Friday, October 21, 2011

Got a big idea? Start a company

Mayor Quan talking with entrepreneurs

Have you ever had a great idea for something new? Or seen a niche and thought, "I could make something better to fill that"? That's what the five panelists in Wednesday night's panel have in common. And they started five of the most dynamic companies in Oakland.

You've probably heard of Pandora, the internet radio company that's based here in Oakland (I'm listening to Pandora as I write this.) But you may not be familiar with the others: Ecologic, Livescribe, Revolution Foods, and BrightSource Energy. The venture capital firm DBL Investors, which invested in all 5, hosted the Startup Oakland! forum Wednesday night at the Den at the Fox.

The panel included:and was moderated by Nancy Pfund, managing partner of DBL Investors. Despite some technical difficulties (like not enough light on the stage area), there was standing room only crowd house to hear what they had to say.

Starting a company isn't for everyone, and it's definitely not easy. But the potential upside is big, and it's a great way to create new jobs. (According to this informative and entertaining infographic, between 1977 and 2005, startup firms in the U.S. added an average of 3 million jobs per year while existing firms lost 1 million jobs per year. I'm guessing those numbers are even more skewed in the years 2006-2011.)

It takes a good idea, a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of luck to successfully start a new company. But beyond that basic knowledge, the 5 CEOs had some more specific advice if you're considering starting a new company. First, besides having a great idea, you need to be passionate about it. The people you find to work with you have to share that same passion. But it's also important to get people who are different from you (but still share the passion and mission), because a diversity of backgrounds is important for success -- that's one thing that Oakland excels at.

Some other points noted:
- you need to have a proof of concept of your idea
- if you need to raise investments, be patient. Even when the economy is good, it can a long time to cultivate a relationship with potential investors
- surround yourself with the best possible people -- people who can do their various jobs better than you could, and have them do the same. Your goal as CEO is to make yourself irrelevant in the day-to-day so you can concentrate on the bigger picture
- make needed personnel changes sooner rather than later, especially when the company is small
- realize that sometimes you need to trust your gut, and make a decision before you've got all the info
- get in conversation with (potential) customers early and often (note: I think this goes even for established companies)

If you're interested in starting a company in Oakland, come to the final Innovatate Oakland mixer of 2011 on Thursday, October 27 at the Kaiser Convention Center.

More coverage on Oakland Local and Thoughts from the Hill, the Valley and the Fields.

the BTTR mushroom guys

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