Only a few years ago, hackathons were a new thing. Geeks like me would get together for a Saturday or a whole weekend, write a bunch of code while everybody else was enjoying their time off. We would try new technologies, get to know other developers and have a load of fun. Most often there would be a prize for the best demo, which provided some nice competition. Everybody that would attend events would be amazed by the demos that would be shown at the end of a weekend. And I absolutely loved and still love going to hackathons.

But then, the business people moved in, as participants and as organizers. Now don’t get me wrong. Thinking about a market, what problem you are trying to solve is a very good exercise for engineers. I have seen too often smart developers building great apps that had no market at all, which is a waste of good engineering. But with the business people came the notion that that demo was the start of a company, and even could be funded. I fundamentally disagree. Here’s why:

  1. Hackathon teams are just a group of people together for a weekend, not a team of founders.
    Most people at a hackathon have a day job, and a steady one. They don’t intend to continue working on the demo after the hackathon with the people they just met. So that rock star team will lose a lot of players the first Monday morning after the hackathon.
  2. The outcome is just a demo, not even an MVP. 
    Normally apps take week if not months to get to a level to call it an MVP. With the right level of coffee, Red Bull and adrenaline  a small dedicated team will be capable of building something amazing over just a weekend that shows a few screens that demo the intent of the app. At sooo many hackathons if not all I have faked certain screens, just to cut corners. And written horrible code that only deserved to be thrown away. Getting the demo to the level of an MVP in general means starting from scratch again, with weeks if not months needed to build.
  3. Business validation is minimal if not zero. 
    Sure, great hackathons have a good jury that ideally have knowledge of the business and can judge not only the technical level of the demo but also the business opportunity of a demo. But there is no real live interaction with potential customers.

Yet, conferences like Techcrunch Disrupt, Launch and Dreamforce keep on organizing bigger and bigger hackathons with more generous prizes. So, participants start to cheat. For instance, one rule that most hackathons have is that all source code is written at the event itself. With the stakes becoming higher and higher, teams come in that are indeed a team before the event. Have thought about their business, and talked to potential customers.  And have source code written while not being allowed.

This all probably increases their chance of starting a successful company. But it clashes with the original intent of hackathons, to have a fun and fair competition and learn about new technology. And therefore these high stake events should be called a startup competition with mandatory product demos and not a hackathon. So please, more old skool hackathons with small prizes and just hacking.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been back to San Francisco now for a couple of weeks. I am finally able to be employed and fully work on my company Mobtest as I got my O1 visa. My adventure took one and a half year, and almost killed my startup in the process. Here is my story.

My background

I am from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I worked for leading internet agencies as software engineer, and recently I ran the startup HelloInbox together with my 2 cofounders. While doing so we experienced that the startup environment in our country wasn’t so great. I really wanted to have a chance at being part of a successful startup and after a short visit here decided to move to Silicon Valley. I got a B1 business visa, completed the Founder Institute program and founded my new company Mobtest as a C-corp in Delaware. It was time for me to start working on a real visa that would allow me to be employed by my company and pay myself a salary.

Visa options

I got introduced to an immigration lawyer, and she explained to me what options I had. What surprised me most is that there was no visa for entrepreneurs. H1B employee visa wouldn’t work for a startup founder. There was the option of the E2 investor visa but that would require at least $100,000 and it comes with additional requirements. I didn’t have that money unfortunately. Another option was the L1 intracompany visa, but that would require my Dutch company to remain in business, and for my US based company to have a direct relationship with it which would discourage investors. That meant the O1 visa, for individuals with extraordinary abilities was my best shot.

Eight months for first O1 petition

To prove I was eligible for the O1 I needed a lot of testimonials from people I had worked with. To save them time, I had to write the testimonials myself. As a very down to earth Dutch engineer that was not easy to do for me, but I learned. It took a lot of time to write all of them, and get my sponsors to return them signed. My lawyer was busy so she also took a lot of time. Five months later we submitted the petition to the USCIS, only to receive an RFE for additional information. We answered as good as we could their questions, which took another three months to compile. Meanwhile I had returned to the US for the third time on my B1 visa after three months of Amsterdam, with a not so friendly secondary interview at entering at SFO.

Denial

Back in the US we got the answer, and it was a denial. We thought we had proven our case, but apparently not. Stunning. Why, and what risk did the USA run with me? I came here to create jobs and pay taxes. I have a master’s degree from a top 62 world wide university with 15 years of software engineering experience? And from a western country that if I would completely fail, would most definitely return to, as the social security is so much better? I found out that all doesn’t matter, you have to play by the rules of the US Immigration Services and proof your eligibility according to their specific rules for this visa. Apparently me and my lawyer didn’t do a good enough job.

Getting back on my feet again, and second O1 petition

That was hard. I was already working on Mobtest for a year, and now had to face the reality that I had only 4 more months on my B1. Meanwhile I wasn’t allowed to be employed by my US company as well as work for my Dutch company, so money was really really tight. Many people asked me when I would return to the Netherlands, assuming I would give up. Or told me to find a nice American girl and marry her (!). I decided to take a well informed decision, so interviewed in total five different immigration lawyers on what to do. The first three ones didn’t say they believed in the case and would not take it. Finally my fourth was willing to take the case, and seemed smart enough to get me the O1 visa. The last lawyer confirmed that the case was doable, so we set out to write a completely new O1 petition. I needed more money, and fortunately my family was again willing to support me. I had to gather more evidence, so managed to judge at iOSDevCamp Amsterdam and BeMyApp hackathons and presented at the iOS Renaissance conference . I sold HelloInbox which got me great press coverage, including an article in a national old skool newspaper. My lawyer told me also to beef up Mobtest, which was a total catch-22 with me not being allowed to work for the company and investors or cofounders being highly unlikely to work with a company of which the founder is about to be deported. Again gathering the evidence and writing the petition took time, so only last June were we ready to file our petition, totaling over 400 pages.

Success: second petition got approved!

The second petition had success, it was approved! After 18 months of hard work, uncertainty and a lot of money USCIS had sad yes. Now I can say I am glad I persisted. Finally I can work without limitation on Mobtest, which obviously has not been my primary focus over the last period. I am grateful for the help of a lot of friends that helped me out, and I hope I can one day return the favor. Pay back my family. I will do my best to make a success out of Mobtest, create US jobs and pay my taxes.

Final sayings about the US immigration situation now

It took me 18 months, but I succeeded in getting my O1. It took a lot of money but more importantly the opportunity costs were high. During this long period I couldn’t focus on Mobtest and saw similar companies grow. I hope for future startup entrepreneurs that the US government adopts laws that make it easier to start businesses. I managed, but a lot of foreigners without the financial backing of their family are turned away right now and will option for another country like Canada, Singapore or Chile. Immigrants have started over 50 % of tech business but this number is declining because of immigration laws. I would expect an immigrant country like the US to do better.

Well I guess the news is already out, HelloInbox is bought by Unified Inbox. I’m so proud of the achievements we have made and the acknowledgements of that.

What does it feel like to sell your company and become part of another? Kind of weird, but also good. It is a major milestone in the life cycle of your company, and a great one to celebrate. You join a team that has been working at very similar problems as you are, but from a different angle. New blood to help you achieve your goal: building a company with lasting impact. Also giving up control, surrendering your CEO title. Well let me tell you, it is all worth it. Being able to concentrate more on product and achieve more with a larger team beats running your own shop hands down. Let’s see where the new collaboration is going!

I have become part of the mobile team at Unified Inbox as an advisor, and will continue working on Mobtest.

 

 

Last week at the PandoMonthly event Ben Horowitz was the main guest. He is one of the partners at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the big new VC firms in the Valley. Little history, Ben and Marc ran Netscape, and he has only a little pain left over from the battle with Microsoft in those days:). Their firm is kicking everybody’s behind with their model that gives companies not only money but also the infrastructure and network to become successful. Besides extremely smart he is also very down to earth and funny.

Some of my favorite quotes of the interview:

  • “If you don’t have winning product, it doesn’t matter how well your company is managed, you are done” – about founders being CEOs
  • “Even if you succeed, if you built a company that everybody hated working at, what have you done?”  - about bad management style
  • “Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time” – about the competition of Andreesen Horowitz and a Drake quote
  • “To me the piece sign is just the trigger and the middle finger” – about VC’s approaching him wit their fingers in the V-sign
  • “..If you don’t have courage you have no virtue because all these other virtues never get activated”
  • “Women tend to be more confrontational then men”
  • “The difference between a hero and a coward is not what you feel, you both feel terrified. It is what you do”
  • “CEO’s are not born, they are made”
And read this blog post that got also featured on Techcrunch about The Struggle.

And yes, Sarah sings way out of tune :)

 

This article appeared first as a guest post on The BeMyApp blog.

About a year ago I decided to move from Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Silicon Valley. I had tried to start my previous tech company HelloInbox in Amsterdam and that was hard. Nobody was doing startups, there were no investors that were willing to take risk so I and my co-founders were on our own. After having spent a week here I already knew I had to move to Silicon Valley if I wanted to succeed. Everywhere I went I ran into entrepreneurs starting new companies, everybody was really open about how and what, and totally willing to help out. I heard about numerous early stage investors that understand startups, know the chance of succeeding is much smaller than failing, and still are more than willing to invest in you.

So there I was, had moved over to San Francisco to pursue my dream of building a kick ass company. I needed to start networking, and became pretty good at finding the great events to go to. Besides that, I went through the program of  the incubator Founder Institute. Incubators/accelerators are great because they teach you a lot, but also introduce you to local seasoned entrepreneurs that will help you and give advise on how to start your business.

So getting in contact with fellow entrepreneurs is not that hard. However, I also needed to get in touch with fellow developers to build my team. Engineers are a little more difficult to get in touch with, they don’t like chit chat that much. Hackathons are great for that. There are just developers, very few business people that want to sell you their stuff. These are my 5 reasons why I like to go to hackathons:

  1. meet fellow hackers. As an entrepreneur but also as just an employee, you need to know people in your field. You will definitely learn from your fellow hackers, designers and idea people. Maybe you will hire them, they you, or learn about a great job opportunity. Three days working 12-15 hours with lots of Red Bull and beer will make sure you get to know them pretty well.
  2. learn to build something in only a few days and get results. Sometimes spending more time on something does not improve the product. Being forced to build something tangible in only a couple of days forces you to focus on the most important features. You will be surprised how far you can get.
  3. work on different projects than your current project. Maybe you have already poured months into your current project, with many more to come. Stepping away from it and try something else will clear your mind and let you see what other possibilities are out there.
  4. try out cool new technologies. You get try out new stuff like Ruby on Rails, Backbone, ARC or API’s like Twilio’s or Foursquare’s that you haven’t used before. It is a great learning experiment, no previous software that it has to work with and no boss telling you to hurry up when you are diving into something new.
  5. have fun! Ha, yes real hackers enjoy working on code in their free time and so do I. Hackathons create a relaxed atmosphere (in particular after midnight and some beers) in which your work feels like a hobby again.

So what kind of hackathons do I like? I like the more structured ones like BeMyApp. As proof, I already attended 2 and will do so again this weekend (February 24th 2012). I need a goal and a bit of pressure to create something, so having a panel that will judge your work at the end of the day will certainly take care of that.

Now hackathons will seldom create great software that you can build on for years and are not meant for that, as Dave Winer should have known. You might end up with a good idea, a first prototype and a great team and think in the high of the event that you will be a 100 million dollar company in a year. OK, GroupMe is a known exception, but more often you have had a great time and met some great people that you really got to know.

See you at the next BeMyApp event! No doubt it will even be better than the previous one featured in this Wired article.

 

Well, I like hackathons. Fortunately in Silicon Valley there are a lot of them. Organized by small organisations just for fun or big organisations to push stuff nobody wants. Highly unstructured just sitting together and socialize to structured days (and nights!) to reach an end goal that can be judged by a panel. For just the honor, or big prices.

I like them for these reasons:

  • meet fellow hackers (and designers) and be inspired by them
  • learn from your fellow hackers
  • work on different projects than your current business you have already poured months in with many more to come
  • try out cool new technologies you haven’t used before

The one hackathon I have been to already 2 times and will go to again is BeMyApp. It is around mobile apps (iOS, Android) and highly structured. On Friday idea people pitch their concept, best ones are picked. Saturday and Sunday hacking with a panel at the end. So last time I happened by wind up in the team of a Wired correspondent, Steven Leckart. He was there to write a story about hackathons. So now the story is out. It’s a great article and not only because I am prominently featured. Read it, it has an awesome overview of all hackathons going on.

And next week there is a new BeMyApp weekend, and I will be hanging out again. So see you there!

 

 

Yep a couple of days ago already, but I graduated from Founder Institute last week. Yeah!  I was in the Silicon Valley edition, led by Adeo Ressi himself. We started with 72 founders, ended with 10, 8 companies. Yes it was a challenging experience.

Continue Reading…

So you are new in Silicon Valley, a foreigner fresh off the boat with a big dream to build your own tech startup. Got your place via AirBnB or Craigslist. Now what? Where do all the cool startup dudes hang out and how do I get in touch with them? Well fortunately enough there are a lot of events going on that you can attend for (almost) free. A lot of activity is going on in San Francisco nowadays, same in Mountain View or Palo Alto. If you haven’t picked your place to live yet I would recommend San Francisco btw.

Here is how to find out about the good events:

  1. Subscribe to StartupDigest newsletter. These guys rock, they will send you a list of all great events with sometimes discount codes
  2. Subscribe to WebWallFlower. Not the same league as StartupDigest, but still useful
  3. Create an account with Plancast and follow the active dudes like me. Plancast imports event from Meetup, Eventbrite and Facebook events, links them to your FB or Twitter friends or the persons you subscribe to on Plancast. Excellent service
  4. Check out Meetup.com, and sign up for interesting groups
  5. Look at Eventbrite.com, and make sure you integrate your Facebook account to get recommendations

There are a few recurring events that are always good to attend:

  1. SF NewTech SF’s oldest and biggest tech event
  2. Hackers and Founders. Great monthly events with lot’s of actual hackers instead of just dreamers with ideas:)
  3. SF Beta – great location and food

So how to meet people? Well fortunately Americans are very approachable. Just walk up to them, introduce yourself and ask “What do you do?”. Nine out of ten times you will have a good conversation. Listen to what they do, try to relate to them and tell them something about yourself that is interesting for them. Have your business cards always with you and ask theirs. A LinkedIn request is more than normal to send the next day. As easy as it is to start a conversation, the same goes for ending. A 5 or 10 minute conversation is pretty long already, on a given night someone might speak to 10-15 people. So expect to be asked for your business card or be told they see someone they really have to talk to someone as a signal it is time to move on.

Some other tips to meet people: work from bars like Coffee Bar. It is not exceptional for these places that you buy a coffee and a muffin and work half a day or more there. These working bars have good wifi, a reasonable amount of power outlets and let you stay around for a long time. See this Quora thread for more coffee shops to work from.

Also subscribe to Let’s Lunch. Let’s lunch will hook you up with someone that is from the same field like you are, depending on your LinkedIn profile. I got my desk office with Ark.com by meeting the CEO on a LetsLunch lunch.

Last tip, research the cool companies out there, follow their founders on Twitter and see where they hang out. Mission district is packed with bars like Zeitgeist where you might actually run into one.

Ah or take a Silicon Valley tour, Steve Blank approved.

Ps. A big thank you for my Dutch friend Ronald Mannak for introducing me to Silicon Valley.

 

 

Right, so I got feedback about the idea behind HelloInbox and there is work to do.  So the main question you need to answer as a entrepreneur: can I build a company with this idea that will be around for some time. In FI speak: build a meaningful and enduring company.

What the idea behind HelloInbox seems to be missing right now is:

  • does it really solve a pain felt by a lot of people
  • how big  is the market for this type of product
  • what is the secret sauce that HelloInbox uses to solve the problem

These are really fundamental questions. So the good thing is, we already have a beta out there in the Dutch market. This gives us a group of users that we can 1) analyse their behavior and 2) ask questions. In Lean Startup spirit, let’s do some customer-centric development. Get feedback and iterate on that. So the plan to be executed now is to dive into the big database and run some in-depth analysis to see how customers use the tool, and put together a survey and send that out to them.

Customer feedback and analytics will only partly do the job. I will get feedback from peers and fellow entrepreneurs also. Secret sauce needs some cooking, and that’s my job. Well my name is De Kok right?

We started last week, had two sessions and it has been very interesting. Very insightful but also tough. You go in thinking you know something about what you are doing, but soon you learn there is a lot you don’t know, haven’t done or are not good at. Teaches you some humility, and shows you you need to man up if if you want to be successful.

The previous class in Silicon Valley started out with 55 founders. They take in founders, whereas other incubators (YCombinator, 500startups, AngelPad, I/O ventures) only take teams with ideas. That Founder Institute class ended with 14 founders, so that shows part of the program is to test you, and your idea. So you need to be 100 % committed, as you have to be if you want to create a new business from scratch. Also, while not really being probed for your business idea while applying for the Institute, it is clear that you only get a few weeks to come up with a great idea that you can build a business and company with.

The 70 people were divided up in groups. I volunteered to become president as I want to get the most out of the program and like to be in charge. Because of that, the first introduction evening I was one of the 7 lucky ones that were picked to do a one minute pitch. Brutal, I got a 2 out of 5. I did not have my market well enough defined, and no in dept usage numbers of my current user base.

The next evening (like 24 hours later), I was picked again! Lucky me. Besides Adeo we had two mentors that were judging, Bill Hunt and Madeline Duva. I was kind of caught off guard, thinking with 60 something other founder that hadn’t presented I would not be picked again. I had looked up some numbers, but could have done a better job. Lesson to be learned: always be ready. I got sloppy. So how did I do? Not much better, 2 2-s and a 1. Feedback: they did not see the pain point, didn’t understand my numbers and my presentation lacked enthusiasm.  Work to do baby.