Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Startup-People of Seattle: Bob Crimmins (Ecosystem builder)

The blog-series “Startup People of Seattle” introduces some of the key personas in the ecosystem to learn more about what they are doing, to share their thoughts and ideas, and to promote networking. 

In our seventh interview, meet Bob Crimmins:
“Startup Haven really is about supporting founders by building personal relationships.”
Bob Crimmins is an engineer and serial entrepreneur. He is active in the startup community as advisor, mentor and organizer. He founded Startup Haven in 2006 as a means of connecting venture-scale founders and investors.

Q: Could you please introduce yourself and talk some about your background in entrepreneurship?
A: I am currently the founder of Startup Haven, a 12 and half-year-old ago passion project that began in Seattle as a way to help founders and investors meet and build relationships. It has grown very organically now into a membership organization for venture-scale founders and investors with more than 2,300 members in six cities. 
I co-founded my first tech startup in 2000 and have founded or co-founded six startups over the past 20 years. But I have been in and around entrepreneurship since I was a young kid. My mom and dad co-founded a series of manufacturing and retail businesses and so I was effectively employee number one since I was 9. Each subsequent company was an extension or evolution of the previous company. Today we would call those pivots. I had a front-row seat for the entire show. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but those early experiences set my path in entrepreneurship. 
For the past decade or so, I have been advising and mentoring quite a bit around town. My operational roles in startups have ranged from CTO to CEO and so I find myself helping founders think through a pretty broad range of issues. My professional background is in software engineering and I learned to program in high school. Back then, programming still meant feeding a stack of punch cards into a bin. And it definitely wasn’t considered cool or lucrative back then to be a teenage programmer. But I loved it. 
I started out as a computer science major in college in California, but found that I’d already learned enough to test out of programming classes and get a job in tech. So I changed my major to my avocation, philosophy. Ironically, pursuing a masters degree in philosophy at the University of Washington is what brought me to Seattle in the first place. 
Q: Let’s talk some about Startup Haven. What kind of startups could I find at Startup Haven?
A: Our focus is entirely on venture-scale startups. In order to join Startup Haven, founders must be working on their startup full time and must have achieved at least some elements of traction. So, if you are still working at Google or Amazon or Microsoft and you’re working on your startup part time, then you’re not quite ready. 
Q: Is the reason for the full-time requirement that you believe part-time founders typically are not as successful?
A: It’s not about the founder, per se. It’s about what it means to build a venture-scale company. You can build a successful lifestyle business or a small business part-time, but building a venture-scale company is different. You can only get so far working part-time on a venture-scale opportunity and much of the help you’ll need just won’t be available to you if you’re not full time. 
Of course, lots and lots of venture-scale startups get started part time and as side hustles. But so very many of those part-time startups never get out of the chute and it’s just impossible to tell which ones will and which ones won’t. So, we set a bar requiring that founders be working full time on their startups. This is especially important for us, since the essence of Startup Haven is to help founders help other founders. But if you’re not working full time on your startup then you won’t even be able to act on much of the help and advice you’d receive. 
I want to emphasize though that folks should not quit their jobs too soon to pursue a startup full time. 95% of startups fail and jumping off the cliff too soon is a leading indicator that you’re headed for a crash landing at the bottom. You should be very thoughtful about the decision to jump and have some sort of cogent story about how you might possibly be in the 5% that make it.
Q: What are the investors looking for at Startup Haven?
A: Let me approach this question from a somewhat different angle, i.e., what is Startup Haven looking for from investors. We are not a social club. We want investors who are serious about looking for their next deal. We want them to come to Startup Haven to build relationships with founders and to look for ways to be helpful to founders. It is a cold, hard fact that no one can predict which startups or which founders are going to be successful. Investors are not necessarily expected to make investments, but all Startup Haven members (including investors) are expected to be respectful and helpful to every founder. 
One of the reasons I think investors appreciate Startup Haven events is our code of conduct that prohibits aggressively pitching investors, showing demos, or begging for coffee meetings. Everyone comes to Startup Haven events to meet and get to know each other. If an investor sees a company or meets a founder they like, then the relationship will develop naturally, and a coffee meeting may result.
Q: What does a typical conversation look like at Startup Haven if founders aren’t allowed to pitch their ideas?
A: We structure our events so that everybody in the room gets the chance to introduce themselves and to make an ask and make an offer. This sets the stage for them to know what founders and companies are in the room. If investors are interested in a company or founder, they will likely initiate a conversation. 
Most investors also take the opportunity to introduce themselves as investors and say a few words about the kinds of companies they invest in. This usually also includes an invitation to founders to approach them at the event if they think the investor might be a fit for them. 
Other than that, most of the conversations tend to be a mix of personal subjects and shop talk about startups generally and sometimes specific operational challenges they’re having. This is where relationships get built. It’s a powerful thing.
Q: From your experience with Startup Haven, what are the most difficult problems founders typically face?
A: I think that lots of founders believe that raising capital is the hardest thing. And it is hard. But once the capital is raised, I think they often discover that building and scaling a great team is much harder. But underlying all of that is the herculean task of getting traction and proving that you have found a problem and a solution that people care about. 
I do think that many founders get too focused on their vision of a solution when they haven’t yet shown that enough customers care enough about the problem and whether there is a cogent story to be told about how a founder can build a venture-scale business around solving that problem. Telling cogent stories is undervalued by founders, for sure.
Q: What are your thoughts on the startup ecosystem in Seattle?
A: I am very bullish about Seattle’s startup ecosystem. I’ve been in it and around it for 20 years. My observation is that it has been up and to the right for pretty much that entire span of time. Our tech talent has been our strongest suit and the ever-increasing number of satellite engineering offices opened by virtually every major tech company you can name is evidence of that. 
But I don’t think we are very good at telling our story, both inside and outside of Seattle. I travel to other startup cities from time to time and it’s remarkable to me how little folks know about what’s going on up here in this dark, wet, cold corner of the Northwest. Despite usually landing in the top three to five on most lists that measure startup metrics, Seattle is very often left entirely out of conversations I hear about startup ecosystems. I’m not sure how to fix that, but I do hope that, as Startup Haven scales into more and more cities, we will draw some attention to our humble corner of the country. 
In terms of challenges, I do think that Seattle is underfunded. You can pretty much count the number of active, large-scale institutional venture firms on about 7 fingers. Compare that with every other startup ecosystem of our girth. The bright side is the development of a deeper pool of mid-tier venture options and a dramatic expansion of angel investment. Pioneer Square Labs, Founders Co-Op, Unlock, Flying Fish, Curious Capital, SeaChange and Grubstakes are all examples of the growth of funding in Seattle over the past few years. And there are more. 
A big shout out to John Sechrest and the Seattle Angel Conference. No other single person or organization has had a greater impact on the Seattle investment ecosystem. In a few short years, Seattle Angel Conference has led to hundreds of new angel investors, more than $3M in seed investments in more than two dozen startups and was the launch point for Flying Fish, SeaChange and Grubstakes. Thanks, John.

Here are some things I learned from this interview:
  • Building a venture scale business, while not working on it full-time, is almost impossible. However, as many startups fail, one should think very carefully before quitting a job. This step should not be taken too early when there is still no proof that an idea is also a business.
  • Many founders don’t seem familiar with the concepts of “Lean Startup,” meaning that customer development proceeds product development.
  • Seattle’s startup ecosystem could improve in funding startups.

In the interview Bob mentioned some resources and organizations, find out more about them here:

About Seattle Angel:
A strong ecosystem creates an environment that allows startups to thrive. Seattle Angel’s goal is to strengthen Seattle’s startup ecosystem by increasing the access to funding for entrepreneurs to push their ideas further.

About the author: Sven Goepfrich


Sven Goepfrich is currently finishing his MBA in Syracuse. His studies focus on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. At his school, he is working for the department of finance. Sven was actively interning with the Seattle Angel Conference in summer 2019. He is currently looking for full-time career opportunities in this field.

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