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Startup lessons from Ben Silbermann, Founder and CEO of Pinterest August 30, 2012

Posted by johnvrionis in 2012, hiring, management, start-up, Summer Program.
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As a part of our Summer Fellowship Program, we bring in influential speakers from around the valley each week to share their insights, lessons learned and tips with our teams.  The program has now been in place for six years, so with recent fellowship classes I have been fortunate to pull from our list of alumni when curating the speaker list. One of those alumni, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, was generous enough to join us this past week for lunch with our fellows and alumni from past years.

During lunch, Ben shared details of his background and thoughtfully explained the journey of how he came to be CEO of one of the hottest startups in the consumer internet space.  He also shared a number of insights and lessons which I think we can all learn from:

Hire Great People, regardless of if you have a defined role for them:  Ben shared that one of the things he is thankful he did in the early days was to hire people that he thought were great people even before he knew exactly what their role would be. Great people, he explained, can add value in various roles and often provide key solutions to problems that arise throughout your lifecycle.

Learn from No:  Whether you are seeking funding, making offers to potential employees or trying to build partnerships, as a startup you are going to hear the word no a lot.  What makes Ben a great entrepreneur is that he recognizes that most of the time, people are saying no for a good reason.  He had the patience, self-awareness and intellectual honesty to evaluate the situation and make the necessary changes.  Whatever the reason for No, Ben stressed the importance of using it as opportunity to learn and to correct so that you are moving your company into a position where you can start getting some yeses.

Decide what will make you happy and commit 100% to doing it:  One of the things Ben said he learned early on was that while being an entrepreneur meant that he had control over what he was building and doing, it also meant that he lost control over a number of things like a steady paycheck or the resources of a large organization.  But, ultimately, the tradeoff was worth it for him to keep going.  His advice to the group may seem simple and obvious, but it can be hard to follow!  He was convincing – you have to find what makes you happy, because ultimately, that is the person you have to answer to first.  Building a startup is really hard, but if you are doing something you love or building a product you are passionate about, it is one of life’s greatest rewards.

Foster your co-founder relationships:  Like any relationship, you are going to have some ups and downs as founders so it’s important to foster a good, highly communicative relationship with your co-founder(s) so that you can make it through those rocky days. Again, it may seem fairly straightforward, but it is one of those things that requires consistent attention and can make all the difference.

Recognize what you don’t know and tackle it head on: This was less of a tip and more of an anecdote that Ben shared, but one that I thought was worth mentioning.  Every weekend, he reads a different business book in an effort to hone his business, marketing or technical skills.  Having a ready appetite to learn and grow as a person and a leader is no doubt a part of Pinterest’s secret sauce and something I encourage any entrepreneur to foster throughout their careers.

It was tremendous to have so many alumni back at Lightspeed and thanks again Ben for your time and thoughts.

If you found this post useful, follow me @jvrionis or Lightspeed at @lightspeedvp on Twitter.

The Lightspeed Summer Fellowship Program Explained April 12, 2011

Posted by John Vrionis in 2011, blogging, start-up, startup, startups, Summer Program, Venture Capital.
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There’s been some great discussions recently about the Lightspeed Summer Program (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2380567) and at several of the sessions over the weekend at the Stanford E-Boot Camp (http://bases.stanford.edu/e-bootcamp/ so I thought I’d do a quick post to help answer some of the recurring questions.

Background. I started the program at Lightspeed 6 years ago because as an undergraduate and graduate student I, as well as many of my entrepreneurial classmates, took on “real” internships during the summers in order to pay the bills (rent, gas, beer…).  We worked on our startup ideas on nights and weekends out of necessity.  When I joined Lightspeed in 2006 and realized that we had the resources to facilitate some number of idea-stage projects, we put together the Summer Program and opened it up to student led teams.  Why did a student need to be involved?  We had to draw the line somewhere.  The program could not be just another entryway for entrepreneurs to pitch Lightspeed.  We wanted to target young, entrepreneurial minded people and give them a viable summer alternative to taking that traditional internship.

I know from personal experience just how hard starting a company can be.  It’s a BIG DECISION to tackle early in your professional career.  Pieces of the program have changed over time, but the GOAL has remained constant since inception and that is simply to give young entrepreneurs the time and resources to fully experience what it is like to start a company.

Purpose. The Lightspeed Summer Program is NOT an incubator, nor was it ever intended to be.  We are not looking to fund companies out of the program.  Really. I promise.  We want people to experience startup life fulltime and have the opportunity to learn if it is something they truly want to do.  Is there benefit to Lightspeed?  Yes, of course.  We hope to build relationships with young, talented entrepreneurs at this stage in their careers.  We are in the business of fostering entrepreneurship.  We also have a very long term view on what this means.  The opportunity to work with bright, energetic people who have ideas about how to change the world is exactly why we do this job in the first place.

Why don’t you ask for equity or a right to invest? It’s funny, people have asked me “What’s the catch?”  Or, “It sounds too good to be true, so what am I missing?”  I appreciate the genuine skepticism so I want to be as clear as I can on this one.  The reasons we don’t require an obligation from the entrepreneurs we accept are simple:

First, we don’t have expectations that the teams we accept will be ready for venture capital during or after completing the program.   In fact, I’ve been surprised by the number (12+) that have gone on to receive venture or angel funding.

Second, we look at the program as a way to engage with people at this stage in their careers.  If we do a good job and they like working with us, they should want to come back and work together down the road if they want to pursue entrepreneurship.  If we don’t do a good job, and they don’t like working with us, well, shame on us(!), but the entrepreneur shouldn’t be obligated to work with Lightspeed.

Evolution. I’ve changed the “rules” of the program over the years to try and make it a better experience.  For example: I learned in Year 1 that teams without engineers didn’t accomplish much in the 10 week time frame.  Without fulltime “doers” teams ended up with a lot of ideas and power point slides but very few actual results.  So we adapted and started requiring that every team have at least one CS or EE major as a way to push teams to have members that could actually build stuff over the summer.  Example 2: I learned that what is most helpful to the Fellowship winners in terms of guest speakers and introductions is other young founders who have successfully raised money and angel investors.  So I changed our guest speaker lineup and invited fewer attorneys, CFO’s, and recruiters and went with a healthy dose of entrepreneurs, CEO’s and investors.  Example 3: Entrepreneurs like lots of free food, so we added more snacks.

If I participate in the program and Lightspeed doesn’t invest, isn’t that a bad signal? This is something I didn’t think about when we first started the program. It’s a very valid concern.  The LAST thing I want to do is have a program that creates friction for any entrepreneurs who want to continue to pursue their company after the program.  So we made a change.  Starting last year, we made a commitment to every team we accept.  Lightspeed will invest a minimum of $50k in any Summer Program winner that continues on with a company and is able to pull together a round of at least $500k from other investors.  It’s very important to  understand that the Lightspeed investment is completely at the entrepreneur’s option. If you don’t want it, don’t take it.  But this way, if any investor ever asks, “Is Lightspeed investing?” the answer is “Yes, if we want them to.”

Competition. People often ask or comment about other programs (YC, Angel Pad, etc).  I’m thrilled these programs exist and are flourishing.  I think the more opportunities out there for young entrepreneurs to try the startup life, the better.  We’ve had teams in multiple summer programs in the past and its been great.  The one requirement we ask is that teams dont participate in more than one program at the same time.

Resources. The program gives Fellows office space, some funding, VC mentorship (each winning team has a Partner from Lightspeed as a mentor), introductions to founders and angels, and a chance to work on your idea fulltime.  I’ve learned that our Fellows also benefit greatly from the camaraderie that emerges from working with other entrepreneurs in a close environment and that these lasting relationships mean a great deal to people.

This program is NOT for people who want a lot of hand holding.  As an entrepreneur, I learned you need to be scrappy.  The program is designed to give you all the resources you need but ultimately it is best suited for entrepreneurs who just need the chance to make things happen.

Application. We one round for 2012.  The deadline for is March 2, 2012 so get them in!  Find the app here: http://www.lightspeedvp.com/summerfellowships/