Paul: Welcome to another episode of the App Guy Podcast. I'm your host, it's Paul Kemp. This is the show that helps you as an app entrepreneur. If you're a startup fanatic, if you are even doing side gigs but you want to know what this world is about, then I go around and interview some of the best people that we can find to help us with these journeys of app entrepreneurship. I've got literally the most amazing guest for you today. His name is Jon Bradford, and until recently he was the MD at TechStars, he's going to tell us a little bit about that, but he really does go around helping companies, helping startups. I really recommend going to the show notes and clicking on all the links to tell you about Jon. His portfolio is too long to mention here, so we're going to find out more. Jon, welcome to the App Guy Podcast.
Jon: Good morning, thank you for having me.
Paul: So let's talk about your background, because it is so impressive. You've been involved in TechStars, you're recently having a reflective stage, but tell us a little about yourself, Jon.
Jon: I see. The reason why I was missing so long is because I'm just really old.
Paul: Like me then...
Jon: Exactly. This could probably be the third part of my life, if that makes sense, not including my teenage years. So I started many, many years ago as a boring accountant; I wasn't good at it, but seemed to hang on and do it for a long time. I jumped ship in 2000 and I've been working around early stage startup type businesses since then. It didn't seem such a long time ago, but somebody pointed out it was 15 years ago. I spent ten years of that effectively working in and around startups, and about five years ago I've had the good fortune of bumping into a guy called David Cohen, who ran TechStars. At that point, nobody knew what TechStars was, and he helped me set up what was the first accelerator outside of the U.S., called the Difference Engine, that nobody has ever heard of and is completely insignificant, but essentially in the last five years I've worked on nine or ten programs personally, I think I've helped twelve other programs start up across Europe and beyond, I've been fortunate enough to bump into some really smart people and started a few businesses, and every so often I get some sleep as well.
Paul: Jon, we've had a lot of entrepreneurs in this show that are from the TechStars accelerator, and they are so inspirational. What's it like working around these entrepreneurs? It must be just really amazing and motivating to actually be part of it.
Jon: Yes, there's a sliding skill on any given day; it can be the most inspiring job in the world and on other occasions it can be a pain in the ass. [Unintelligible 00:04:09] I think entrepreneurs are very like five-year-olds. They're very addicted to work with, they screw up on a regular basis, and they always are coming back going, 'Do you know that thing you said I shouldn't have done? Well I did do it, and I screwed up. Can I have forgiveness and can you give me some more money please?' So yes, they are amazing, and I wouldn't have done what I've done for the last five years unless I'd felt that there was... It was fun and interesting, and one could make a little bit of money along the way.
Paul: Jon, I'm in danger of taking too many quotes from this show, I like to take quotes, and "entrepreneurs are like five-year-olds" is already standing out as a potential quote. So one of the big questions I often get is how do you approach investors? What's the best way of positioning yourself as an entrepreneur, someone who's leading maybe a small team? How would you respond to that? How would you suggest the best way is to get your attention?
Jon: I'm going to tell you a whole bunch of clichés that you all probably heard from other places, but there's a well-known line, which is "If you want money, ask for advice, and if you want advice, ask for money." So ordinarily, most entrepreneurs approach investors too late, so they need the money at the point they're asking for it. The problem with that is an entrepreneur doesn't know you if you met him at that point in time, and so therefore he wants to build some sort of relationship to understand you better. I strongly believe that probably the most interesting thing to really screw up an investor's brain is to actually approach them and say, "I've just started something, I'd love to get some feedback on it. Come and see it and grab me a coffee." [Inaudible 00:06:17] talk to the investor, but never ask for money because that really screws with their head. But what it does do, and I then say to them is take good notes, listen to the advice, think about what the feedback was and then either e-mail them or ask for a coffee 90 days later and go back to them in 90 days time and say, "Do you know all that stuff you told me? Well I did this with this stuff, because it was really valuable. I thought about what you said here, I wasn't sure that was correct, so I did something else." So what you're trying to do is essentially build a relationship between yourself and a potential investor way before. But also don't forget, investors - and some are better than others, but at the end of the day they listen to a lot of pitches and they get a lot of advice from a lot of different people. They can be inherently valuable as a resource for you to understand your business better and to basically... It's a bit like getting a job. The first interview you go to is not necessarily the one you want, so do a few mock interviews, or work with a whole bunch of people before you actually get to the point where you actually really need the money. So kiss the frogs a little bit earlier than you would do, and talk to as many smart people as you can, and that includes investors.
Paul: It sounds to me like it's worth actually applying for accelerator programs almost just to go through the process of seeing what the questions are and what they're trying to understand. Is that what you're saying?
Jon: The statement was more about investors than accelerators, but you're absolutely right, with accelerators it's exactly the same thing. I say to people apply early, way before you would expect to, get on my radar, so when you apply six months later I can see the progress that you've made from the original application. There's a great article written by a guy called Mark Schuster called "Lines, not dots" and it's about how investors make investment decisions. The idea behind it is understanding people and seeing how progress is made between the two points that you see them, or the three points or the four points. Investors just can't make decisions on the spot, based upon a given point in time.
Paul: You've mentioned at the start you've had a few career changes in a way, and you started off as an accountant, and I'm sure there's people listening to this right now who are tempted to quit their job, or start a startup, or go for it. What would you say to those who are thinking about that? Can you actually do it without a track record, or are you just likely to fail the first several times and you need to kind of just accept that and really build up your experience and relationships? So what would you say to anyone who's thinking about quitting their job to do a startup?
Jon: Well I tend to take the view which is slightly contrary to most other people, which is there are seven days in a week; you typically work for five of them, so you've got two spare, which is almost half a week. There's a lot you can do in your spare time, and it's also a good way of you really understanding whether you want to do it or not. And there will be an actual point where you get to a certain critical mass, or you have enough data, or there's something inherently interesting in what you're doing that actually says, 'Well maybe I should step out and I should do this on a full time basis.' So I think of it more as an analogue or shades of gray, rather than a black and white statement of 'One day I want to stop my job and the next day I'm going to start a startup. I think there's a lot more that can be done in the intervening period. I was fortunate enough that I've never felt that I've actually ever done that in my career. I've managed to transition from one role to the next, and it really is playing around with this idea that there are seven days in a week, and if you can... In my instance I was fortunate enough to be able to have a job which was only four days instead of five days a week. So I had a day job that paid me four days a week and I had three days to spare, to actually plan what I was going to do next.
Paul: So you're actually going through a transitionary period as well yourself, so it's probably timely to talk about how you approach that, and what you go through in terms of a decision-making process to figure out what you actually want to do next.
Jon: Yes, I describe to people I'm going through a decelerator at the moment, so I'm learning to do everything a little bit slower than I would have ordinarily. No, I think I'm the wrong side authority, so the way I make decisions will be slightly different from somebody slightly earlier in their career. I'm fortunate enough to have a lot of different opportunities in front of me, and I can do many different things, but what I've come back with is I've got a set of criteria to think about why and what I would do next, and if I can remember well there's four of them. They are essentially have fun, make money, work with smart people, and make an impact. And none of those are functional; so that could be as an investor, that could be as an entrepreneur, that could be as something totally different. But if they don't have those four criteria, this is something I'm just not interested in. So I'm making my decisions in a slightly different approach.
Paul: I love that, I love the fact that you're reminding us it's best to have a belief system and then follow that, because it makes it easier to have decisions.
Jon: I would say that's something which is very true to where TechStars is; we have some very strong underlying beliefs. So on one side I have TechStars, which has a very strong mantra which is "Entrepreneur first" or "Give first" and on the other side I've started a business for a good friend of mine, called F Success, and basically we have a similar cornerstone, which is we wil always put the entrepreneur first, ahead of everybody else, and all of our decisions are made around that. And I find those things to be the easiest and simplest ways to make decisions.
Paul: Well Jon, we've got two more things to do before we say goodbye to you. One is that we love to try and figure out new ideas ourselves, and it's always helpful to find out from the entrepreneurs what you're seeing, what trends you're seeing in the marketplace, because you do have a wonderful bird's-eye view of the startup scene. What do you think is really an interesting area for the listeners to focus on?
Jon: I would argue that there's a lot of noise in the market, and so therefore the quantum of the noise is not necessarily indicative of the interest level. I spend my life thinking about stuff before it gets trendy, so I'm not into dating apps and I'm not into bill-sharing apps, even though there are other people smart at doing that. The thing I'm super fascinated by is Blockchain and its potential implementation, either inside the financial services or beyond. I think people need to spend more time looking at the potential of Blockchain, because I think it has the potential of doing what http did in web, for a lot of different services in a lot of different areas.
Paul: Okay, you're going to have to expand on that... You're saying Blockchain?
Paul: Okay. Maybe for the benefit of actually me and a few people listening, what is Blockchain?
Jon: So Blockchain is a really interesting piece of technology that makes Bitcoin work. Interestingly, everybody runs around and talks about Bitcoin but the reality is, it's the underlying protocol that makes Bitcoin work, which is called Blockchain. Essentially what it does is it allows you to have a completely decentralized system which has trust built into it, and it's almost impossible to describe in two minutes... What I would probably say is if you do a quick Google search, and typically a really good source of information I think is Fred Wilson, who's website is avc.com. He talks about Blockchain as a protocol - definitely worth looking up and having it checked out.
Paul: And also you're reminding me of my chat episode 338 with Justin Drake, who talked about that very thing as well, so that's definitely another resource. Obviously it had an impact on finance, but it could be everywhere, not just money.
Jon: Yes, money is a statement of "I have money, I'm passing it to you. You understand and trust me that the money is mine." You don't have a clearing house that basically says "Did Jon have the money or not?" It completely shift the balance of power away from very centralized democracies, which is why it's really scary, and it can be used in a lot of different places. I think it's used in healthcare, it could be really interesting around records, so people personally hold the records, rather than it being held in a central point. It could be used for CV's, so I can imagine a version of LinkedIn which basically says, "I did go to Brescia University" and there's a trust statement around that. Basically it explodes this myth of "stuff has to be held in a central database." Actually it can be held by individuals.
Paul: Wonderful stuff, sounds like an episode in itself. Okay Jon, the last thing is this is a show about apps, so we couldn't let you go without getting you to grab your phone and tell us one or two apps that you could recommend to us; not the usual ones, but ones that you think we may not have crossed before.
Jon: Oh, I'm really boring. All the apps on my phone are really dull. The one I could not live without in my life is something called TripIt, I'm sure you're very familiar with. Are you?
Paul: I've heard of TripIt, but how are you actually using it?
Jon: TripIt is quite an old app, I actually discovered quite recently one of the early ambassadors, and I almost leaned across the table and kissed him, which is quite embarrassing. But essentially what it allows you to do is as you get travel itineraries, or invoices or things like hotels, airlines, you effectively can e-mail TripIt and it figures out who you are, and then effectively parses the e-mail and actually puts it into a format which is really valuable and useful. I traveled around the world 12 times over the last two years on air transportation - my 9 year-old son pointed out I'm about halfway to the moon. I spend my life traveling, so it's the most insanely sensational. If you do any level of traveling it's amazing. It's just a good way of aggregating information in a very usable way.
Paul: That is wonderful. Well of course that, and other things that you've mentioned will be on the show notes. This is episode 372, just go to theappguy.co, search for Jon Bradford and you'll see links to the articles that he's mentioned and the app. Jon, what a wonderful episode. I feel like it could've gone on for a long time, but we're going to have to end there. Thank you so much for coming on this show. How best can people connect or reach out to you?
Jon: Dead easy. My e-mail address is jd (at) jd.me and anybody who wants to, they can reach out directly to me there.
Paul: Great. Jon, thank you so much for coming on this show, all the best and we'd love to get you back on anytime, you're welcome to come on the show.
Jon: Thanks Paul.