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In early February, Seth Levine, Managing Director at Foundry Group, talked through the Boulder Thesis with a group in Minneapolis. The segment includes an interview with CEO Clay Collins and his perspective on startup communities.
Find a write-up and some video on the event here: http://tech.mn/news/2014/02/09/video-seth-levine-on-startup-communities/
This is a guest post by Jeff Keen, the CEO of Accelerate Okanagan. The post originally appeared on Accelerate Okanagan’s website.
To continue the conversation regarding Startup Communities – Lessons Learned, I would like to discuss the 2nd of Brad Feld’s four pillars, the requirement to have a long-term commitment to build a successful startup community. Feld states that from any given point in time, it takes a 20 year commitment to build a successful startup community. This is not a static plan that gets created once and rarely revisited, but a rolling 20 year commitment that continually evolves with the growth of the community. For example, if you are 12 years in, you’ve got another 20 years to go. In the case of Boulder Colorado, which is constantly recognized as one of the most successful startup communities in the world, they have been at it for 14 years. And if you ask anyone in Boulder, they are just getting started.
So, how can you get started creating long-term commitment for your startup community? This is a very good and challenging question. First, I would recommend referring back the first pillar that states the community must be led by entrepreneurs. I would also add that not only must it be led by entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs that have a long-term vision and commitment to building, supporting and staying in the community. I believe that without this grassroots level of support, it is too easy for the vision and priorities to change based on the personal interests of the individuals involved; momentum will be slowed and energy will be lost.
Over the years, there have been many people that have expressed interest in being part of building a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in our community. There were several roundtable discussions, focus groups, brain storming sessions etc. Unfortunately, nothing practical and/or tactical (i.e., actionable) resulted from all of the effort. Meetings were organized, well attended and ended with enthusiasm…. but…. nothing happened! One of the problems was the meetings were being led by people that had many other priorities and very little time (dare I say personal interest) to define and act on meeting outcomes. What a waste of time… for everyone!
So, about a year ago a group of us reconnected with some of the people that attended those meetings. We then connected with entrepreneurial leaders in the community and invited everyone to…. you got it…. another roundtable meeting with the promise that this time it would be different. Invitations went out to 24 community members ranging from entrepreneurs, members from all levels of government, heads of academia, to service providers and mentors.
The meeting began with a commitment from everyone around the table that we were attending the meeting because we felt it was important from a community member’s perspective and not as a member of the organizations we represented. People were not attending to get re-elected or further their individual careers, but because they felt it was a priority for the community we all lived in and plan to live in for a long time. This acknowledgement set the tone for the rest of the meeting and provided the lens necessary to have truly meaningful discussion. We also stated that it was okay for people to raise their hand and say that they did not have time to be involved and remove themselves from the process, but it was not okay to commit and then not be engaged in the process going forward. We lost a few people after the first meeting which was awesome. We respected their decision and moved forward with a core group of 16 volunteers committed to working together and getting “stuff” done.
This group had two subsequent, very productive, meetings that resulted in the creation of our startup community purpose statement, a 20 year BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and practical, tactical goals and objectives the group could rally around and begin work on immediately; this was a very important outcome because it provided an opportunity for some quick wins that were visible in the community which deepened the engagement with group members.
Themes were developed and working groups were formed around three key initiatives, 1. “Place” – hubs, or access points where entrepreneurs can get access to the services and support they need to start companies, 2. “People” – talent attraction and retention strategy to not only attract more talent to the region but to create opportunities that will retain local university and college students upon graduation and 3. “Marketing” – creating a brand and awareness that our community welcomes and supports entrepreneurs and is a great place to start and grow a company.
These working groups continue to meet on a regular basis and progress is being made on all three initiatives. One of the keys to this early success is that the three working groups are being led by entrepreneurs (leaders) and supported by other group members (feeders)…. sound familiar?
It is very early days and it is not clear what the long-term effects of our efforts are going to be… only time will tell. But, we are enthusiastic about the direction we are headed in. Due in large part to the efforts of this group of volunteers, we are currently experiencing an unprecedented the level of momentum and engagement across the entire community.
We will report back on future developments (hopefully success stories!) as our community continues to grow and will continue to share lessons learned along the way.
Jeff has 25 years of experience in the technology industry, having held executive level management and leadership roles in technology organizations in both the public and private sector. Prior to joining Accelerate Okanagan, Jeff’s roles included technology entrepreneur, founder, and executive in both early-stage and high-growth technology companies. Jeff is an Honors graduate from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and is currently leading the amazing team at Accelerate Okanagan (www.accelerateokanagan.com).
A million thanks to the World Startup Report team, sponsors, and volunteers around the world for making this trip a reality. It’s been an amazing 6 months. Here’s a recap of what I’ve learned on the road.
Time flies when you’re off exploring startups in far flung lands. Six months ago I set off with just a carry-on and my trusty laptop, bright eyed and armed with boundless enthusiasm – I was ready with a capital R, to explore the world of startups. Now six months have passed and amazingly, I’ve realized that the more I learn, the more there is I need to learn. 6 months, 16 countries and 1000s of startup conversations later, I have only scratched the tip of the iceberg. The people I’ve met and the passion they have for what they do, often times in the face of great adversity is equal parts motivating and humbling. Its been a whirlwind journey so far and I am beyond excited to be able to share these findings. So on that note, here’s a little mini recap of my trip to date. Stay tuned for the full startup reports!
What in the world did I find?
India: hello, Google? Running a search engine via telephone may sound funny to the Valley, but really is it that different from asking Siri where the nearest parking lot is? Now picture Siri as a live person and put yourself in a country with 895M mobile phones vs just 35M smartphones. JustDial is a $720M empire in India…and it’s just one of many catering to this unique market.
Nepal: Don’t discount this hidden gem – even in a country where there are rations of only 12 – 16 hours of electricity per day, you can build tech firms with $100M USD exits.
Australia: Being a small yet modern and accessible country can be a double edged sword. On one hand, you get access to the latest and greatest from the West, but on the other hand, this very same lack of entrance barriers eliminates many startup opportunities for locals hoping to break onto the scene. Expect stiff competition here.
Greece/Spain: This could be a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade. 50% unemployment rate among youth might turn out to be the fire-starter that Greece/Spain startup ecosystems need.
Argentina: The story of Argentina can be told through their currency, which devalued 25% in the last 3 months. These folks are under constant pressure to produce in the midst of impossible constraints – trial by fire style. It could be argued that these conditions have produced the best entrepreneurs in Latin America.
Brasil: Size does matter. Virtually all successful Latin companies make the move to Brasil after their initial growing period, despite the unfavorable laws and social instability.
Peru: Though one of the least developed countries in South America, it’s also the place with the highest growth. Serious potential here.
Colombia: When a country invests 40% of the national budget on education, it changes things and empowers people.
Chile: StartupChile might go down in the history books as one of the best things to ever happen to Chile in this decade.
Kenya: The future of mobile payment can be seen in Kenya today. M-pesa is a micro-financing and money transfer service all easily accessible from your mobile device. It accounts for 25% of the country’s GDP.
Ethiopia: There are two 1s you have to know about Ethiopia: 1% internet penetration rate. 1M new cellphone subscribers a month.
Philippines: The Peru of Southeast Asia, but three times bigger with its 100M population plus everyone speaks perfect English. Keep an eye out for it.
Thailand: Unbelievable infrastructure and ample access to talents through its tourism. This 70M population country is poised to do well.
Myanmar: For a country that’s only a year old, its infrastructure is surprisingly developed. Those who want to jump in for low hanging fruit might already be too late.
Israel: Roughly 70% of the startup founders at our meetup believe they can build a billion dollar company. With this much ambition, drive and optimism in the room, some of them could be right.
So what’s next?
There are 13 more countries on the list, equally split between Europe (Netherlands, France, UK, Germany, Ukraine, Russia) and Asia (Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore). Big things are happening for the WSR team, keep following us to access the full country by country World Startup Reports as they become available. If your country is on the list, please let us know if you would like to help! http://bit.ly/helpWSR
Oh and one more thing… *drum roll*
We’re proud to announce the WSR closing ceremonies happening in the Philippines at the end of my 29-country tour, called Geeks-On-A-Beach. Some of our most influential and knowledgeable founders/investors from all over the world will join us at Geeks-On-A-Beach to discuss the global startup trends and opportunities, from Silicon Valley to India. This will also be where I share my overall findings, impressions and conclusions from my epic journey.
Don’t miss this opportunity to meet the world’s startup founders and investors. Sign up today and get the early bird discount. This will be an incredible event in partnership to help the local startup community in the Philippines.
Founder, World Startup Report
Special thanks to: 500Startups, Startup Revolution, StartupWeekend, StartupDigest, Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Flightfox, Boingo, Bizpora for making this trip a reality!
Bowei Gai is a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley who sold the company he co-founded, CardMunch, to LinkedIn in 2011. On New Year’s Eve of 2013, he boarded his first flight for a 9-months long trip across 29 countries and 36 cities to research the world’s startup ecosystems.
Bowei’s first project, “The China Startup Report”, received over 100,000 views on SlideShare. His new project, the India Startup Report gained over 150,000 views shortly after release. From January to June 2013, Bowei has traveled to the following places: India, Australia, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, Ethiopia, Kenya, Israel, Greece and Spain. Below is his story.
We’re beginning to see an interesting phenomenon occur with the success of Startup Communities. Readers are extrapolating the lessons within the book and are raising some interesting questions about the drivers, best practices and key components of startup communities. Recently, Dan Moore, a local Boulder IT consultant, wrote a blog post questioning the lasting impact the personnel of a former employer had on the local startup community. His blog post raises an interesting question.
How many startups have been birthed as a result of personnel from a former startup?
In his own case, Mr. Moore was an employee of XOR, (Internet technology, Systems, IT) and according to his experience some 23 companies were formed as an off fall of its sale, one of which includes the company he currently works for. This information has spurred the team here at Startup Revolution to wonder if we could put together a data set that would depict the general impact startups have on their communities.
So we decided to begin the process of sourcing information regarding such matters and are now putting together a data set on the long term residual effects of startups; no matter their outcome. Whether they failed or succeeded we want to know the impact startups have.
So we’ve got a favor to ask…we need you to fill out the form below providing us with important information on the number of companies that were spun off as a result of either the sale or closing up of a former employer.
Simply fill out and submit the form below and we’ll start building the data set.
Thanks for all the help!
-The Startup Revolution Team
Not long ago the guys from Awesome Inc arranged for startup guru Brad Feld to speak at the Kentucky Center about the Boulder, Colo., startup phenomenon. Somehow Boulder has attained the mythical entrepreneurial status we also attribute to Austin, the San Francisco Bay Area and Research Triangle.
Now back in the post-Nam days, when I was a longer-haired undergrad at CU-Boulder, the only local entrepreneurs I can recall utilized baggies to distribute their product. Gnarly for sure, but definitely not a global hot spot.
So, I wondered, what changed since the late ’70s, besides the merciful death of disco? How had the most liberal college town in America transformed itself into one of the preeminent entrepreneurial communities in the world and a birthplace of TechStars?
Maybe Feld’s speech would provide some answers, so I bought a ticket (and later, his book).
From Boulder to Louisville
In Feld’s TED-style talk, he used a flip chart to quickly lay out what he calls the “Boulder Thesis” (which he stretches to 200 pages in his book, Startup Communities). In short, Feld’s Boulder Thesis states that a vibrant entrepreneurial community must:
- Be led by entrepreneurs who
- Have a long-term commitment, and
- Be inclusive of anyone who wants to participate in it, and
- Continually engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.
Understand that Boulder, which is fondly referred to as “eight square miles surrounded by reality,” sports five major research labs and the most degreed population in the United States. So it’s a pseudo-Oz, and whatever they do or (now legally) smoke out there might not translate to Kentucky.
I’m here to proclaim that the soul of the Boulder Thesis is, indeed, beginning to trend right here in the Bluegrass. Granted, we don’t yet match their 2013 Rockin’ Mountain High community, but (cue Journey) we are at least in the ’80s, or maybe even (fade to Pearl Jam) the ’90s in Boulder time, edging ever closer to the so-2009 Black Eyed Peas’ “I Got A Feeling.” (Way to remix those metaphors.)
My point is that this region is slowly but surely crafting its own energetic entrepreneurial community under flag bearers such as Phoebe Wood, Doug Cobb, Bob Saunders, Kimberly Nasief-Westergren, David Jones, Charlie Moyer, Tendai Charasika, Mark Crane, Greg Fischer, Adam Fish, Alex Frommeyer, Kris Kimel, Brian Raney, Suzanne Bergmeister and many others.
This isn’t a planned and managed affair; it’s organic and authentic. It’s like cat herding. It’s highly inclusive and spans the “stack” from investors to entrepreneurs to supporters. It includes long-standing groups such as Venture Connectors, KSTC, Nucleus and Enterprise Corp.; alongside rogues like Forge and Startup Weekend.
With the Gil Holland-led re-entrepreneurization of NuLu, the community even has a homeland.
From Louisville to the Commonwealth
To paraphrase Brad Feld, we are witnessing the birth of not just the Louisville Thesis, but the Kentucky Thesis, which I might point out is miraculously overcoming basketball rivalries and connecting with like-minded clusters of entrepreneurial diasporas from Paducah to Lexington to Covington.
A good thing? I damn well think so, and cheer on all comers who are willing to pitch in, whether by starting a company, investing, working, sponsoring or just showing up. We don’t have to become Boulder.Who needs weed dispensaries and 300 days of sunshine anyway? We just need to be ourselves and stick with it.
We have strengths in logistics, healthcare, food and manufacturing combined with that bull-headed Kentucky long-rifle sense of independence – hey, not every region is so blessed. We have plenty of bright people and ideas. And nobody sees us coming.
Granted, it was probably a hair easier to grow a vibrant entrepreneurial community in progressive, highly educated, uber-cool Boulder. But when we do it here, Mr. Feld will have an even better book to write.
Or maybe we’ll just write it ourselves.
It wasn’t a long time, but it was certainly a good time when Brad Feld dropped by the Communitech Hub Thursday.
Feld, the 47-year-old Foundry Group managing director, TechStars co-founder, author, marathoner and all-around good guy from Boulder, Colo., was on his first visit to Waterloo Region.
Over about six hours at the Communitech Hub, he toured the space, met entrepreneurs, spoke about how to build a great startup community and helped judge a sold-out Startup Smackdown before returning to Toronto for an early-morning flight out.
Feld left us with much to mull over and plenty to be proud about, which I’ll expand on here in due course. For now, I’ll leave you with what he told me at the end of a long day.
Q – So, what did you think of your day here?
A – I thought Communitech was awesome. I had a great day here.
I didn’t really know what to expect because I hadn’t been to Waterloo before, and I thought the community was extremely vibrant.
There’s a huge amount of people who are working on the right kinds of things, and the energy level is off the charts, which is really, really fun to see.
Q – Did anything in particular stand out from what you usually see in startup communities?
A – I think the concentration of all of the different activities, including the accelerator, the university incubators, co-working space, event space, a bunch of entrepreneurs, the community space, is very powerful.
You see it in some other places, and it’s starting to appear in a more structured way in Chicago at 1871, or in D.C. at 1776, those two buildings. But this is a really mature example of it; it feels really built-out and not just well-organized, but extremely well-run.
It was nice to see, because I think there are a lot of people who aspire to have this at the core of their startup community, but it’s very hard to do, and it’s clear that this has been a lot of hard work over a number of years.
Q – So if you got home and (your wife) Amy asked, ‘How was Waterloo?’, what would you say?)
A – I’d say I had a great time.
I would tell her that I spent the entire time inside one building, so I didn’t really see Waterloo, but I saw Communitech, and I thought it was really cool.
“Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup” is a book of advice and learnings that have derived from the technology accelerator program, TechStars. Do More Faster is written by TechStars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld and includes contributions from many of the mentors and past participants of the program.
TechStars in a mentorship accelerator program that started in Boulder, Colorado, but now has classes in Boston, New York and Seattle. Successful applicants take part in an intensive 3 month accelerator program where they get access to mentors in order to create successful companies. At the end of the program, the startups have the opportunity to pitch their company to Angel Investors and Venture Capitalists.
Do More Faster is based upon 7 themes of what it takes to start a successful company. Each theme contains lessons that mentors and previous TechStars participants have learned through their entrepreneurship endeavours.
The 7 themes of Do More Faster are:
- Idea and Vision
- Legal and Structure
- Work-Life Balance
Idea and Vision
Part of the application process of TechStars is submitting an idea that the team will work on. This can either be a currently operational company, or merely just a vision for what is hoped to be achieved. In either case, TechStars accepts applicants based on the merits of the team, and not the idea.
It is this freedom to change ideas that allows TechStars participants to pivot into a completely different opportunity should the current assumptions reveal themselves to be wrong. This freedom enables a more iterative approach to finding a really big business opportunity.
A second common theme around ideas in TechStars is that ideas are worthless and execution can’t be copied. New entrepreneurs are often scared to share their idea in fear that someone copies them. The mentors of TechStars encourage participants to share their ideas with everyone in order to gain feedback and test their assumptions. Execution is really the most important aspect of creating a successful company. Even if someone else is working on the same idea, the execution of that idea will usually be quite different.
TechStars encourages applicants to get their ideas and products out into the open as quickly as possible, talk to customers and focus on the one thing that they can really do well to solve an important problem. All of these things can seem inherently difficult to first time entrepreneurs. By exposing an idea to the world, you gain feedback on it’s value and you are able to progress the opportunity quicker.
The second theme of Do More Faster is People and how it is the people that are involved in a company that really make the difference. TechStars is a mentorship driven programme and so it values the input of people within the community, mentors and fellow company founders.
The majority of TechStars companies are founded by at least two co-founders. Whilst it is possible to found a company as a single founder, it will require you to take on more work and stress if you choose to go it alone. A co-founder can not only do half the work, but she should also be a sounding board for ideas, advice and a comrade when the going gets tough.
The early employees of a company are really important for creating a good company culture. The culture of a company will usually originate from the actions and attitudes of the founders and early employees, so it is extremely important to choose the right sort of people who you want to work with. Skills and experience can always be taught over time, but a bad attitude will be like a cancer in your company. Many of the TechStars mentors advise to hire for culture and to hire slow and fire fast. If someone is not working out as an co-founder or an early employee you need to do something about it as soon as possible.
As mentioned in the Ideas and Vision theme, TechStars value a team’s ability to execute their plan. An idea is worthless without execution, and so the TechStars mentors push the participants to continuously and relentlessly execute their vision.
As the title of this book suggests, one of the mantras of TechStars is “Do more faster”. This does not mean reckless execution, but rather, creating a feedback loop to test and prove assumptions as quickly as possible. If a team can prove that an idea will not work, they can more quickly move onto an idea that will work. As a TechStars participant, you are encouraged to make decisions quickly, even when you don’t have all the information. A quick decision is usually better than a delayed decision, especially when the company is young.
Startups have a lot of disadvantages against established incumbents. Startups have no money, no customers, no partners and no leverage. However, Startups have nothing to lose and so they can take risks or focus on one precise opportunity without having to maintain legacy customers. If a Startup can’t take risks and move quickly with little information, they lose the one advantage they have over their established competitors.
During the 3 months of a TechStars program, each team will be getting a lot of different advice from some very experienced and respected mentors. TechStars teaches it’s teams to treat everything as data, and they should use their own synthesis of the various bits of data in order to make a value judgement on the future of their companies. This could mean completely neglecting the advice of a mentor, and instead, doubling down on an insight from a customer or a gut feeling.
The product is obviously one of the most important aspects of a company because it is the product that becomes synonymous for Customers. Many Entrepreneurs will try to build a product from their vision or an assumption, when really, a product needs to be created for a market opportunity.
As mentioned above, TechStars teaches it’s participants to move quickly. TechStars companies are encouraged to get their product into the market as quickly as possible. Many founders will be scared to put out a product that is not finished, not polished or lacking in features. However, it is this scope creep that will handcuff the company from ever releasing the product. The quicker you get a feedback loop with your customer, the quicker you can achieve product-market fit. As the old saying goes, “If you are not ashamed of your first release of your product, you launched too late”.
Part of launching a product is dealing with either established or new competitors. Every good idea will have competitors in some form, even if they are not directly competing against you. It’s important to find your differentiation and to market yourself as a clear solution to a concrete problem. Going after the entire market is too big for any company, you must find a single customer cohort, and a single opportunity to attack first.
When you are excited about your product and you are starting to gain traction, it can be difficult to stay focused on the current goals of the company. Usually as a startup, you will have an assumption of a market opportunity that you should try to either prove right or wrong as quickly as possible. Along the way you will have business development deals, partnerships, and new possible market opportunities at every turn. It’s important to stay focused on completing the current goal of the company before starting to chase every opportunity. Working with large companies can be great for distribution, but the opportunity cost of neglecting your other goals can be worth even more.
Creating companies on the Internet has a huge advantage over traditional companies in that you have a wealth of data about every possible metric. You can accurately track your marketing and how every penny you spend converts into revenue. You can track how your product is being used, how it is growing, are your customers coming back, or are they getting stuck or confused on a certain aspect. None of this data is available to traditional companies. The wealth of data that is available can be overwhelming. It’s important to only track the things that are important to your product and your opportunity. Tracking the wrong metrics can be worse than doing no tracking at all.
Whilst fundraising is an important aspect in the lives of many of the startups that go through TechStars, each of the participants are encouraged to take a step back and question whether they actually need to raise money at all. Some of the most successful TechStars alumni are actually bootstrapped companies that took no investment at all once the program had concluded.
Raising money might seem like the natural next step, but it is actually not such an easy decision. When you take money from an investor, you are giving away part of your company and you lose at least some control. Investors are looking for a return on their investment and so they plan for a liquidity event at some point in your company’s future.
Bootstrapping a company can mean slower growth, but you retain full control over your company and you are not forced into a liquidity event.
Recently there have been many startups that raise money when they really don’t need to. Some companies are capital intensive, or it will naturally take a long time to get to cash-flow positive. These types of companies need to raise investment or they could never get off the ground. However, it’s highly unlikely that your Software as a Service startup needs to raise money to get started.
If you are looking to raise investment, taking part in a program like TechStars will make the process considerably easier. You will be introduced to the right type of investors through mentorship and you will be immersed in a community of people who you can ask questions and get the right type of advice. Fundraising is a full time job, and so anything you can do to smooth the process will be beneficial to your startup.
Legal and Structure
When you are starting a company, it’s important to remember the legal and structural implications of doing so. During the life of the company, you will be entering contracts, taking on debt, handing out credit and dealing with partners, customers and competitors. It is your responsibility to ensure that the legalities of your company are correct before taking further steps.
You should ensure that your company is recognised as the correct legal entity. Choosing the wrong structure could lead to personal liabilities should your company default or you become involved in a legal battle.
Your relationship with your co-founders should also be drafted in a legal document. Equity agreements, vesting schedule and Intellectual Property rights are important things to get right from the start.
Nobody starts a company with the expectation that something could go wrong, but it is your responsibility to take the correct precautions just in case. When you start a company with a co-founder, you expect to be both committed to the vision of the company. But outside events, or a change in personal circumstances can dramatically change things very quickly.
Despite a lack of money in the early stages of a company, you should invest in a startup lawyer who has a lot of experience of dealing with companies in your situation. General purpose lawyers won’t have the same expertise or guidance that a specific lawyer will have, and so it will mean you will have less problems further down the road when the legal agreements are actually needed.
Starting a company from scratch can seem like a tremendous amount of work in the beginning as the future success of the company is entirely in your hands. Striking the right work-life balance is important because it is likely going to take years to really build a successful companies and so no-one can sustain an all work-lifestyle for that period of time.
It probably goes without saying that you should only start a company in an area that you are passionate about. When you naturally combine your interests with building a company it means you can dedicate more time to not only working on your company, but also acquiring knowledge of your domain.
But even still, it’s important to be able to escape the pressure and work-load that you are putting yourself under so you can continue making the right decisions for the future of your company.
Do More Faster is a fantastic book for anyone who is interested in building a startup. The book is comprised on many very short essays on lessons to learn. This make it very easy to read and to take actionable advice in very small chunks.
TechStars has become a world-renowned model for mentorship-driven entrepreneurship. If you are interested in applying for TechStars, or simply want to take the lessons and advice and apply them to your startup, Do More Faster is definitely worth your investment.
Buy Do More Faster: Lessons to accelerate your startup on Amazon (Affiliate link)