As the group entered the Greylock Partners’ building, many of my fellow
Tigertrekkers, as well as myself, were taken back by the beautiful interior
that was sprinkled with Halloween festivities. Once the trekkers were
comfortably seated, Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock, welcomed us and
the discussion fired off. I personally found it fascinated by the
organization of all the partners. Greylock splits its partners by whether a
company serves in the consumer or enterprise space. Asheem was one of those
partners who was more focused with the enterprise software sector. But one
thing that stood out for me is that Asheem explained that partners at VC
firm really have the best interest in mind for all their portfolio
companies as well as potential companies. He told us a small story of his
willingness to meet new potential companies on weekends even when he
himself was very sick. These extreme measures defined what type of partner
Asheem is. I guess I entered California with a very unfair misconception of
VC partners but hearing the stories by Asheem made me quickly realize that
these views were skewed. Of course not all VC partners are like Asheem
Chandna but without a doubt many excellent partners exist.
Even though every company we have visited has been amazing, one company
that is really unique for several reasons was Ariosa Diagnostics. It was
the only biotech company on the trip and also had a founder who was a
venture capitalist before becoming a CEO rather than the other order which
was more typical. Unlike some of the internet tech companies with college
dropouts calling the shots, almost everyone at Ariosa has their MD or PHD
Ariosa is a company which is trying to take the promise of the human genome
project out of the laboratories of academia and into people’s every day
lives using the start up as the vehicle. Their first product is called the
Harmony Prenatal test and it is a safer and more accurate test than the
standard amniocentesis for telling expectant mothers about possible genetic
trisomies. Ariosa runs the test from their location in San Jose and has
recently expanded to make the test available not only in the US but also in
Ken Song was nice enough to give us a tour of the facilities and answer our
questions about the company and how he came to be CEO. Because the medical
market involves so much testing and regulation, a quick cycle of iteration
might be 9 months rather 1 week at a software company. Also, there are
four main players that Ariosa must make happy to succeed. Rather than just
the customers, who are the first priority, Ariosa must also convince the
doctors to prescribe the test, the insurance companies to support the test,
and the regulation boards to approve of the safety. However, Ariosa really
tries to put the customers first, in both the low price of the test and the
type of feedback they give to sell peace of mind, and in this sense of
focus on the customer, they are like many of the other startups we saw.
Ken told us about how very important it is to choose really smart people
who you can rely on no matter how things are going. He had found the team
of scientists who developed a new method of testing while he was a VC at
Venrock and joined them to make it a real company back in 2010. Only a few
months in, they raised more capitol and realized that the method they were
planning to use wouldn’t actually work. Over the course of a few stressful
hours and practically in front of the other investing parties they were
able to figure out the method which is successfully used today. Ken says
that every startup will hit bumps like this that will really test the team,
so it is crucial to have not only smart people but people who you can trust
and work with when the times aren’t good.
One of the things we were curious about going in was how the culture would
be impacted by the much slower moving industry and the much higher levels
of education required to make a difference. While there was a subtly
higher level of professionalism and perhaps a few more ties worn to work
than hoodies, the Halloween decorations in all the cubicles and the
foosball table in the break room convinced us that they were a real
startup after all.
Our first full day here in the Valley was absolutely packed with visits to Nest, Khan Academy, Piazza, and Shasta Ventures.
In the evening we attended a Startup/Y Combinator Mixer hosted at Microsoft HQ where we heard from two Microsoft employees - Matt Thompson and Dan’l Lewin (Princeton Alumnus).
The following panel also presented and answered our questions:
Hai Nguyen spoke about his experience starting Appfluence while studying at Stanford, consulting for Ebay, and managing other part-time commitments. He explained that Appfluence was a bootstrapped startup (it didn’t raise venture capital) and became profitable with over 50,000 paying customers today.
Lee Linden (Facebook Commerce) spoke about his experience as part of one of the early Y Combinator groups and how he went on to found Tapjoy and Karma — the latter of which was acquired by Facebook around six months ago.
Steven Yarger talked about working as a mobile product manager at Trulia. He discussed the role of mobile in a more ‘traditional’ vertical like real estate.
Ray Bradford (KPCB) shared insights he learned while working for Amazon in cloud computing (Amazon S3). He also explained a few of the key factors he looks at when evaluating potential investment opportunities at KPCB including technical, market, and team risk.
After the panel presented, our questions prompted further discussion on a variety of interesting topics.
We discussed the value of an MBA, the central role of engineers in today’s startups, and the debatable claim that creating a billion dollar company (in yearly revenue) is near impossible on existing platforms such as the App Store. Further questions prompted discussion on the contrasting “lean startup and minimum viable product” approach vs. extended product cycles and development typical of hardware companies such as Apple. We noted that there is certainly a difference between hardware and software companies and no one size fits all approach to iteration and prototyping. We also discussed Peter Thiel’s assertion that there is a shortage of real deep innovation present in the country, with people instead adding incremental features on existing platforms.
The trip has been awesome since then.
Hafiz Dhanani ‘16