Category Archives: Innovation

A MIT entrepreneurial history – Part 2 : Ecosystems & Culture

I continued reading the excellent From the Basement to the Dome by Jean-Jacques Degroof and found more inspiring elements about ecosystems, culture and also technology transfer from academic institutions after my first post. Here they are:

6 ingredients of the MIT ecosystem

Degroof gives us the cultural elements of the ecosystem: But what is it about this culture that has been supportive of entrepreneurship? The argument of this book is that entrepreneurship is particularly congruent with at least six elements of MIT’s culture: a well-ingrained, bottom-up organizational dynamic; excellence in all things that one studies or attempts to do, as well as a belief in hard work and fortitude; an interest in problem-solving and having a positive impact on the world; a belief in experimenting and a tolerance of failure; the pride of being viewed as rebels, sometimes eccentric and even a bit geeky, pursuing unconventional solutions; and the tradition of a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. [Page 90]

Why startups?

Here is an interesting comment about academic technology transfer: “Established firms are seldom interested in licensing emerging technologies from academia for several reasons. They don’t understand the potential of the technology; the time frame to develop the tech into a viable product exceeds the time horizon that most firms are comfortable with, or else they fear that they could cannibalize their existing business. As a result, in 1987, the TLO’s new director, John Preston, took the initiative to license technology to new ventures in exchange for equity, first as an experiment because there was a great concern at MIT about potential conflicts of interest. During the first year of this policy, six companies were formed based on such licenses, including ImmuLogic and American Superconductor. Sixteen more companies were formed during the second year. [Page 34]

Degroof then describes the multitude of ecosystem tools, all in a bottom-up logic, with serendipity (chapter 6) as a fairly common mechanism. The beginning of chapter 8 on technology transfer with the example of Amberwave is another must-read:

Often the initial performance of the new technology is either lower than that of existing solutions or not high enough to justify the switching cost for potential clients. As a result, established companies often don’t see the potential of new academic technologies. Moreover, in the few cases when the technology’s advantage is obvious or clearly promising, established companies are often concerned lest they cannibalize market share from their existing technology—a technology in which they have invested time and money, and around which they have built whole supply chains and other infrastructure.
It is estimated that an investment equal to 10 to 100 times the cost of the academic research is needed to bring an academic technology to market. This process also requires patience and perseverance. It can take at least two to three years for a patent to get issued once it is filed. When a company finally licenses a technology, it might take an additional five to ten years before it generates revenue. All in all, the uncertain performance of developing academic inventions, the associated costs, and the time lag between invention and revenue generation make investing in embryonic academic inventions extremely unattractive.
This does not mean that large firms never license patents from universities, but more often, inventors are the only ones to understand and to believe in the commercial potential of their technology. They are, therefore, frequently the only candidates interested in founding (and sometimes funding) a company to commercialize their technology. This process involves obtaining a license for the patent or patents based on their invention from their university, since, following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, the university owns the intellectual property of government-funded research. The edge that inventors have is the extensive and unique knowledge that they have accumulated through their research efforts and exposure to industry over the years.
[Page 156]

Managing technology transfer

And more interesting information here about avoiding conflicts of interests at MIT: Policies do not allow faculty members to use students for research and development (R&D) related to a start-up in which that professor has equity, nor may students be employed by such a start-up. A start-up in which a professor has an interest is not allowed to fund research in that professor’s lab. Similarly, a professor is not allowed to conduct federally funded research in collaboration with such a start-up, with the exception of SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding. A start-up venture may not be located in a lab. Employees of a professor’s start-up may not be involved in the research activities of the professor’s lab. Research in the lab may not be influenced by a professor’s other professional activities. A faculty member’s full-time employment at MIT prohibits significant managerial responsibilities in a start-up. [Pages 161-62]

Or about making money with Technology Transfer: Many universities expect their technology transfer activities to be profitable and bring in revenue. Although MIT is one of the most successful and experienced universities in terms of technology transfer, its experience shows that this kind of financial gain is a misleading expectation. “Any university that counts on its tech transfer to make a significant change in its finances is statistically going to be in trouble,” said Nelsen. To that end, her motto during her tenure as head of the TLO was, “Impact, not income.” [Page 162]

Many startup stories

Degroof adds anecdotic descriptions of individual companies, rich with lessons: these are BBN (1948), Teradyne (1960), Analog Devices (1965), Prime Computer (1972), Apollo Computer (1980), Thinking Machines (1983), Harmonix Music Systems (1995), Amberwave (1998) ThingMagic (2000), Momenta Pharmaceuticals (2001), SmartCells (2003), Ambri (2010), Firefly Bioworks (2010), Sanergy (2011), Wecyclers (2012), Nima Sensor (2013), Bounce Imaging (2013), ReviveMed (2016), Biobot Analytics (2017), not forgetting Robert Langer’s 40+ spinoffs from 1987 to today!

Internal venture capital – The Engine

My experience with academic venture capital funds is mitigated to say the least. So this is an interesting experiment: Faced with this perceived market failure, MIT’s leadership pointed to the need for patient capital to bring ventures that are trying to commercialize tough science and need more time than do digital businesses to reach a stage where they are ready for venture capital. […] In October 2016, President Reif announced the creation of The Engine, , a for-profit but public benefit corporation, separate from MIT, that would act as an accelerator for start-ups trying to commercialize “tough techs” by providing advice and physical facilities, as well as an investment fund of patient capital. […] In addition to going against MIT’s policy of not funding entrepreneurial projects, The Engine also broke with Institute tradition by incubating the entrepreneurial projects of its members, which certainly raised substantial objections within the MIT community. [Page 64]

The Engine has a double bottom line: it seeks financial returns and it seeks impact. The Engine raised $200 million for its first fund, with MIT contributing $25 million. […] The fund invests from $250,000 to $2 million per venture, and its investments are not exclusive to MIT-related firms. The investment is made with a time horizon of eighteen years, rather than the typical five to eight years given in the case of venture capital funds. […] Second, The Engine gives start-ups access to infrastructure, such as expensive, specialized equipment, including some from MIT, that otherwise might represent a barrier to entry to firm foundations. The Engine’s facility was initially located in 26,000 square feet of space in Cambridge, with the ambition of expanding to 200,000 square feet through a network of offices, labs, and prototyping and makerspaces a few blocks from Kendall Square. […] Third, the new initiative comes with a network of professionals and mentors in the so-called hard-tech space. [Page 173]

In 2020, The Engine raised a second $250M with $35M from MIT and Harvard University joined as a new LP. Is this different than VC? Will it succeed? Time will tell…

Why you should never look for a cofounder

This recurring question of looking for a cofounder has been bothering me for years. Similarly I do not like the idea of giving titles in the early days of a startup (project) as you may read here : Titles in Start-ups.

My argument is that you don’t look for cofounders. You have them already, you found them by talking about your project to friends or colleagues. It’s a bit like falling in love, you do not look to marry, you meet people. Point.

Of course, this does not help much, because there remains the loneliness of the entrepreneur. But do we get married just to fill the loneliness? As it turned out, thinking about it, I came across an excellent article in which I totally recognized myself: Everything You Need to Know About Startup Founders and Co-Founders.

Here are some key points:
– A founder is a person who comes up with an idea and then transforms it into a business or startup. If a founder sets up a company with other people, they are both a founder and a co-founder.
– “Founder” and “CEO” are two […] startup titles that people can carry simultaneously. One is a permanent title, while the other is not. “You will always be a Founder or Co-Founder.” Be sure to be careful however how you dole out the Founder/Co-Founder titles. That should be a lifetime title so be sure it goes to the right people who played a major role in the starting of the company and who will continue to play a role in the years to come.
– A founding member can often feel similar to a founder or co-founder because they come on so early in the process that they’re also putting in crazy hours and maybe even taking a pay cut in order to be a part of something important. But a founding team member is an early employee, not a founder. One important difference? The types of stock the two groups receive. Founder’s equity is different from Employee Stock Grants.
– “I’m totally unconvinced that two people can find a person they haven’t known previously, and become effective co-founder,” […] “I think you’re better off finding the money to hire someone than actually find a co-founder.
– If someone has come along a little later in the game, but still early — as in, pre-first employee — then you treat the same any other co-founder! If you’re choosing to add a “co-founder” after you already have employees, though, things can get a little tricky.

One thing is forgotten in the article, it is the investor (friends & family, BA, VC) or institution entering at the creation and from my point of view they are not founders because they do not (generally) contribute to the business…

Finally, the term founder does not seem to me to have a legal existence. It is only awarded by the group of people who recognize themselves as such. There is, however, an interesting example, namely how one of the founders of Tesla filed a complaint against Elon Musk, in particular because he considered that he was not a founder. The complaint is readable here (see page 28).

If you wish to dig a little more, here are two older posts:
The Founder’s Dilemmas – The Answer is “It depends!”
Founder without experience, lonely founder.

Doris Lessing again – about great men

I wrote in Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles how much I loved reading The golden notebook.

I just read another strange page which stroke me. And even more strangely, I discovered that the French translation (that I first discovered) was quite different from the original version. Have a look here at the French post if you read French or at my translation below. Here is the original text (but please read until the end of this post for some surprise):

You and I, Ella, we are the failures. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind. We push the boulder. I sometimes wish I had died before I got this job I wanted so much – I thought of it as something creative.

Now here is my translation of the French translation, and it is quite different from the original version!

But, my dear Anna, we are not the failures we think we are. We spend our lives struggling to get people hardly less stupid than ourselves to accept the truths that great men have always known. They have always known, for ten thousand years, that by locking a human being in total isolation we can make him or her an animal or a beast. They have always known that a man who is poor or terrorized by the police or by his owner is a slave. They have always known that a terrorized man is cruel. They have always known that violence leads to violence. And we know it. But do the great masses in the world know this? No. Our job is to tell them. Because great men cannot waste their time on it. Their imaginations are already busy inventing ways to colonize Venus; they are already creating in their minds a vision of a society made up of free and noble human beings. Meanwhile, human beings are ten thousand years behind them, and are locked in fear. Great men cannot waste their time on it. And they are right. Because they know we are here, the rock pushers. They know that we will continue to push rocks on the first foothills of a huge mountain, while they are already free at the top. They are counting on us, and they are right. And that’s why we are ultimately not useless.

I am not sure which version I prefer, but I was quite amazed by what Doris Lessing had written more than 50 years ago, all the more it reminds me again the quote by Wilhelm Reich in the post I mentioned above.

Now shame on me! I had second thoughts and could not believe the translator was so creative so I looked again, and I found this new piece:

‘But my dear Anna, we are not the failures we think we are. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly less stupid than we are to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have always known, they have known for ten thousand years, that to lock a human being into solitary confinement can make a madman of him or an animal. They have always known that a poor man frightened of the police and his landlord is a slave. They have always known that frightened people are cruel. They have always known that violence breeds violence. And we know it. But do the great masses of the world know it? No. It is our job to tell them. Because the great men can’t be bothered. Their imaginations are already occupied with how to colonise Venus; they are already creating in their minds visions of a society full of free and noble human beings. Meanwhile, human beings are ten thousand years behind them, imprisoned in fear. The great men can’t be bothered. And they are right. Because they know we are here, the boulder-pushers. They know we will go on pushing the boulder up the lower slopes of an immensely high mountain, while they stand on the top of the mountain, already free. All our lives, you and I, we will use all our energies, all our talents, into pushing that boulder another inch up the mountain. And they rely on us and they are right; and that is why we are not useless after all.’

Why was there Anna and Ella, I should have thought about it immediately. The Ella piece is on page 107 and the Anna one on page 311 of my version. My mistake at least is an indication of the strange richness of Lessing’s novel.

Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles

August is a good time to look back at things. It’s when I was thinking of this, that I wondered if there was a common etymology to Testament & Testimony. Apparently, there is not. Whatever… 1370 posts since July 2007 (in fact close to 700 as the blog is bilingual French-English, that’s about one per week), about 600 comments (ah ah!) and a lot of lessons.

August was also special on different sides, particularly cultural… I’ve been reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, a remarkable novel. Here is an extract: The Communist Party, like any other institution, continues to exist by a process of absorbing its critics into itself. It either absorbs them or destroys them. I think: I’ve always seen society, societies, organized like this: a ruling section or government with other sections in opposition; the stronger section either ultimately being changed by the opposing section or being supplanted by it. But it’s not like that at all: suddenly I see it differently. No, there’s a group of hardened, fossilized men opposed by fresh young revolutionaries as John Butte once was, forming between them a whole, a balance. And then a group of fossilized hardened men like John Butte, opposed by a group of fresh and lively-minded and critical people. But the core of deadness, of dry thought, could not exist without lively shoots of fresh life, to be turned so fast, in their turn, into dead sapless wood. In other words, I, ‘Comrade Anna’ — and the ironical tone of Comrade Butte’s voice now frightens me when I remember it — keep Comrade Butte in existence, feed him, and in due course will become him. And as I think this, that there is no right, no wrong, simply a process, a wheel turning, I become frightened, because everything in me cries out against such a view of life

This reminded me another post dated May 2009 about innovation and revolution which I found a little similar. “Entrepreneurs are the revolutionaries of our time.” And he had added: “Democracy works best when there is this kind of turbulence in the society, when those not well-off have a chance to climb the economic ladder by using brains, energy and skills to create new markets or serve existing markets better then their old competitors” You’ll find it here, Entrepreneurs and Revolution. And also a quote from the autobiography of Malcolm Little , which I had copied in my book. “When he was still at school, he wrote, his teacher asked him what he would like to become as an adult. A lawyer, he answered. Uncomfortable with his answer, she told him he’d rather think about becoming a carpenter thanks to his manual skills, but also because of his status. From that day on, he decided not to listen to such advice”.

August was also the opportunity to see some of the Rencontre photographiques in Arles.

A few exhibitions, from left to right and top to bottom: Masculinities, Pieter Hugo, Jazz Power!, Sabine Weiss, The New Black Vanguard, Thawra! ثورة Revolution!, Desideration (Anamanda Sîn)

Street artists have also been active in August. Just have a look at Banksy or Invader. Artists show the world as it is, the crises, more and more of its diversity, its uncertainties too. Transmission, accepting to disappear have been recurrent topics here, a rather darwinian view of the world. And that’s why I would just like to mention again a few other important quotes to me:


“I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”. Wilhelm Reich already posted in March 2010.


No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Steve Jobs already posted in July 2007.

Finally, not a quote but an extract from a text about how Alexandre Grothendieck also discovered this painful passage from youth to future disappearance: In May 1968, the machine goes wrong. Shourik, as his relatives call him, goes to Orsay to dialogue with the “protesters”. The anar is scolded by the “enraged”. The outcast discovers he is a Mandarin. “After that, he was not the same” […] “It was a terrible slap, it was incredibly violent”. I spoke about this math genius in March 2016 and August 2020.

I finish this post which may look a little gloomy with a link to a very good article about trusting science: How to make the future more rational. It is optimitic, enthusiastic and shows that we can be realistic about the world, and our limits and still be positive and happy. Just a testimony or small, fragile testament.

Knowledge, skills and personality of entrepreneurs

A friend (thanks Kevin!) just retweeted the following: What kind of Knowledge, skills and personality traits are common to successful entrepreneurs?

I tend to agree 100% but I may have an idealized view of my own experience! It also reminded me another quote from the same period (2011 vs. 2010) by Steve Blank: Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, [Lean Startup], Business Model Design) to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science”, and anyone could do it. I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong. It’s not that the tools are wrong. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well. In the same way that word processing has never replaced a writer, a thoughtful innovation process will not guarantee success.” Blank added that “until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all. The full interview can be found on

and also Komisar: “I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t.”

A comparison of the Swiss and French innovation ecosystems

Here is ma latest contribution to Entreprise Romande, it dates back to february 2020, that is before the Covid19 lockdown…

A comparison of the Swiss and French innovation ecosystems.
Hervé Lebret, former head of the start-up unit, EPFL.

Having left Switzerland last August after more than twenty years at the service of high-tech innovation to come back to my beautiful native country, France, where I will continue to work with the founders of startup, I will try to make here a brief comparison of the two innovation systems, with the aim of giving some advice to my friends who stayed in Switzerland, assuming that it may not be necessary!

At the risk of disappointing the reader, it is at the margin that I see differences and this is undoubtedly good news. In the past twenty years, all European states have understood the importance of innovation for the future of the economy and jobs; one speaks about FrenchTech, SwissTech, but in reality one speaks all the more of the same thing as the mobility of ideas, people and companies attenuates the national characters.

However, there are still some differences. What strikes the most, at the risk of caricature, is that France remains the centralized state that Louis XIV then Napoleon sculpted while Switzerland is viscerally federal. For example BPIFrance, the National Public Investment Bank, is critical to innovation both in Paris and in the regions and I don’t think there is an equivalent in Switzerland. The CTI, which would be closest to a national innovation agency, manages a few hundred million Swiss Francs where BPI manages tens of billions of Euros. The ratio is out of proportion to the relative size of the economies of the two countries.

The two agencies have great similarities in the sense that they finance a number of programs from awareness-raising and training in entrepreneurship to funding innovation projects in research centers and personalized advice to entrepreneurs. There is, however, a significant nuance: the public authorities do not directly finance companies or investment funds in Switzerland and these activities are left to the private sector, while in France, BPI finances startups and venture capital funds. . This is a major difference which partly explains the weakness of venture capital in Switzerland. The impact remains difficult to measure, however, because Swiss startups find capital abroad.

The French system also remains more bureaucratic despite major changes in recent years. Switzerland remains more pragmatic: philosophically it seems to me that the law expresses what is allowed in France, what is prohibited in Switzerland, it is a nuance which makes Switzerland more flexible and let us not forget that smaller size has many advantages over complexity. However I have wondered in recent years if the Swiss system has not had a certain tendency to become more complex and even to become more rigid like the French system, but this is just a feeling; I do not have enough data. I am refering, for example, of all the national or international programs, the objective of which is to make the ecosystem more visible: Digital Switzerland on the one hand, Startup Nation on the other; Human brain on one side, quantum computer on the other. Woe to those who are not members of them…

So if I can allow some advice, innovation is not a big machine that we can plan. A multitude of initiatives is better than big programs. Faced with the France of the CAC40, Switzerland has always preferred its fabric of SMEs, at the risk for each country to forget the importance of startups. Both countries have positively evolved, but I have a little fear of convergence towards this complex and slightly bureaucratic planning that I briefly mentioned. In reality, innovation is a fragile object, it is necessary to deal with a good deal of benevolence and tact [1].


The amazing challenge of finding great startups

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” attributed to Niels Bohr.

I was asked yesterday which startups I knew were the most promising, not to say the greatest. So I prefer to refer you to the quote above as I did not understand the potential of Google and Skype when I first heard of them. I am less shy of my lack of talent as this difficulty in predicting has been acknowledged by others.

Already in 2011, I had posted on the topic in The Missed Deals of Venture Capitalists. You should read the examples of Amazon and Starbucks by OVP.

So I did a little search and found again some more examples from again the antiportfolio of BVP (Bessemer Venture Partners) as well as from the book The Business of Venture Capital by Mahendra Ramsinghani. Enjoy!

First from the book The Business of Venture Capital on page 207:

Legendary investor Warren Buffet admired Bob Noyce, cofounder of Fairchlid Semiconductor and Intel. Buffet and Noyce were fellow trustees at Grinnell College, but when presented, Buffet passed on Intel, one of the greatest investing opportunities of his life. Buffet seemed “comfortably antiquated” when it came to new technology companies and had a long-standing bias against technology investments.

Peter O. Crisp of Venrock adds his misses to the list: One “small company in Rochester, New York [came to us, and one of our junior guys] saw no future [for] this product… that company, Haloid, became Xerox.” They also passed on Tandem, Compaq and Amgen.

ARCH Venture Partners missed Netscape – that little project Marc Andreessen started at the University of Chicago. An opportunity that, according to Steven Lazarus, would have been worth billions! “We just never knocked at the right door,” he would say. Eventually, ARCH decided to hire full-time person to just keep tabs on technology coming out of the universities to “make certain we don’t miss that door next time.”

Deepak Kamra from Canaan Partners comments on his regrets: “Oh, God, I have too many … this gets me depressed. A friend of mine at Sun Microsystems called and asked me to meet with an engineer at Xerox PARC who had some ideas to design a chip and add some protocols to build what is now known as a router. The drivers of bandwidth and Web traffic were strong market indicators, and he was just looking for $100,000. I really don’t do deals that small and told him lo raise some money from friends and family and come back when he had something to show” That engineer was the founder of Juniper Networks. He got his $100,000 from Vinod Khosla. Khosla, then with KPCB, added an IPO to his long list of winners. Juniper slipped out of Kamra’s hands because it was too early.
And of course, those were frothy times when everyone was deluged with hundreds of opportunities each day.

KPCB missed an opportunity to invest in VMWare because the valuation was too high: a mistake, according to John Doerr.

Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) was initially willing but eventually passed on Facebook (ouch!), as the firm believed the valuation was too high at $100 million pre-money.

KPCB, not wanting to be left out of an opportunity like Facebook, invested $38 million alt a $52 billion valuation.

Tim Draper of DFJ, turned down Google “because we already had six search engines in our portfolio.”

K. Ram Shriram almost missed his opportunity to invest in Google when he turned the founders away. “I told Sergey and Larry that the time for search engines had come and gone but I am happy to introduce you to all the others, who may want to buy your technology. But six months later, Ram Shriram, who had once turned Google down, now invested $500,000 as one of the first angel investors.

By the way Tim Draper’s father Bill also missed Yahoo. You can check The Startup Game by Bill Draper.

Now some examples of the updated BVP antiportfolio:

AirBnB: Jeremy Levine met Brian Chesky in January 2010, the first $100K revenue month. Brian’s $40M valuation ask was “crazy,” but Jeremy was impressed and made a plan to reconnect in May. Unbeknownst to Jeremy, $100K in January became 200 in February and 300 in March. In April, Airbnb raised money at 1.5X the “crazy” price.

Facebook: Jeremy Levine spent a weekend at a corporate retreat in the summer of 2004 dodging persistent Harvard undergrad Eduardo Saverin’s rabid pitch. Finally, cornered in a lunch line, Jeremy delivered some sage advice, “Kid, haven’t you heard of Friendster? Move on. It’s over!”

Atlassian: Byron Deeter flew straight to Atlassian in 2006 when he caught wind of a developer tool from Australia (of all places!). Notes from the meeting included “totally self-financed, started with a credit card” and “great business, but Scott & Mike don’t ever want to be a public company.” Years and countless meetings later, the first opportunity to invest emerged in 2010, but the $400m company valuation was thought to be a tad “rich.” In 2015, Atlassian became the largest tech IPO in Australian history, and the shares we passed on are worth more than a billion dollars today.

Tesla: In 2006 Byron Deeter met the team and test-drove a roadster. He put a deposit on the car, but passed on the negative margin company telling his partners, “It’s a win-win. I get a great car and some other VC pays for it!” The company passed $30B in market cap in 2014. Byron paid full price for his Model X.

eBay: David Cowan passed on the Series A round. Rookie team, regulatory nightmare, and, 4 years later, a $1.5 billion acquisition by eBay.

But one of the nicest stories I had heard of is Nolan Bushnell, founder and CEO of Atari, declining Apple… I heard of it through (absolute must-watch) Something Ventured. More here How Atari’s Nolan Bushnell turned down Steve Jobs’ offer of a third of Apple at $50,000.

The lean startup – my skepticism

I read again today about the importance of the lean startup movement. I have never been a big fan. Of course you need to interact with customers (at least to sell something) but you should not become a slave of your customers and pivot as soon as you can not get validation from them.

Do not get me wrong, I am a big fan of Steve Blank and customer development, I use his work a lot. But there is so much uncertainty, the tool should not replace the vision and intuition of the entrepreneur. Let me quote again Horowitz for example: “Figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.”

It reminded me I had read something about this from Peter Thiel. I found it again in a 2014 post: Should entrepreneurs have start-up skills? Two counterintuitive answers. Here is what Thiel had said: “What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”

And this morning I found another 2015 contribution to the debate which is worth reading: Peter Thiel is right about Lean Startup.

In a nutshell, “Lean Startup is best used as a teaching tool for those who need a little help in learning how to use their mirror neurons to feel the real needs of the real people they are seeking to serve. It can help to reduce waste. It can help to slow the rate of decline of organizations that are being disrupted.”

Whats’s a startup? (part 4)

I used today again Steve Blank’s marvellous definition of a startup that I had used last time in 2013 here.

You can listen to him giving it in Helsinki in 2011 at Aalto University

or through his Mooc here:

It’s obvious once you heard it and took so many years to be designed!

In these uncertain times of Coronavirus, I can only advise you to relax. One way for me was tonight through Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.