Sequoia’s Mike Vernal outlines how to design feedback loops in the search for product-market fit

Sequoia’s Mike Vernal has worn many hats. He was VP of product and engineering at Facebook for eight years before getting into investment. His portfolio includes Houseparty, Threads, Canvas, Citizen, PicsArt and more, and he continues to invest in companies across a broad spectrum of stages and verticals, including consumer, enterprise, marketplaces, fintech and more.

Vernal joined us at TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising earlier this month to discuss how founders should think about product-market fit, with a specific focus on tempo. He covered how to organize around the pace of iteration, how to design with customer feedback loops in mind and how Sequoia evaluates companies with regard to tempo.

Be explicit and be greedy at every single step along the way about getting feedback.

What is tempo?

Vernal breaks down tempo into two separate ingredients: speed and consistency.

It’s not just about going fast (which can often lead to some recklessness). It’s about setting a pace and staying consistent with that pace.

One of the very best compliments an angel can bestow on a founding team and include in an introduction to us is, “They’re just really fast,” or “She’s a machine.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean fast in the kind of uncontrolled, reckless, crashing sense. It means fast in a sort of consistent, maniacal, get-a-little-bit-better-each-day kind of way. And it’s actually one of the top things that we look for, at least when evaluating a team: how consistently fast they move. (Timestamp: 2:26)

Vernal went on to say that tempo is directly correlated to goals and objectives and key results (OKRs). Building a feedback loop into those OKRs and determining the tempo with which to attack them is critical, especially during the process of finding product-market fit.

Finding product-market fit is not a deterministic process. Most of the time, it requires iteration. It requires constant adaptation. My mental model is that it’s actually just a turn-based game with an unknown number of steps, and sometimes either the clock or the money or both run out before you get to finish the game. It’s kind of like a game of chess. So what is your optimal strategy? (Timestamp: 4:25)

Feedback is your friend

As Vernal explained, finding product-market fit is all about feedback, and that must be an ongoing, built-in part of the process. He outlined how founders can go about designing with that in mind.

SOSV partners explain how deep tech startups can fundraise successfully

Startups developing so-called deep tech often find it challenging to raise capital for various reasons. At TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising, two experienced investors spoke on the subject and advised startups facing a challenging fundraising path.

Pae Wu and Garrett Winther are both partners at SOSV and run the fund’s programs around biotech and hardware. SOSV doesn’t shy away from startups building complex technology, and because of this, Wu and Winther are well placed to advise on fundraising. They presented three key points targeting startups fundraising for deep tech applications, but the points are applicable to startups of any variety.

Before giving advice, the two acknowledged the nuances across the deep tech ecosystem and each industry. Their presentation is focused on general guidance applicable to nearly every startup.

Finding the right investor

The first point on Wu and Winther’s presentation sounds a bit self-serving but is based on solid advice. When building a deep tech startup, find the right investor, they said. This is general advice for startups, but according to these two, it’s even more important when building a company that might take longer for the investor to see a return.

In deep tech, it’s essential to think about founder-investor fit. And what we mean by this is understanding why an investor is even in VC in the first place. And what it is that’s driving you, the founder, to do what you do.

And so we look at this fit as a Venn diagram between founders who have a near maniacal devotion to wanting to solve a core systemic problem and investors that thrive on the unique risk profile that comes in deep tech. Because with deep tech, we’re talking about both technical risk, where maybe that insight that is core to the company merely proves that we’re no longer having to break any laws of physics to do whatever it is you’re trying to do. So there’s a big technical risk. (Timestamp: 6:09)

We, as investors, love to see methodical founders who can see the first step that will converge at the right moment of technical and business milestones.

Set obtainable goals

Breakthrough technology hardly came from sudden breakthroughs. As explained in this presentation, it’s critical to set obtainable goals that lead to the desired outcome.

Susan Su on how to approach growth as your startup raises each round

Your startup might rely on clever growth tactics to get off the ground, but you need more than spreadsheets if you want to turn viral spikes into a real business. You need a qualitative growth model to guide the strategy that you can use to tell your story to your team and investors.

Growth marketing expert Susan Su sat down with us at TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising this month to share pointers for young companies that are trying to raise money after initial market traction. In the presentation below, she maps out a growth strategy from seed through Series A and B rounds and details how your milestones, budgets, investor updates and other measures change as you advance.

The not-so-secret secret here is that the key to great retention is really simple. It is building a product that solves a real and especially persistent problem for people.

Throughout the process, “a qualitative model tells the story of growth that you can use at early stages and really all throughout your company life cycle,” she explains.A quantitative model or quantitative growth accounting charts the numerical course for how you actually deliver against that narrative and becomes more relevant at later stages when you actually have real numbers.

Formerly a strategic growth adviser to companies at Sound Ventures, a growth marketing lead focused on startups at Stripe, and the first hire and head of growth at Reforge, Su just became a partner investing in climate tech for early-stage fund Toba Capital. She also writes a popular newsletter on climate investing and runs a six-week course for other investors on the topic.

Here’s more about growth, and how to talk about it with investors, from her presentation:

So here’s a sample qualitative growth model that I built for one of our portfolio companies with some modifications for anonymity. At the bottom, we have our linear inputs that form the foundation of awareness — in other words, traffic or leads that feed into our growth machine.

Once those leads come in, we have our acquisition loops, working to turn that non-repeatable spiky linear traffic (aka TechCrunch traffic, if you get so lucky as to be written up in TechCrunch) into scalable, repeatable acquisition. You cannot repeat the TechCrunch effect.

For this sample business, I happened to spec out five different acquisition loops — I was really ambitious. Many companies will struggle to identify this many. But the key to being able to scale is to have multiple viable acquisition loops, not just one single thing that works.

Cowboy Ventures’ Ted Wang: CEO coaching is ‘about having a second set of eyes’

Earlier this month, Cowboy Ventures’ Ted Wang joined us at TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising, where he spoke about executive coaching and why he encourages founders in his portfolio to have a CEO coach. Wang, who has an executive coach himself, sees coaching as a key way to drive sustained personal growth, a factor that he believes separates the middling CEOs from the best ones.

Why CEOs need coaching

Just like professional athletes at the top of their game still need coaching, executives can need external validation and comment on where they are and aren’t delivering, Wang says. These insights can be tough for executives to catch on their own and might require a level of honesty that can be challenging for a CEO to expect from anyone involved with their company.

Roger Federer — the famous tennis player who has won 20 Grand Slam events — he has a coach, but he doesn’t just have a coach, he has a coach for tennis. I’m pretty sure Roger knows the rules of the game and all the different strokes he needs to hit, so why would he have a coach? The answer is really that it’s about having a second set of eyes; when you’re in the moment … it’s hard to be able to see yourself and assess yourself. (Timestamp: 4:52)

Coaches can help entrepreneurs reflect and reframe the things being communicated with them.

A good example — you might be at a board meeting and one of your board members is being critical of your VP of marketing, and one way to think of that is “Oh, OK, here are some things we need to solve for this person,” but another point of view that a coach might open your eyes to, is actually maybe this person thinks you’re not hiring the right people. (Timestamp: 8:59)

While advisers can help startups navigate tactical situations, therapists may be more focused on helping clients navigate emotional states and improve themselves. Coaching exists in a very nebulous gray area between startup advisers and licensed therapists, Wang says, but coaching is more focused on improving yourself as a business leader rather than solving a particularly vexing startup issue.

When you’re in the moment … it’s hard to be able to see yourself and assess yourself.

Greylock’s Mike Duboe explains how to define growth and build your team

With more venture funding flowing into the startup ecosystem than ever before, there’s never been a better time to be a growth expert.

At TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising earlier this month, Greylock Partners’ Mike Duboe dug into a number of lessons and pieces of wisdom he’s picked up leading growth at a number of high-growth startups, including StitchFix. His advice spanned hiring, structure and analysis, with plenty of recommendations for where growth teams should be focusing their attention and resources.

How to define growth

Before Duboe’s presentation kicked off, he spent some time zeroing in on a definition of growth, which he cautioned can mean many different things at many different companies. Being so context-dependent means that “being good at growth” is more dependent on honing capabilities rather than following a list of best practices.

Growth is something that’s blatantly obvious and poorly defined in the startup world, so I do think it’s important to give a preamble to all of this stuff. First and foremost, growth is very context dependent; some teams treat it as a product function, others marketing, some sales or “other.” Some companies will do growth with a dedicated growth team; others have abandoned the team but still do it equally well. Some companies will goal growth teams purely on acquisition, others will deploy them against retention or other metrics. So, taking a step back from that, I define growth as a function that accelerates a company’s pace of learning.

Growth is everyone’s job; if a bunch of people in the company are working on one problem, and it’s just someone off in the corner working on growth, you probably failed at setting up the org correctly.  (Timestamp: 1:11)

While growth is good, growing something that is unsustainable is an intense waste of time and money. Head of growth is often an early role that founders aim to fill, but Duboe cautioned early-stage entrepreneurs from focusing too heavily on growth before nailing the fundamentals.

I’ve seen many companies make the mistake of working on growth prior to nailing product-market fit. I think this mistake becomes even more common in an environment where there’s rampant VC funding, so while some of the discipline here is useful early on, I’d really encourage founders to be laser-focused on finding that fit before iterating on growth. (Timestamp: 2:29)

Where to focus growth energy

The bulk of Duboe’s presentation focused on laying out 10 of the “most poignant and generalizable” lessons in growth that he’s learned over the years, with lessons on focus, optimization and reflection.

Lesson 1: Distill your growth model (“business equation”)

Growth modeling and metric design — I view as the most fundamental part of growth. This does not require a growth team so any good head of growth should require some basic growth model to prioritize what to work on. (Timestamp: 3:09)

The first point Duboe touched on was one on how to visualize your growth opportunities using models, using an example from his past role leading growth at Tilt, where his team used user state models to determine where to direct resources and look for growth opportunities.

Lesson 2: Retention before acquisition

The second lesson is to prioritize retention before driving acquisition, a very obvious or intuitive lesson, but it’s also easy to forget given it’s typically less straightforward to figure out how to retain users versus acquiring new ones. (Timestamp: 4:19)

Retention is typically cheaper than acquiring wholly new users, Duboe noted, also highlighting how a startup focusing on retention can help them understand more about who their power users are and who exactly they should be building for.

Lesson 3: Embrace ideas from all corners, but triage

Bringing on new ideas is obviously a positive, but often ideas need guidelines to be helpful, and setting the right templates early on can help team members filter down their ideas while ensuring they meet the need of the organization.

Group discounts let you take the whole team to TC Sessions: SaaS 2021

If you want to get the most value out of attending TC Sessions: SaaS 2021, a day-long deep dive into the rapidly changing and expanding world of software as a service, don’t go it alone — take your team. It’s a smart way to cover more ground on October 27, make more connections and increase your ROI.

We’re talking a sweet group discount, people. The early-bird pricing won’t remain in play forever, so get your group passes now and cross that money-saving task off your to-do list before the prices go up.

TC Sessions is where community meets opportunity. Each event focuses on a specific tech sector, and it’s a chance for everyone within that ecosystem to learn about the latest trends, hear from the leading experts, founders, investors and other visionaries and, of course, network.

Expect nothing less from TC Sessions: SaaS. We’re nailing down the agenda and building out a roster of impressive speakers. Does that describe you? Apply here to speak if you want to share your vast knowledge.

We’ll be announcing plenty more speakers in the coming weeks. Here’s a perfect example. Databricks co-founder and CEO, Ali Ghodsi will grace our virtual stage to talk, among other things, about the future of data management in AI.

Pro tip: Keep your finger on the pulse of TC Sessions: SaaS. Get updates when we announce new speakers, add events and offer ticket discounts.

Why should you carve a day out of your hectic schedule to attend TC Sessions: SaaS? This may be the first year we’ve focused on SaaS, but this ain’t our first rodeo. Here’s what other attendees have to say about their TC Sessions experience.

“TC Sessions: Mobility offers several big benefits. First, networking opportunities that result in concrete partnerships. Second, the chance to learn the latest trends and how mobility will evolve. Third, the opportunity for unknown startups to connect with other mobility companies and build brand awareness.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.

“People want to be around what’s interesting and learn what trends and issues they need to pay attention to. Even large companies like GM and Ford were there, because they’re starting to see the trend move toward mobility. They want to learn from the experts, and TC Sessions: Mobility has all the experts.” — Melika Jahangiri, vice president at Wunder Mobility.

TC Sessions: SaaS 2021 takes place on October 27. Grab your team, join your community and create opportunity. Don’t wait — jump on this group discount offer right now.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: SaaS 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

LiveControl raises $30M to help venues livestream events

One thing seems certain: The past year-and-a-half has fundamentally transformed the world of live events. The pandemic left plenty of venues scrambling for alternative revenue streams and, in many cases, shutting down for good.

On the flip side, it’s been a massive driver for those companies working to expand the reach of in-person events. Take LiveControl, which just raised a $30 million Series A led by Coatue and featuring existing investors First Round Capital, Box Group, Susa Ventures and TriplePoint. The round brings the So Cal company’s total funding to $33 million, on the heels of a $3.2 million seed led by FRC last August.

The company offers a production suite that’s a sort of plug and play solution for venues. “What if you could snap your fingers and an entire video product crew would appear, for just $150?” CEO Patrick Coyne asked, extremely rhetorically in a comment offered to TechCrunch.

Image Credits: LiveControl

LiveControl says its technology has been deployed in “hundreds” of spots in the U.S., everywhere from music venues and comedy clubs to Broadway theaters and religious institutions. With its device agnostic software and support, the company also provides third-party camera hardware as part of a package, for a more out-of-the-box solution.

The latest funding round will go toward accelerating its technology and expanding employee headcount from 40 people to 120 over the next year and a half. LiveControl and its investors are clearly bullish on the possibilities here. But there remain broader questions around how much audience members’ interest in remote viewing regresses to the mean once venues reopen across the country and world.

“Video is now table stakes for most organizations, venues and creators,” says Coyne. “We’re only seeing it accelerate, and everyone is forward leaning to make bigger investments to improve their video quality.”

 

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals 2021 starts tomorrow

Get ready for a startup throwdown of global proportions (literally). We’re the proud hosts of the Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) Global Finals, and the pitch competition action starts tomorrow, July 22 at 9:00 am (PT).

Pro housekeeping tip: Attending this virtual pitch fest is 100% free, but you need to register here first.

Not familiar with XTC? It’s the world’s largest pitch competition focused on solving humanity’s most vexing challenges. You gotta love a competition that serves the greater good — and a startup ecosystem for purpose-driven companies determined to build a more sustainable, equitable, healthy, inclusive and prosperous world.

The road to the XTC finals was crowded, to say the least. More than 3,700 startups from 92 countries applied to compete in one of these categories: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech and Mobility & Smart Cities.

Talk about a daunting endeavor. Team XTC, which consisted of deeply experienced investors, entrepreneurs and executives, winnowed down that field to these seven competing finalists: Wasteless, Mining and Process Solutions, Testmaster, Dot Inc., Hillridge Technology, Genetika+ and Fotokite.

Tomorrow’s competition takes place in two rounds, and each startup team will have to bring its best if they hope to impress this panel of judges — all leaders in sustainability and social impact.

Young Sohn, co-founder, XTC and chairman at Harmann International; Bill Tai, co-founder, XTC and partner emeritus, Charles River Ventures; Regina Dugan, president and CEO of Wellcome Leap; Jerry Yang, founder/partner of AME Cloud Ventures and co-founder of Yahoo!; Lars Reger, CTO and EVP at NXP Semiconductors; and Michael Zeisser, managing partner at FMZ Ventures.

In a classic, “but wait, there’s more” moment, the day also features several presentations from some of the leading voices in sustainability. Take a look at the two examples below, and check out the complete XTC finals agenda and the roster of speakers:

  • The Keynote Address: Tune in as Beth Bechdol, the deputy director-general at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, provides an update on the latest from her agency.
  • Waste Matters: According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces 292.4 million tons of waste a year. Can technology help this massive — and growing — issue? Leon Farrant (Green Li-Ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics) and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) will discuss their companies’ unique approaches to dealing with the problem.

The Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals starts tomorrow, July 22. Join us and thousands of people around the world for this free, virtual pitch competition. Register here for your free ticket.

Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou is coming to Disrupt

If you spent any time this year desperately trying to figure out what the heck NFTs are, you probably have Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou to thank for that.

His startup’s crypto trading card marketplace NBA Top Shot went viral earlier this year with users dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on digital NBA collectibles. At the end of last year, the Top Shot platform was averaging around $20K-30K in digital collectibles sales volume per day. By late February, the platform hit an all-time-high, moving more than $45 million in trading volume, according to analytics site Cryptoslam, as a wave of crypto newbies descended on the platform.

Within months, Gharegozlou’s company went from a niche crypto gaming startup largely known to industry insiders to locking in a hulking reported $7.5 billion valuation as venture capitalists chased the opportunity to get a piece of it.

Top Shot’s sudden popularity triggered a massive moment for NFTs, with billions of dollars moving through an asset class that few had heard of months prior. We’re thrilled to have Gharegozlou joining us at Disrupt this September 21-23, to discuss the future of NFTs, crypto gaming and the decentralized internet.

NBA Top Shot was an industry anomaly, but it wasn’t even Dapper’s first industry-shaking hit. In 2017, CryptoKitties — another trading game where users could swap digital cats — caught on among early adopters and brought the nascent Ethereum network to a crawl, inspiring the developers of the popular blockchain to make a number of key changes over time. Gharegozlou has his own vision for the future of the crypto web; Dapper’s big bet of late is on the proprietary Flow blockchain that underpins Top Shot. The company is gunning to bring more gaming platforms onboard to take advantage of the faster, more energy-efficient blockchain network, and investors are betting hundreds of millions of dollars on their ability to capture the market.

With the larger NFT market’s sales volume sliding significantly in recent months, can it make a comeback? Will developers move away from the popular Ethereum blockchain to embrace Dapper’s more centralized network? Could NFTs reshape the entire online economy? We’re excited to dig into some of these questions with Gharegozlou onstage at Disrupt — it’s a session you won’t want to miss.

Join him and more than 10,000 of the startup world’s most influential people at Disrupt 2021 online this September 21-23Get your pass to attend now for less than $99 for a limited time!

 

Announcing Sight Tech Global 2021

Shortly after the first  Sight Tech Global event, in December last year, Apple and Microsoft announced remarkable new features for mobile phones. Anyone could point the phone camera at a scene and request a “scene description.” In a flash, a cloud-based, computer vision AI determined what was in the scene and a machine-voice read the information. Learning that “a room contains three chairs and a table” might not seem like a big advance for the sighted, but for blind or visually impaired people, the new feature was a notable milestone for accessibility technology: An affordable, portable and nearly universal device could now “see” on behalf of just about anyone.

Technologies like scene description will be on the agenda at the second annual Sight Tech Global event, December 1-2, 2021. The free, sponsor-supported, virtual and global event will convene many of the world’s top technologists, researchers, advocates and founders to discuss how rapid advances in technology, many centered on AI, are altering — both improving and complicating — accessibility for people with sight loss.

Register today — it’s free.

At the heart of Sight Tech Global is the hard question: How do highly advanced, AI-based technologies actually become compelling, affordable products that folks who are blind or visually impaired readily adopt? It took 40 years, for example, for the $50,000 “Kurzweil reading machine,” a boxy desktop device, to evolve into what blind people take for granted today, a free app available on any mobile phone that can “read” just about any text. As anyone working in the field will tell you, shaping technologies into truly useful, everyday, affordable tools for people with vision loss is no less demanding than it was 40 years ago.

The agenda for last year’s Sight Tech Global convened many of the best minds across the spectrum of accessibility-related technologies, including Microsoft’s Saqib Shaikh, Amazon’s Josh Miele, Apple’s Chris Fleizach, Orcam’s Amnon Shashua, civil rights lawyer Haben Girma, author and professor Sara Hendren and researcher and professor Danna Gurari. In addition to those speakers were a dozen well attended breakout sessions led by Perkins Access, Salesforce, APH, Humanware and others.

Because the event was free, virtual and highly accessible, more than 4,000 people from 70 countries attended the event last December. All the sessions (video and transcript) are still available on demand via the agenda or on YouTube. Attendees gave the event a generous thumbs up: 4.7 out of 5  for programming and 4.6 out of 5 for accessibility.

Now is the time to register so that our all-volunteer team can keep you posted on agenda updates and ensure you have a chance to sign up for limited-attendance breakout sessions. You can register here.

Got programming ideas? We are happy to hear from you — especially founders, inventors and researchers who have working technology products! The programming committee includes Jim Fruchterman (Benetech / TechMatters), Larry Goldberg (Verizon Media), Matt King (Facebook), Professor Roberto Manduchi (UC Santa Cruz) and Will Butler (Be My Eyes). Contact us [email protected].

Calling all sponsors! We’re delighted that Google, TechCrunch and Verizon Media have already signed on for 2021, and nearly all last year’s sponsors have signaled that they plan to renew their support for this significant event. Private donors are also welcome! To learn more, read here or contact us a [email protected].

Sight Tech Global is a production of the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a 501(c)(3), that has been serving the Silicon Valley area for 75 years. Vista’s executive director, Karae Lisle, is the event’s chair. Vista is the beneficiary of all sponsorships and donations to Sight Tech Global. In 2020, 92% of the proceeds from Sight Tech Global went to support the Vista Center’s work to help thousands of people with vision loss in the Bay Area lead their best life.

Please join us at Sight Tech Global in December!