“Build Awesome Teams” Rob Solomon Ex President/COO Groupon

February 23, 2013

This is an excerpt from Rob Solomon’s (Ex-President and COO Groupon) chat with a group of entrepreneurs at Telluride Venture Accelerator.  Errors and omissions are mine, credit for all the insightful stuff goes to Rob.


About: Rob Solomon has served as President and COO at Groupon during its mega hyper growth phase. He joined Groupon at headcount just crossing 100 and in around 20 months the company grew upto 8000 employees in 45 countries with growth rate of 2500% and IPO valuation of $25 billion. Quite a stint. Prior to Groupon he served as Venture Partner at Technology Crossover Ventures, President and CEO of Side Step that was acquired by Kayak that later got acquired by Priceline at $1.6 billion. He also served as SVP at Yahoo and is at the board of several companies but he describes his best job ever as his first job doing game testing at Electronic Arts.

Rob # Customer acquisition is the most imp thing to focus on after building a great product. If you don’t have a great product you have lost before it started; if you don’t believe in that products greatness that’s even worse.  With a great product and a belief in it, customer acquisition is the single key imp thing that you should work on. You need to acquire them and then you need to constantly engage them. Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing are turning out to be old techniques, perhaps 5 years old. Social Web is the new game; how you leverage different mediums to converge your traffic to build your customer base is the name of the game. As Andrew Chen says, “Software will eat the world”, face book and twitter remains top two mediums for Customer Acquisition and Customer Engagement. Based on who you target, Linkedin comes next for more formal engagements.

Rob # While establishing your venture / startups, you need to build a brand and create the followers.  Single most important factor is the unique original content that you produce. Content remains the king. You need to become a thought leader in your area of expertise. If you are super relevant in your respective space, people would listen. Relevance is easy to get, hard to pursue and harder to maintain. But it’s the most critical thing.

Rob # In order to achieve relevance, entrepreneurs and businesses need to get their focus.  Maintaining your focus is the key. The reality is that you can do one thing really well, may be 2 if you are great. But beyond that, it’s a trap.  Saying NO is the hardest part for entrepreneurs, especially young ones. Startups and early stage companies start accepting too many things that they lose focus. There is a common saying in Silicon Valley, “More companies die out of indigestion rather than starvation”.  You are excited by so many different opportunities coming your way that you lose track of your priorities.

Rob # Build awesome teams. While you are building up the teams, people remain the most important part of your equation. Surround yourself with truly awesome people. This would be the the single most important favor you can give to your self and your organization. Shoot for the best and the brightest; your philosophy should be very crystal about your potential employees.

There are many times you make wrong choices; organizational needs, priorities and playground changes dynamically. You might have hired somebody not anticipating the shift in your organizational strategy and future needs; they may be good at that stage but cannot deliver in changing times as it may be beyond their capacity.  DON’T WAIT to make decisions on moving on with people. Nothing hurts that more than anything else. Try if you can transfer roles, if possible, as far as you are able to control ego’s but move timely.

When you are in hyper growth phase, spend 25-50% of your time in recruiting. Mostly founders spare 5-10% of their time in recruitment, but you need to choose right people. As they say, if you set up the right people, expectations and processes, outcomes will take care of themselves.

Rob # Another key important factor is to have enough CASH. Raise enough but DON’T raise too much. That hurts. Always try to raise money from more than one investor simultaneously. Use the competition in your negotiations with investors. But NEVER LIE to your investors. That comes back too often to hurt badly.

For early stage startups, cash is like oxygen as the people are the real expense. Try to have less number of people but have the BEST. Have the key roles filled, but contract out the partial things. Conserve cash as much as possible. For early stage companies, raise as much as you can. And don’t take anybody’s money. Look for smart money i.e. someone who can add value other than the cash. Bring them as advisors or your brand ambassadors. Make them fall in love with your company or product. But watch out for overly involved money i.e. don’t let the investors start dictating you on routine operations and decisions. Then your thought process stops there.

Angel investment is good, though I always wonder how angels make money. But the ecosystem is established that way. However, there is another concept of Super Angels emerging, which are not exactly angels but VC’s. However, they have covered that up to get more investments done in the seed rounds and early stage companies. As a matter of fact, try to get institutional funding in your seed round. It’s your best bet to lead quickly and smoothly into the second round.

Rob # And lastly, make yourself product centric and user centric. We have a great example of Jeff Bezos; Amazon strives for the Best experience. They give great service to their customers. You have to be most product centric and user centric. If you don’t have the best product, there is no way you can get the buy in of your customers. Strive to create the best experience for your user.


Food Diaper or A Fresh Paper

November 13, 2012

Food diaper sounds weird, isn’t it? I am sure in your lifetime you must have had a diaper experience, at least with your children if not with yourself. It definitely changed the world of kids and moms, ease for the moms and comfort for the kids, a definite win-win.

But nobody thought of a FOOD DIAPER, until Kavita Shukla went to purchase strawberries and ended up struggling to find fresh berries. Sharing her story at Babson Entrepreneurship Forum 2012, she shared that all the packs she experienced had stale and spoiled strawberries with the juice spoiling the other strawberries.  She connected the issue with a solution she experienced with her grandma’s olden days spices in India as how they cured bacteria in the kitchen.

With the problem stuck in her mind and idea for the solution, her sense of experimentation helped her try out the spices to maintain freshness of vegetables and fruits. As she progressed, she developed a paper with the combination of spices embedded and proved that the life of food items can be enhanced by double of triple.  She named it a FRESH PAPER. Paper absorbs the decayed juices from the food and the spices keep the food fresh by reducing the growth of bacteria.


With the solution at hand, Kavita took the challenge of addressing a bigger global problem of reducing the spoilage of food supply that is currently 25%. She started sending the paper to local farmers and gradually to global food banks. Entrepreneurial in spirit, she eventually ended up getting one of the largest food chains in USA, Whole Foods to use the paper throughout their supply chain. After Whole Foods, she never looked back and is busy meeting the massive demand and addressing the challenge of operational and production scalability. Her innovation brought her three patents and furthers three under consideration.

FreshPaper™by Fenugreen is a simple piece of paper that keeps fruits & veggies fresh for 2-4 times longer, organically. Often described as a “dryer sheet for produce,” one small (5″ x 5″) FreshPaper sheet can simply be dropped into a fridge drawer, carton, bag, or container filled with produce. FreshPaper is infused with organic spices and has a distinctive maple-like scent that signals that the paper is active.​​​ Biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable, this award-winning innovation has received international recognition for its potential to change how the world keeps its food fresh.​​

Imagine – A simple solution, to an ignored problem by a teenager taking on a global challenge with a mission for creating high impact. The world definitely needs more innovators like Kavita.

The BIG Belly – Eliminating the Waste in Waste Collection

May 29, 2012

Ever thought of first level waste treatment? Yes, we have intelligent dustbins out there, which not only gives you the waste trends but also extra capacity within the same size structure as their dumb counterpart – dustbins.  Reducing waste collection cost, enabling environment friendly waste disposal and controlling emissions and providing first level waste treatment is what BigBelly Solar is all about.

Intelligent concept, an innovation blending technology + social problem + entrepreneurship. The intelligent dustbins provide efficiencies by attacking unnecessary and wasted effort in the collection process. On-demand information powered by solar energy allows for better planning, route optimization and asset management in waste and recycling operations. In high-demand areas, on-site compaction of trash and/or recycling dramatically reduces required pickups. The result is a process optimized to deliver comparable service levels at dramatically lower process cost.  This is why BigBelly Solar’s slogan is: “Eliminating the Waste in Waste Collection.”

BigBelly Solar was founded in 2003 with a mission to reduce fossil fuel consumption through innovative new approaches to old problems. Founder Jim while walking down a Boston street one day and observing a trash vehicle in action – idling at a pick up point, blocking traffic, with smoke pouring out of its exhaust, while litter was still prevalent on the street – Poss was struck by the thought (the necessity, really) that there had to be a better way. Currently, the concept is scaled to all US states and 30 other companies.

But then there is another question: can such innovations be applied in the developing world? Where the cost of human labor is much lower than the solar empowered bin manufacturing. Also, the scale of garbage generation without waste categorization remains an issue. The challenge is, how can we further innovate and produce such technology, which can cover the scale of problem, say in Pakistan.

In Search Of A Great IDEA ?

March 25, 2012


Ideas are dozen a dime. If you don’t give them wings, they are useless. In order to make them useful, you need to play with them. While playing, there are chances, you don’t like the game. Fair enough; change the game. Start again with a fresh idea. Spin it, dissect it, reach to the core – question it. If you don’t have answers to the questions, you can’t explain it. If you can’t explain it, it’s not clear in your head. If it’s not clear, there is no way you can test it well.  Try again. Think more. Challenge the unknown. Branch out all your questions, and dig out the answers. Assume less and find out the ground reality. Facts are healthy for ideas, assumptions are not. Connect the dots. See if your idea is capable to take off. Don’t forget to determine its capacity; how high it can fly. Still not there; start again. That’s the only way to get to a good idea. Once there, the journey to the great idea starts. All it needs is your blood, sweat and tears spent in the effort of experimentation with your good idea.

And most important of all, you need to start and persist!

Solar Water Filter – Innovation In Evolution

October 31, 2011

As they say, without possibilities, there is no creativity. So one thing is for sure, there are endless possibilities but only if we can dig them out. Reducing complexity is simplicity, and simplicity is creativity. Creativity has no boundaries and relies mostly on common sense which is rarely common. But those who are blessed use it to the best. Here is an example of a designer making a Solar Water Filter.

Solar Water Filter

Gabriele Diamanti has worked on a prototype for a solar powered water filter that comes under appropriate technologies category. The invention is called Eliodomestico which intends to bring safe drinking model to the families in the developing countries at no operating cost. The concept filter is made from cheap and widely available material with simple technological innovation. It’s made from terracotta, recycled plastic and anodized zinc and can deliver 5 liters of fresh drinking water every day and is expected to be an open project, thanks to the concept of open source.

solar water filter

The distiller is easy to use: in the morning fill the water tank with water from a local source and in the evening collect clean, evaporated and re-condensed water in a portable basin placed underneath the tank. The project is still a prototype with aims for being replicated widely globally through its open adaptation policy.

Read more about the product Eliodomestico.

Legal Restructuring To Support Social Enterprises

September 2, 2011

B Corporation

If you talk about public interest, you need to make yourself transparent and accountable first. As social entrepreneurship picks up, legal structures are being introduced to support and flourish social enterprises. Moving on from 501 c status registration of non profits, now social enterprises can register as “B Corporations”, an abbreviation for Benefit Corporations. B Corporations are structured in a way where they are not just focused on shareholder benefits but also societal benefit. B Corporation movement in US is both focused on embracing profits and impact and has already been implemented in 5 states and California is next. The biggest benefit for the B Corporations will be to go public and raise capital and create cash incentive for entrepreneurs while meeting all the requirements of a public limited company.

“Benefit Corporation Movement requires privately held B corporations to amend their articles to reflect a commitment to those standards, protecting officers and directors from legal repercussions for their decisions and giving shareholders the power to hold them accountable, by lawsuits if necessary, for protecting the public interest. It also protects customers from deceptive marketing, by forcing corporations to submit public reports that conform to independent benchmarks.” Read More.

“The change we seek is going from ‘me’ to ‘we’“. – Check out how B Corporation matters and how such laws can trigger impactful business possibilities.

Where Sports Drive Social Entrepreneurship

August 22, 2011

Pakistan is nowhere in the picture, that’s sad. We are trailing, yet again. The world moves on so fast, and yet we try our best not to pick up and give a deaf ear. To put it more appropriately, we simply ignore when it’s the right time and then feel pride in riding the bandwagon of activities and actions world did 10 years ago. Industries, technology, internet, NGO’s, entrepreneurship pick any and you will find the pattern. Social entrepreneurship is next in line; let’s see if we ignore the call to ride this bandwagon as well.

Being a soccer fan I felt it, though I know we are not a soccer nation. But I also know we are a nation full of homeless and shelter less. And compared to those 70, we are definitely in the top 10 yet the green flag is out of picture. Enough of crying, but I was disappointed.

There are 1 billion homeless people in the world today. The Homeless World Cup has a vision for a healthy, abundant, confident world where everyone has a home, a basic need. Homeless World Cup started as an initiative to invent a language to enable homeless people to communicate with each other globally and realized it already exists in form of Football. “The Homeless World Cup, founded by Mel Young – Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum, is a unique, pioneering social enterprise that uses sport as a means to promote social inclusion of homeless and marginalized people.” The Homeless World Cup Foundation drives international social development through its network of 70+ national grassroots partners with the support of its “Global Change Makers”. It aims to promote its unique “homeless-to-work” model to policy makers, key influencers, the media and the public, with the vision to shift attitude and policies towards the homeless. Started in 2003 with 18 nations participating, 2011 world cup in Paris features 64 nations through 70 national partners.

Checkout Homeless World Cup site (http://www.homelessworldcup.org) to know more about this interesting initiative.

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