toronto’s venture community between pioneering research (in universities, by startups, etc…) and venture capital finance-able deals. That may be the case, but that is a different argument for a different day. I believe there is a more substantial funding gap that exists once a ‘successful Canadian company’ reaches the point of raising a round of capital greater than $15 million. The existing VCs in the community (generally) just can’t get those kinds of deals done. It’s not in our Canadian cards (given the average fund size, risk thresholds, etc…). Canadians need later-stage financing options (or Government money) to back those deals and to create a better later-stage ecosystem.

So, what happens instead? Great Canadian companies knock on the doors of VCs South of the border who are flushed with cash and willing to invest larger amounts in later rounds. For the record, I love US VCs. However, for the purpose of this discussion, or monologue rather, they have tended to bring companies close to home to minimize their geographical risk with the investment. Now, as companies continue to grow and are eventually sold, the successful founders and key employees of those companies often (not always) stay South of the border to further progress their careers — joining US companies, or launching other companies in those locales. Worse for Canada, those successful folks often reinvest in US VC funds or Angel invest in other local US companies rather than Canadian startups.

Envision that cycle reoccurring over and over for the last 30 years. The trend becomes large enough that a substantial amount of capital, and human capital for that matter, gets lost from the Canadian startup ecosystem.

Some say that there is a lack of venture capital in Toronto because there just aren’t great deals. I disagree. I think that there is a lot of talent in Toronto and in the surrounding areas, like Waterloo for example.

Now, the scenario I’ve described may not be the only reason for the lack of capital in Toronto (or Canada), but I feel that it is a significant part of the problem. What are your thoughts?

Toronto Startup Digest

I am proud to announce that I’ve recently become a co-curator of the Toronto [Startup Digest], joining Will Lam in curating a weekly list of the highest quality tech/startup events in Toronto. [Startup Digest] has spread like wildfire from Silicon Valley to locations around the world and I’m excited to be joining the team.

As a long-standing recipient of the Silicon Valley [Startup Digest], I was always pleased with the quality of events that were mentioned in the curated list emailed once each week. The Toronto [Startup Digest] will maintain this quality and will include and highlight the top tech and entrepreneurship events in the Greater Toronto Area (and Waterloo). We won’t cover all of the events, only the best ones!

Here are 5 things that [Startup Digest] will accomplish:

1. We want to promote the entrepreneurial lifestyle and the culture of DOING, to help change the world into a better place.

2. We want to strengthen the pre-existing entrepreneurial communities no matter how small or large they currently are

3. We want to create stronger bonds between entrepreneurs through relevant events where the startup community physically meets each other.

4. We want to promote the cross-pollination of ideas and people that would not otherwise interact.

5. We want to empower the leaders in these startup communities and give them the tools and inspiration to create a huge difference.

(view source)

If you would like to subscribe to the weekly [Startup Digest], please register online.

Otherwise, if you are running an event in Toronto (GTA) or Waterloo, please leave the details in a comment below, email me or contact me on twitter. If the event is targeting rock stars, it’ll get on the list!

Product Management for Mobile Gaming

As an aspiring tech CEO, I have been told numerous times that being an “A+” Product Manager will provide the experience, understanding and discipline to become a great CEO and to lead an accomplished company.

I often provide strategy and product development guidance to some of our portfolio companies; however, I wanted a more immersive experience and to be part of the excitement of startup life. So over the last several months, I increased my assistance to a particular portfolio company in the Toronto area, which I believe is well positioned in the marketplace. Strategy discussions with management of this company led to a conversation to bring me on-board as Product Manager of a new mobile social game at the idea stage. Eager to help the company succeed and to gain additional experience, I undertook a more formal responsibility on evenings and weekends as Product Manager. It was a perfect fit for both the company (lacked product management capabilities) and my career ambitions.

As part of the team, I faced my first challenge: Figure out the best way to manage the development team and the product. I evaluated several methods of product development and eventually settled on SCRUM since it is ideal for agile development with rapid iterations and incremental updates — perfect for an iPhone game.


For product managers that are new to SCRUM, be sure to check out the SCRUM Reference Card (great overview) and beginners SCRUM Guide (fairly basic). These were helpful resources in my quest to better understand this product development process.

It was my next goal to conceive of a process to coordinate everyone’s collective efforts on the team to come up with ideas and potential features for the game and to convert that list into the Initial Release Plan and Product Backlog for the game. I created a spreadsheet in Google Docs and shared it with the team. I wanted to be a very transparent Product Manager and show the team everything that I saw — idea list, resource planning, timeline estimates, business value associations to product features, etc… I did this because I believe that transparency will help the team better understand my points of view and decision-making rationale.

Since I am continuing to learn, I invite you to have a look at the Initial Release and Version planning spreadsheets that I created to manage the product development process. Naturally, I stripped out any game-specific information, removed the names of people involved and altered values so that it would no longer represent our plan in any fashion. Other small changes to this public version include:

  • For the idea list tab, each item should be a minimum of 4 hours to a maximum of 16 hours only; tasks less than 4 hours should be placed on each developers Scratch Pad and aggregated into an item on the list; tasks greater than 16 hours should be broken down into components (if possible) to fit within the 4 – 16 hours window for ideal planning purposes.
  • Each developer would have his or her own “Scratch Pad” (the demo version only shows 2).
  • The only tab that was completely removed was the method by which we determine business value for each product feature.
  • The “Product Backlog” tab is dynamically driven from the “Idea List” tab and broken-down into version and sprint for each assessment; a tip for collecting the unique “Groups” is to export the long list of Groups from the “Idea List” into Excel and create a Pivot Table, then select the grouping and extract the unique elements to import back into Google Docs.
  • In the “Product Backlog” tab, you should determine your own complexity factor for the project  (a guide to determining this factor can be found in the SCRUM Guide linked above).

I would love to hear your questions, comments and (hopefully) suggestions to further improve what I have already created in hopes of making this effort more successful. If you would like a copy of my example spreadsheet, please let me know and leave me your email address in the comments section below; I’ll make sure to get you a copy either on Google Docs or as an export to MS Excel.

My next post will discuss putting this plan into action.

The Importance of Customer Acquisition Costs for Startups

I recently came across the blog of David Skok of Matrix Partners and was inspired to write this post by an article on customer acquisition costs. If you have not yet read through his blog’s vast resources for entrepreneurs, I suggest you do so – particularly if you plan to pitch your startup to VCs anytime soon.

After being pitched countless times by startups, as a VC I’d like to identify a common misconception that web-based startups often have about their own growth potential and the costs associated with their plans. Management of web services companies, SaaS companies and mobile (web-based) applications commonly believe that because they are situated online, customers will come across their service, submit a purchase order (or subscribe) and notify friends or other companies to use the service as well. Although this may happen from time to time, it is very rare for any company to experience sustained viral growth.

Many companies don’t understand the difference between viral marketing and viral growth. Viral marketing is essentially “word of mouth” or “person-to-person distribution” and is the latest buzzword. Viral growth implies a K-factor greater than 1 (i.e. for each new person who tries a product/service, they will each invite more than 1 registered user of the product on average). Since true viral growth is so hard to achieve in practice, many companies miscalculate the actual costs it will incur to acquire customers. As David points out in his article, the majority of startup pitches lack detail/emphasis on how much it will cost to acquire customers. I second this statement entirely.

Business Model Viability
For a business to be profitable on each new customer, startups must balance two variables: (1) Cost to Acquire Customers (CAC); and (2) Lifetime Value of a Customer (LTV).

CAC can be calculated by taking the business’s entire cost of sales and marketing over a given period (including salaries and other employee expenses) and divide it by the number of customers that the business acquired in that period.

LTV can be calculated by looking at the Average Revenue Per User/Customer (ARPU) over the lifetime of a business’s relationship with a customer.

As Steve Blank mentioned in his recent post, an early indication that a business has found the right business model is when the cost of acquiring customers becomes less than the revenues generated from the customer. “For web startups, this is when the cost of customer acquisition is less than the lifetime value of that customer. For biotech startups, it’s when the cost of the R&D required to find and clinically test a drug is less than the market demand for that drug.”

Credit: David Skok.

Zynga is a great example of a company that has managed to decipher the business model of online social gaming. After thousands of A/B tests and experiments, Zynga finally found a business model where CAC was less than LTV. Once they cracked the nut, the company spent so much on customer acquisition that it was rumored that they accounted for upwards of 30% of Facebook’s revenue in 2009 though its aggressive social ad buying strategies. Similar business models and opportunities exist in virtual worlds, massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and many other online businesses. Many social games, such as those created by Zynga, leverage virtual currency, micro-transactions, emotional response mechanisms and social influence to promote the sale of decorative and functional virtual goods.

Before investing in a web-centric startup, good VCs will look deep into a company’s business model and know to look for CAC and LTV metrics. In fact, Trident Capital recently held a meeting with their online advertising and ecommerce companies to help exchange best practices for customer acquisition and improving LTV. My advice to startups: prove out your business model and you will have a much better shot at raising VC dollars. Skok suggests that two key equations be followed by web startups:

  • CAC < LTV (3x appears to be a rough minimum for SaaS businesses)
  • CAC should be recovered in < 12 months (for subscription businesses)

Startups, if you’ve already figured out your business model and how to make CAC < LTV, stay very quiet and add as much fuel to the fire as you can afford. Your competitors will likely try to hone-in on your tactics and fight back for their share of the market.

Credit: Steve Blank.

Leverage Startup Metrics
Startups are different from larger companies and therefore need different metrics than larger companies. Metrics will give startups a lens into how well the search for the business model is going and help to identify when to scale the company. Besides CAC and LTV, some essential metrics that startups should be familiar with include Viral Coefficient (K-factor)  and Customer Lifecycle. Dave McClure from Founders Fund recently updated his Startup Metrics for Pirates presentation for web sales pipelines. Take a look!

Questions to my Readers
Please consider the following questions and share your perspectives with my other readers and the tech community at large.

  1. What metrics do you consider the most valuable?
  2. Do you use any tools to help measure specific metrics for your business?
  3. What mistakes have you made (and corrected) that can help others succeed?

The Future of Contextual Mobile Commerce

In the early days of the gold rush to create location aware and contextually relevant mobile applications for smartphones, I was constantly bombarded with business plans that showed revenue models driven from advertising. Although advertising is a plausible way of earning revenue, there is a high level of inherent risk since those businesses are largely at the mercy of market rate CPMs/eCPMs and available ad inventory (unless you have a rockstar in-house ad sales team). Ad inventories are beginning to improve as advertisers are becoming more and more aware of the high interaction and engagement rates of mobile ads. However, for startups looking to differentiate in their niche, monetizing solely through ads is a risky road to travel. That being said, I believe that ads are still relevant  for *lite* versions of apps that supplement a paid model of some form and for monetizing certain consumers that would not otherwise become a paying customer.

Tim O’Reilly wrote a short article last week on the convergence of Advertising and E-commerce and I thought he hit the nail right on the head. He says that “E-commerce is the killer app of the phone world. Anyone whose business is now based on advertising had better be prepared to link payment and fulfillment directly to search, making buying anything in the world into a one-click purchase. Real time payment from the phone is in your future.” I completely agree. Square is a great example of real-time point-of-sale (POS) coming to iPhone.

In the article, O’Reilly arrives at this conclusion by making a few theories about what can be expected from the marketplace based on some recent announcements and common sense:

  • Google, Apple, and Microsoft will announce e-commerce programs akin to AdSense, in which retailers will register with “app stores” to allow physical goods and services to be bought as easily as apps
  • We can expect announcements of partnerships between phone providers and Amazon or Wal-Mart to fulfill mobile e-commerce requests

There are a number of mobile apps that are positioned well to capitalize on some of these trends such as foursquare and other mashups of local and geocoded information. IMHO, there is a more exciting category that is only starting to gain excitement. Companies like Layar, Tonchidot (Sekai Camera), Mobilizy (Wikitude) and TAT (Recognizr) are creating augmented reality browsers and applications that use location data and combine it with image recognition technology to recognize specific people or places in the physical world and allow the application user to interact with them in some capacity. I strongly believe that these are some of the fundamental technologies that will make this category of future applications possible. By linking interaction of location-aware data through to payment and fulfillment functions, one can point a phone at a local pizza restaurant and order a pizza to their home en route. Another example may be pointing a phone at a friend and performing a money transfer with only a few clicks.

What killer apps can you think of that combine hyperlocal, e-commerce and fulfillment?

DemoCamp 25 Toronto Roundup

DemoCamp is a concept that started 4 years ago in the Bubbleshare office boardroom. It is a forum for startups to share ideas, code and development tips at a “safe” venue within the community. Now at DemoCamp 25, audiences topped 450 people as they filled up an entire auditorium-style classroom at Ryerson University – pretty impressive. Check out the Flickr photos.

The theme of this DemoCamp was social gaming, with a few other social applications thrown into the mix. All the presentations were very interesting, but I have selected a few that stood out in my mind:

Gurbaksh Chahal (gWallet)

Gurbaksh gave an inspirational talk on entrepreneurship to the crowd, basing the majority on his life story and how he sold his first two companies for $40 million and then $300 million respectively. CEOs, take a look at his 9 entrepreneurship lessons. His new venture, gWallet, provides the next generation virtual currency platform for social media including social gaming, virtual worlds, mobile platforms, abandoned shopping carts and microtransaction environments. Essentially, it is another offer network that is looking to diversify itself from the realms of OfferPal and the like. It was great to see gWallet in action in one of the subsequent demos during the evening.

Albert Lai (Kontagent)

It’s always good to see Albert. I’ve had a beat on Kontagent for a while now, and I still love what they are doing. If you’re developing a social Facebook app, there is no excuse for not using Kontagent, unless of course you have no desire to really know what your users are doing and how best to improve the growth and distribution of your application across the social network. Kontagent really drives down to better understanding the Life-Time Value (“LTV”) of a user based on your Average Revenue Per User (“ARPU”) less the cost of acquiring an individual user – and Kontagent gets very granular so that you, the developer, can determine which sources of traffic tend to monetize well across your social application. If you haven’t heard of Kontagent, check it out.

Greg Thomson (Tall Tree Games)

Greg seemed to be in fine form last night. He demoed their latest game called FishWorld, which was a stellar rip of Zynga’s (and other) aquarium-based games. It was stellar not because Zynga does it to everyone else, but because it went above and beyond other aquarium-style games. Greg and the company really thought through the game mechanics and the game player’s psychology to maximize revenue-making opportunities. One of the best quotes that he said during his presentation was to “Create a problem for your users and sell them back a solution.” For example, in FishWorld the tanks constantly get dirty, but the game offers a suckerfish for $2 that will keep your tank clean and will prevent you from having to do maintenance on the fish tank to keep it clean. Another very smart move was to sell a shark, a premium and monetizable fish that people think are “cool” to have in their tank, but the shark eats other fish that users will then have to replace through coins or credits. In short, great game mechanics. Check it out! You will learn a lot by studying this game.

Greg Balajewicz (Realm of Empires)

Realm of Empires looks like a pretty engaging game where users can build relationships with each other, strategize, and plan their schemes of “virtual world domination”. They have build the company without many game mechanics for increasing monetization, as that did not seem to be their motivating force; these nice guys actually created a “fair” game where users can genuinely compete on skill and strategy – you are not able to buy your way to the top. While very refreshing from a user game-play point of view, it will be interesting to see how this pans out from a business operations standpoint. I think there is lots of potential for growing revenues in this company and that a great business mind could join this team and together they can really cash-in.

There were a few other demos by Oz Solomon (Social Gaming Studios), Joel Auge (HitGrab), Mark Zohar (Scenecaster) and Roy Pereira (, and while interesting, they weren’t inherently social games, which I set out to cover in this post. Feel free to check out my reviews from DemoCamp 21 (July 2009).

If you’d like a more in-depth review of your game or game mechanics, flip me a note and I’d be glad to take the time chat, understand your game / mechanics and review it in a subsequent post.