On Staying Relevant

Over the years I have put away thousands (approx 12,000) of business cards from people I met since I impulsively moved here in 1996. Among the many engineers, marketeers, investors, and press, only a few have stood out. Not for the CxO or MD or GP designations noted on the cards, but for the quality of the individuals that has held over time.

A few days ago in a conversation with a few founders, the discussion turned to AngelList and Naval and how it was changing the landscape of innovation, financing, and startups. To the amusement of others, I recounted the very first time I met Naval.Naval Ravikant & Elad Gil business cards

The top business card you see here is from a meeting with Naval and Milo, both of @home, in 1998 (I think) at KPCB. We had just been funded by Kleiner and MDV and this was one of the meeting our VCs arranged with a portfolio company of theirs. Milo did most of the talking I remember – about their grand plans for taking over the world through high bandwidth cable broadband. A few years later, Naval was in a meeting again with us – this time as a co-founder of Genoa making and selling semiconductor optical amplifiers. His business card had changed but he was passionate about how that device would change the network despite our concerns about Gain/Noise-figure vs. optical fiber amplifiers. Then a few years later, I heard of him again – this time in a Sand Hill boardroom regarding epinions and the legal wrangling.

In 2011-2012, I joined AngelList and yes, Naval is still relevant – perhaps with more impact than ever. As I meet founders enamored with the latest valley exit still fresh in their mind, I encourage them to ask themselves a simple question – Are you relevant in ten years? How do you plan to stay relevant to yourself and to the community around you? If you haven’t thought about that yet, please consider asking yourselves the question.

The other business card in the scan belongs to Elad Gil. I first met him in 2000 when he was a graduate student who had organized (w/ Pavel) the MIT $50K competition and I was honored to be the opening keynote there. Later that night, he spoke of his research, and his interests in multiple areas including devices and networks. The year after, I met him again – this time along with Gokul Rajaram – as representatives of Onetta – a smarter optical amplifier for networks.  And then in 2004, at Google cafeteria where he talked of Google Mobile and how mobility is the eventual frontier for information. Now, after founding Mixer Labs and a few years at Twitter, he is planning on reinventing himself again while continuously giving back to silicon valley.

Yes, a lot of people in the valley and elsewhere have stayed relevant, learnt constantly but very few have also given constantly – Naval and Elad have openly and continuously shared their learning with others around them and made everyone else a little smarter.  Their impact on our valley is not just measured in dollars or exits, it is compounded through their contributions to amplifying the potential of others.

This is my definition of ‘relevance’. It is not just something you do when you’re successful, it is who you are – for others – constantly. I guarantee that whatever technology or market you happen to be working on will change multiple times in your career.  If you learn and help others learn, you will change too – for the better and you will still be relevant in 10, 15, 20 years – to yourself and to those around you.


Facebook Lessons for Startups & Founders

Facebook filed their S-1 with SEC on February 1, 2012 and triggered yet another round of discussions in the valley digirati and digirazzi alike.  From computations of founder stakes to opinions on investment, tech and popular media made sure no one missed any aspects of the filing.

So what does it mean (If anything) for current and future founders of tech startups? Success at this scale – adoption, financial success, and pioneering a new segment of communications is rare and deserves much praise. The founders in this case – from Zuckerberg to Parker, Moskovitz, and even the Winklevii deserve all the praise they get for playing a role in the success.

Your first few employee matter a lot more than you think

I would also like to point out the critical role played by the first tens of engineers (hackers if you will) in building Facebook. Less heralded and often ignored all together by the media, this corps of engineers in my opinion deserves as much praise as the ones grabbing headlines in the press. Without the efforts of this group, Facebook could not have made it – founder foresight/passion/skills notwithstanding. Referred to as ’employees’ this group is as much of a co-founder as ‘the founder’ himself. They took nearly the same risks, likely contributed as much to product, platform, and technology, and helped it get from its early success to a product whose expansion beyond .edu domain was one of the most eagerly awaited consumer product introductions ever.

For founders, the aspects worth emulating aren’t the ones highlighted by blogs and media today – try and focus on the early parts of the arc of Facebook’s success. You will find many of the traits espoused by Eric Ries and Steve Blank when you examine the first year or so at Facebook (2004-2006). Some of the ones that stood out for me:

Build fast, release early, Find your Market-fit.

Famous for putting out the first iteration of the kernel of ‘TheFacebook’ in a week, this is a great example of lean development and testing market-fit. It wasn’t the first iteration either – Facemash which was a hot-or-not style site/application that Zuckerberg built prior to Facebook at Harvard and saw immediate adoption. Remember that hot-or-not was a circa 2000 phenomenon and Facebook’s first iteration was in 2004.

Focus on Users; user-adoption, user-experience.

In 2005, the valley was hearing whispers about Facebook and how Accel “went and got the deal” at an unheard of valuation (remember we were just coming off the dark years of 2002-2003), no one talked about Facebook’s technology or its platform or how it may one day be the dominant social-connector and app-platform.  But the first line one heard about Facebook was how many users they had, how much time these users were spending on Facebook, and the rapid growth rate that was easily the highest for any consumer app. This was a dramatic contrast with Google where the talk was about the outstanding infrastructure and how that gives them a unique advantage vs. everyone else in search and advertising. Unless you are building an application that needs to invent new systems and infrastructure, stay focused on users. Adoption will enable you to invent a platform and plenty of technology once you’re successful.

Surround yourself with people smarter than you

Graduating from a Harvard dorm room to University Avenue in Palo Alto, Facebook continued to find and learn from some of the best in their domain – whether it was Zuckerberg learning from Don Graham (Washington Post) or the stellar list of its board members and investors, it didn’t just happen by accident. I am not saying Zuckerberg is not smart, I am saying one of his smartest moves was to find people smarter than him at that point in time about an aspect of his startup. For founders, the clear lesson is find and pitch the smartest people you can find. I suggest a simple approach to accomplishing it:

When you meet prospective VCs (Partners or Associates) or Advisors, ask them to introduce you to two other people that they think are the smartest in the business.  Be persistent and chase down these introductions, turn them in to meetings, and ask them to introduce you to two more in turn.  In a few months you should be able to meet with enough people to learn from and who can be potential investors, advisors, or informal-advisors to your startup.

Think long term

This one is the easiest point to state and the hardest to follow. I believe there is a fair value at every step for a startup  if they have taken angel/venture money. And  they must be responsible in considering any offers that come their way. I also believe there is much (realizable) value in finding a way not to take that offer. Each such situation is unique but do consider that if you can find a way to build more value, you will have a chance to deliver life-changing rewards for yourself, your team, and your investors.

You know what’s cool? A Billion users. 

Building a startup that delivers a Billion+ in profits eight years after starting is Cool. But do you know what’s really cool – that Zuckerberg’s efforts changed and enriched the lives of thousands of employees and millions of users. A founder’s measure isn’t the capital they return or create, it is the number of lives they touch, improve, and change.

If all you wanted to make was money, there are easier paths to realize that goal. Be a founder if you want to make a difference. Money will follow.

On Startup Values

In Silicon Valley, ‘startup’ is one of the most common and the most valuable word one hears about town. Freely bandied about by those who were once in a startup, are currently in a startup or want to start one, the word is a badge of pride for those who have experienced it.

Less understood is what goes in to creating, sustaining, and growing a startup.  Founders, money, employees, investors, technology and products are necessary but not sufficient ingredients for startup success. One of the crucial ingredients one rarely hears about and is usually not understood by most is Startup Values.

Values is not capital you can raise from VCs. Values are reflected by a few critical qualities founders and startup employees must either have or recognize and cultivate. Values are not transplantable a few months or years in to the journey. More than a few (very smart) founders I know dismiss it by saying “We will focus on values once we’re successful”. Wrong! Startup values are like a seed you plant on day one alongside your ideas and it needs the same care and nurture as your technology and products.

integration symbol

I have always felt that the key startup values are:


Honesty in a startup primarily means interpersonal honesty between all the employees. Honesty is also the fabric that links objective measurement of a startup’s progress along chosen metrics and the startup’s stated goals.  In between founders and employees and between multiple founders in the case of cofounders, honesty is the only way to sustain a working relationship.

How to get it right: Communications is a key component of honesty. Founders and CEOs must ensure everyone understands where they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there. You can never communicate enough and email is perhaps the poorest mode of such communication. In a small team, a 5 minute sync meeting every day or 15 minutes every week should suffice.

How do you know its not working: When you find yourself ‘marketing’ or spinning the truth to your coworkers, you must have the courage to admit you’re not being honest. In a startup context, some typical phrases that should serve as warning signs include “It will be easy to raise money”, “Hockey stick growth is just a couple of features away” or “We can always acquire users through advertising” or “There will be lots of buyers for the company if you get to X number of users”. When employees hear such things from their CEO or founders, ask questions. If startups hear such words from their investors, take a long hard look at their track record and at your balance sheet.


In a startup, you often recruit friends, referrals from friends, and those you respect to the mission at hand. Flexibility doesn’t just apply to founders/CEOs but to everyone. Venturing in to areas adjacent to your area-of-comfort as far as your skills go will be often required. A good startup team at work is like an ongoing game of 3D twister. Flexibility, once it becomes part of your startup’s DNA, makes it better at evolution as well as adapting to challenges.

How to get it right: Be open when CEOs/founders ask you to do something beyond your area of expertise or experience. Voice your fears openly, express your challenges clearly. Ask for help when you need it, offer help when you see someone needing it.

How do you know its not working: When you hear CEOs/founders/employees express “Thats not what I was hired for”, it should serve as an early warning sign. If your startup is not good at handling failure (see below), it will be hard to build a culture of flexibility.


A startup is (most of the time) an irrational pursuit with a high probability of not following its initial trajectory. Creativity, exercised at all levels from infrastructure/technology to design & delivery, is the most powerful value you can have to combat existing products you compete with or to highlight the one thing you excel at versus all others. It is an essential part that improves flexibility and helps a startup to navigate competition that may be better capitalized or entrenched. At a personal level, creativity is an everyday expression of how things get done in a startup with limited resources and money.

How to get it right: If a startup, prior to success (users or revenue) can point to something unique that they do that others do not, it is likely creativity that is at work.

How do you know its not working: If your coworkers, founders or CEOs talk too much about “This is how I did things at company XYZ” when it comes to talking technology, products, or your market, you should fear that your startup lacks creativity. More than any other area, past work is really not a good indicator of the future in startup.

Failure with grace

This is perhaps the most talked about ‘lean‘ (e.g. smart) aspect of a startup’s journey from idea to success and may be the most misunderstood. No one likes to fail even though fail-fast, fail-often, fail-early is an easy set of words to say. I believe failure with grace is not just for complex systems. Seemingly trivial interactions between team members are often predicated on success, not failure and unless everyone in the team in a startup can freely (and honestly) express failure, re-calibrate, and have a chance of re-delivering, each failure will be costly in an interpersonal sense.

How to get it right: All employees must be comfortable in saying “I failed at XYZ and here’s how I am going to get it right”. When there is no interpersonal unease or ‘cost’ to saying/hearing it, you will know your team is on the right path to integrate failure as a navigational mechanism to find the right direction.

How do you know its not working: When someone in the team fails ‘silently’ at a task or two and begins to find excuses vs. ‘claiming the failure’ is a dependable sign of lack of this startup value. Silent failures are deadly in all kinds of systems, and deadlier in a startup.  A failure not owned at the first sign of it is a toxic seed that will threaten startup success.

Measurable heuristics

Every startup is based on a few early ideas about how their world ought to be. Startups must be honest with themselves to figure out the right measurements for their heuristics about how their product will evolve.  Measurement and heuristics are the yin and yang of startup ideas.  One cannot exist without the other or has no meaning without the other.  A right balance between these two is often the hardest value to get right in a startup.  Too much heuristics to guide you may mean unconstrained wander before you find your market while too much measurement will surely constrain good thinking with possible false positives and negatives. Measurement confirms innovation, but rarely initiates it.

How to get it right: Teams must have the discipline to listen to measurements for determining growth and listen to heuristic thinking to set the first vectors for experimentation.

How do you know its not working: Each discussion of a new feature, product, or change must be accompanied by “how will we know its working” discussion. Success is not pornography that you will know it when you see it. If you cannot measure success, it is likely you do not yet know how to go to there.

I hope you found something worth thinking about in this post and I’d love to hear from you (comments below or tweet  @rohit_x_).

In a related future post, I will be writing about working with VCs that share these values and help your startup enhance them.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.