observations from office hours@stanford

i am going to try to increase the frequency of posts to my blog for the rest of the year (2013 has had a slow start!) so feedback on topics etc is welcome!

 

for the past year, i’ve had the good fortune of conducting office hours in the cs dept at the gates building on the farm. once a month for an afternoon, i’ve been hanging out with swarms of students. while it may appear that they are asking me for knowledge and information, the truth is that it is me who is learning from them — and, learning a lot!
 
like many of you, over the holidays a few months ago, i read the brilliant medium post by branch co-founder josh miller, in which he catalogued some of the observation his sibling (who is a teenager) made regarding consumer tech products. in that same spirit, inspired by josh’s post, i wanted to share the trends i’ve observed in spending lots of time with engineering students on campus:

 

  • video is in its early days: for these college kids, firing up a video on any mobile device happens all the time, even to listen to music via youtube. i do this on my laptop when i’m working and/or want to listen to a specific song or catch up on on a technology video talk, but the manner in which they discover, share, and communicate about videos they find — from every content vertical — is something many of us probably don’t understand. that’s not to say i understand it either, but with the recent success of vine and the popularity and ease of youtube, i think we should expect more live-video user-generated content apps (like daily booth, for instance) to sprout up.
  • linkedin as a platform: we are all on linkedin and monitor the activity, but probably very few of us spend lots of time there. students don’t either, but they look at linkedin in a slightly different way — they see linkedin as a platform they can build new apps and services on top of. to date, companies in this category have tried to build slightly competing businesses to varying degrees of success, but the students i’ve seen want to create new things leveraging the network data locked in all of our work connections. i don’t know what the future looks like here, but i’d love to see someone bring me a product idea based on this.
  • founder drama begins early: perhaps this is just a reinforcement for us all, but one of the biggest risks in startups is co-founder risk. i can already see brilliant teams coming together to show me something or test a hypothesis, but the drive of competitiveness can sometimes also push back the hard, human work of trying to form and become a “team.” people use the word “team” as a given, but there’s a reason parents want their kids to play sports or other organized group activities — it instills the spirit of team that helps later in life in other pursuits, and no more so than company founding. having the (at times difficult) discussion around topics like equity splits is key to do early on.
  • scaling matters: a tricky situation for me is when a student proposes a great idea for a product or company, but when we dig into the plans, the initial team requirements pose an issue. salaries (and rents) are the two biggest things investment dollars are allocated toward, so investors who are like me are very sensitive to hiring projections because these impact burn rates the most. many of the students i’m meeting will be great ceo’s one day, but they also haven’t run a business yet, had to make payroll, had to fire someone, and all those hard things. they will, i’m certain they will soon, but they aren’t oftentimes exposed to these P&L realities in the classroom.
  • it’s not a race: at a place like stanford, right now it’s incredibly competitive. yet, at the same time, it’s not a race. there’s really plenty of time. it’s ok for some students to go into big successful tech companies, or to join a startup, or to go into vc — the real motivation should be to go to a place where they can continue to learn and drive their passions deeper. it’s hard for me to convey this because i respect and feed off of their enthusiasm, and while there are many technical and other problems in our world that need creative solutions, everyone will move on their paths at different speeds — that’s ok, and i hope people gain the maturity to make the decisions that are best for them as individuals.
  • our immigration policy is lame: i‘m not one to jump into political debates, but i do know this — when really talented engineering students from other countries approach me and are concerned about staying here, i can literally see the concern and dread in their eyes. they want to stay here and work. they are more than fully able. and, we have invested our own resources in continuing their education. forcing them to go back home against their will is a shame.

6 thoughts on “observations from office hours@stanford

  1. Mike, I love your blog posts, a great Engineering Executive perspective on startups. I would really love to hear your thoughts on managing technical risk in software startups. Comparing 2013 startups to the early 1990’s when I got involved, it seems like most “tech” startups today are focussed on applying mature, cheap technology to address market risk. There’s an amazing entire ecosystem to help systemize & reduce the cost of building startups to disrupt many markets. However there are also huge untapped opportunities that startups can chase, that have real technical risk associated with them. No one seems to be speaking with any authority to educate this generation on how to run a startup to attack problems when it isn’t certain that the chosen technical approach will even work. The iteration & learning cycles are completely different. You’re perspective on this I’m sure could start some great conversations….

  2. Interesting observations, I’d love to see more posts from you. As a side note, why the aversion to capital letters at the beginning of a sentence? It snags the eye and jars the flow of your writing, your communication. I can understand that people like to differentiate themselves but surely that can be done in so many other ways, choice of clothes, car, hairstyle, piercings, etc. Those are areas where individuality, and personality, can be so much better expressed than through a lack of capital letters, which seems to be saying, “I can’t be bothered.” I’m sure that’s not what you want readers to think.

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