Why Your Startup Also Needs a BizOps Team

The title of “Business Operations” (or “BizOps”) has become one of the more buzz-y Silicon Valley terms as of late. At IVP, we saw an increasing number of growth-stage startups (many of which are in our own portfolio) recruit for and build out a BizOps team — Slack, Dropbox, CloudFlare, Stripe, Counsyl, NerdWallet, and ZipRecruiter, just to name a few. While this may seem like a new trend, large tech incumbents have long ago pioneered the role of Business Operations; companies like Yahoo, Google, and LinkedIn currently have upwards of hundreds of people on their BizOps team.

What is BizOps?

BizOps teams are generally an internal-facing group and broadly aim to create more value for the company and to improve the profitability of the business.Tech startups are already familiar with the role of Product Managers — people who drive product development by setting feature priorities and collaboratingwith a team of engineers and designers to ship these features. By the same token, shouldn’t other areas of your business have designated “managers” as well?

BizOps is PM for your Business Model

BizOps teams have a “get shit done” mentality and are often tasked with translating business goals (strategy) into tactical operations (execution). For example:

  • We are going international. What are the first markets we should tackle and how will we penetrate those markets?
  • We need to further monetize our user base. What are the most effective and sustainable ways to increase monetization? What are the different levers we can control and what is the expected impact of those changes?
  • We’re looking to accelerate growth. What are the key factors in our growth rate and how can we move the needle?

While BizOps responsibilities are similar across companies, BizOps teams can be structured in different ways. For some, the BizOps team is like Seal Team 6 — internal consultants deployed for specific and shorter-term projects. Because they act as a neutral third party, BizOps teams in this structure don’t interact closely with other business units regularly.

More commonly, BizOps teams are flat structures that are horizontally tied to other functional groups, such as:

  • Sales, where a business operations associate helps the sales team figure out a go-to-market strategy, perfect their conversion funnel, and track their sales efficiency
  • Product, where a business operations associate helps drive product strategy decisions, figure out a launch strategy, and track important user stats as the product launches
  • Finance, where a business operations associate works closely with the FP&A team to determine the key drivers of the financial model
  • People, where a business operations associate works closely with recruiting and HR to accelerate hiring or increase retention

BizOps Evolves as Your Company Scales

For early-stage startups, BizOps allows for a flexible, dynamic, scrappy team to work on a multitude of different types of business problems that otherwise may not fall anywhere else in the company (eg. starting a new office, doing sales hiring, owning the company financial model, etc.) As the company grows, BizOps can prioritize key issues (e.g., growth, monetization) and help balance strategy with execution. And for larger and more mature startups, BizOps provides a cross-functional layer of communication, structure, and organization across the greater company.

Depending on the stage of your startup, here are examples of a few inflection points where a BizOps team may make sense:

  • Accelerating growth: Once a startup has achieved product/market fit, you’ll probably want a dedicated BizOps team to help accelerate your early growth.
  • Starting geographic expansion: As startups go abroad, each new location you enter can behave similarly or differently from your existing geographic footprint — a BizOps team can help figure out your international strategy.
  • Avoiding functional silos: As startups and team sizes grow, it becomes more difficult to get transparency across the organization. A BizOps team can act as a cross-functional layer that keeps your startup’s different departments on the same page.

There are many approaches to BizOps, and it’s really up to founders and CEOs to decide how to utilize BizOps most effectively for their company. Ultimately, the key question is not be whether your startup needs a BizOps team, but when.

This article was originally published on Business Daily.

Free Ventures at Berkeley

I was recently invited to judge at Free Ventures, student-run incubator for UC Berkeley entrepreneurs. The program just completed its first semester of workshops and mentorship, with 5 student teams accepted out of a pool of ~40. This past Monday was their Demo day, which allowed each group to present to a panel of judges and get feedback on how they can improve their product. 

Having been on the other side of this, I was really looking forward to the pitches and was thoroughly impressed by how well-prepared the students were – the coaching really paid off!

The Free Venture Fall 2013 startups were:

  • Supertag: a SMS API that enables users to use hashtags to hyperlink locations or other meta data. The judges were particularly interested in how this can help aging Telco’s bolster their SMS offerings. 
  • Lily: a quadcopter camera that autonomously tracks a headband to film a dynamic subject. Would loved to see a live demo of this, but I guess it wouldn’t have been a great idea to launch it indoors. Prototype is still a hack, but looks a lot like GoPro’s early days and I could see this getting really popular with extreme sport enthusiasts, but also amateur videographers and maybe even journalists. 
  • Fractal: dead simple platform that allows users to create mobile apps without knowing how to code. Geared towards small groups (ie. the Berkeley chess club) who want a mobile app that facilitates communication between club organizers and its members. Great idea, but in a very crowded space. Also, I’m not sure the needs of small interest groups would be better served by a native app vs. an HTML5 mobile website.
  • CloverInk: recruiting platform for startups and new grads. Again, in a very crowded space, but I liked their low-cost advantage and the signing bonus per hire. The pass-through bonus of $100 to the applicant will ensure that transactions are completed on the platform, but may also increase return customers on the applicant side. 
  • Clique: intimate “anti-social” network with 15-person limit. Loved the way they tested their initial idea (using private Twitter accounts) and the innovative shake-to-push-notification feature. Obviously reminded the judges of Path, but I think the 15-person limit makes much more sense than Path’s 150.

Overall, Free Ventures ran a tight ship and the quality of start-ups produced this semester bodes very well for the program’s future. Here’s the kicker – of all the teams that presented, there wasn’t a single female entrepreneur. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional, as the judging panel had a healthy mix of both female and male perspectives, but it does leave me to wonder if it was a result of selection bias or lack of female applicants.  

NYU Stern: Start-up Demos Roundup

Recently, NYU Stern’s Entrepreneurs’ Exchange Club hosted a demo day showcasing 10 startups. The event kicked off with two keynotes by Ellie Wheeler (Greycroft) and Charlie O’Donnell (Brooklyn Bridge Ventures). 

Ellie gave a great presentation on the state of VC, complete with charts and data points à la Mary Meeker. She hit home some of the trends others were already observing, namely, the poor returns of VC funds over the past decade and the inherent advantage of smaller-size funds in returning profit to investors. Charlie drew upon his recent experience fundraising for his new seed-stage fund. Today’s LPs are far more sophisticated given the transparency of VC’s and the pervasive media surrounding early-stage companies, which is both good news and difficult news for VC’s. When asked “What’s next?” in tech trends, Ellie and Charlie both had the same answer – build for the problems you are passionate about, not for a market opportunity that exists out there. 

The event showcased a dozen startups affiliated with NYU students/alums. Here are some of the ones I found most interesting:

Bizodo is an online form builder that helps collect and manage information. A common use case of the product is in HR – employee on-boarding usually requires a slew of forms that ultimately gets tossed in a box, never to be found again. If Bizodo is to address this pain point, it’ll have to have bulletproof secure data hosting, as well as a robust tablet/mobile offering. I like this business because there is a huge market opportunity and the problem it’s trying to solve is very real. As an ERA company, Bizodo has already established partnership with complementary companies, such as Box to enhance its offerings. 

EchoFriendly’s core product is real-time, location-based chatrooms, initially targeted at people looking to make new friends. However, I found its business application much more compelling – the ability for stores and brands to connect with their customers in real-time, at the point of sale. Location-based commerce is an under-served vertical (see: Groupon Now?) that has yet be to figured out – perhaps EchoFriendly’s product can address that missing link between the consumer, the vendor, and the brand. (I could also see some serious synergies with Get Satisfaction’s engagement platform.)

While StudyCure sounds like EdTech, it’s actually a tool that allows users to monitor their own health by setting mini-tests. The user can enter simple hypothesis related to health and well-being (ie. “If I take a daily multivitamin, then I will have more energy.”), and then track their progress to test that hypothesis. The science geek in me is totally loving the scientific method approach, but I doubt whether the average user will bother to update on a daily basis. What I can see is how useful this tool would be in any kind of health or behavior study, where the study participants can report their status in detail, directly to the researchers. 

Ode to @Shelby

The value proposition of Shelby.tv is simple: it aggregates all the video links that is shared by people in my social networks (FB, Twitter, Tumblr). It’s a web application that I initially found superfluous, but now use regularly.

In fact, the more I use the service, the more I’ve come to realize why I need it. I’m often missing many of the videos that people share as my feed updates so quickly. When I’m just checking Twitter on my mobile for quick updates, I don’t have the time to watch a 3 minute clip of Linsanity’s greatest moments. The Shelby team has done a great job in developing a simple platform that plays cool videos that are relevant to me with minimal effort on my part. 

User-generated video content is exploding – Youtube is now seeing 60 hours of video uploaded every minute, compared to just 6 hours per minute in 2007. This increase in volume, however, has made it so much harder to find quality content. Lately, I’ve found the suggested items in my Youtube feed to be lackluster, if not seemingly random. Shelby’s user-curated approach piggy-backs off existing social networks to populate my personal video channel. I especially like the video autoplay as soon as I land on the page – kind of like turning on a TV! 

I think that Shelby can go a step further in video curation by following Turntable.fm’s crowd-sourced model. Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to watch ridiculous Epic Meal Time episodes, or cool dance videos. Just as how each DJ room on Turntable is theme by music genre, “channels” on Shelby could feature various video topics, such as sport clips, cat videos, or music performances from the 70’s. Watching videos on Shelby now is an asynchronous activity, while these “channels” would make it synchronous and thereby more social. 

For now, Shelby’s social functionality only consists of sharing videos via e-mail or Twitter. However, I often wish that there was a way I can highlight a scene or a line from a video clip when I’m sharing it with my friends. If Shelby can implement social video annotations or user-generated subtitles (kind of like Canvas for video), it could become the destination to watch online videos with others. As XKCD points out, Youtube parties are so common in this day and age… and no viewing party is complete without a snarky comment or two. 

The Shelby application is already awesome – and I’m really looking forward to watching it (note: pun intended) grow its user base and develop its product! Have you tried Shelby yet? What do you think?

Applying to YC without an idea… good idea?

I read about YCombination’s latest announcement with mixed feelings. Initially, I was excited: “Well, I don’t have an idea!… I can apply to YC!” I was also highly skeptical – could a YC team without an idea be as successful as the others? 

First, I think this change in requirements will significantly increase the noise to signal ratio, as it lowers the effort threshold to apply and consequently increases the application volume. Paul tweeted two days before the deadline that just under 14% of applications so far have been “no-idea” ones. With an overall acceptance rate hovering around 3%, this makes the job of Paul Graham, the partners at YC, and the network of YC alumni much more difficult in spotting a potential success. Paul has alluded that YC created and uses a list of top 10 factors predicting the probability of success – factors that are likely less applicable to no-idea teams. 

What’s more significant, however, is the fact that Paul seems to be betting on other fundamentals that make startups successful: a strong team, the right network, and a lot of serendipitous help along the way. While all these ingredients are crucial to success, this nevertheless brings me back to a question that was asked at this year’s Columbia DevFest: “What’s the value of an idea?” Fred Wilson spoke to how successful entrepreneurs have often been contemplating the same idea over several years – allowing both a deeper understanding of customer behavior, pain points, and the requirements of a successful product. I would think that a team who has only recently committed to an idea, or handed one from a mentor, would have a much hard time achieving product-market fit. 

Part of the difficulty may also arise from this diversity within the YC class. Only time will tell how many no-idea teams will ultimately be accepted, and as someone who’s done infinite amounts of team-building exercises, I’m curious as to how this change will affect the batch as a whole. Will no-idea teams feel insecure about their progress, or will idea teams adopt a looser commitment to their own ideas? A recent TechCrunch article emphasizes the important of the YC network to budding entrepreneurs – how will the addition of no-idea teams affect and benefit from these network effects? 

Like many entrepreneurs, I also believe that there are many more problems to solve in this world than there are people to tackle them. At the macro level, this new initiative at YC seems to strive to bridge that disconnect between capable and passionate entrepreneurs and the host of pain points out there.  

Applying to YC without an idea… good idea?

Rise of the Acqui-hires

For many startups, hiring is the bottleneck to growth. Not only is the hiring process taxing for a small team, the problem of talent dilution has emerged in all kinds of roles, including developers and designers.

When we first got to the Valley, there were a handful of good companies that were able to attract a large number of really great engineers to work on a single problem. So, when Facebook started in 2004 and started recruiting out of the Stanford Network and some of the neighboring companies, we were able to attract, really quickly, thirty to fifty of the best developers I’ve ever worked…

So you have to ask yourself, if a company like Facebook was starting today, would they be able to build a team as quickly that was as talented and ready to execute on that problem? I think, from my perspective, it’s really unclear.

– Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook Co-founder

I find it telling that Facebook’s and TaskRabbit’s recent acquisitions have rumoured to be acquhires. With today’s low requirements for startup capital and the continuing decline in software/hardware component costs, tech startups will in turn begin to invest in human capital. The pace of VC funding slowing down and more startups are addressing more niche markets/problems/solutions, so we should see a significant number of startups with the talent – but not the means or scale –  go bust over the next couple of years. 

I think that these conditions will create the rise of talent acquisitions in 2012. Your thoughts? 

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If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at the magnificent work from Toronto’s Eighteen Eighty that was screened at the recent Startup Weekend in Toronto.

We live in a time where anything is possible and anything can be built – as long as we can bring together the right people around the right ideas.

Startup Weekend is a global initiative that brings together passionate individuals with unique skill sets and experiences, then challenges them to turn their ideas into reality over the course of a weekend.

This film captures the journey of two participants at Startup Weekend in Toronto: Ronan Levy (Delirious App) and Eugene Woo (Vizualize.me), and explores what it means to live the life of a startup entrepreneur.

‘Startup Weekend’ was screened at Startup Weekend Toronto on Friday November 18th 2011.

The Quebecoise in me has to admit that Toronto isn’t as good as Montreal, but this Canadian will take what she can get.

Columbia Startup Job Fair

While it was the Columbia Venture Competition that first introduced me to the startup scene in New York, it was really the cool kids at ADI that got me involved. Earlier this year, I attended many of the events at their first annual DevFest, complete with a hackathon, demo day, and a host of speakers from the NYC tech community. Now in their second year of operations, ADI keeps impressing me with the quality of events they have put on, including today’s startup job fair, which features 19 of the hottest startups in New York. 

Columbia Startup Job Fair