Let me begin by thanking Bo Yaghmaie and Sean Black for taking the time to host us at the Cooley offices and for sharing their years of experience with us. We’re all more enlightened as a result of it.
Babak ‘Bo’ Yaghmaie is a partner in the Cooley Business department and a member of the Emerging Companies and Venture Capital practice groups. He regularly represents a brad range of start-ups, venture-backed companies and venture capital funds. He has led well over 250 venture financings and has been involved with some of the most notable corporate and financing transactions in the New York area including the representation of Union Square Ventures in the formation and capitalization of Twitter. He also serves as a TechStars mentor and an ER Accelerator mentor. He has been recognized by Chambers USA as one of ‘America’s Leading Lawyers’ and by AlwaysOn as a ‘New York City Power Player’.
Sean Black is Founder & CEO at Crunched, an online meeting and presentation platform. Prior to Crunched, he was a founding executive team member at Trulia from 2005 – 2010 where he was in charge of everything revenue-related and was instrumental in growing the company from a five person team to over 500 employees. Trulia today is a category-leading real estate search platform that raised money from marquee VC partners such as Accel Partners and Sequoia Capital along the way.
9 AM: I’m making my way to 1114 Avenue of the Americas. I couldn’t help but ponder what the breakfast would be like. It was my first professional InSITE event and I didn’t quite know what to expect. Both Bo and Sean are seasoned and respected members of the startup world and I was blown away that they’d even agreed to meet with us. I had so many questions I wanted to ask and assumed that I’d have to pick one, raise my hand, hope I get asked and make my peace thereafter. My stream of thoughts is rudely interrupted as the 1 train jerks to a halt at Times Square station. Google-Mapping my way over to Bryant Park, I’m suddenly hit by the sight of one of the most beautiful buildings in Manhattan. Grace. I had to take a moment to look up at the swooping arc that forms the façade of the building. Things were looking up already. The InSITE crew congregates in the lobby and we head up together. If I thought the outside of the building was stunning, the Cooley offices, perched high up in the tower, were even better.
As we’re ushered into one of the boardrooms in the sprawling office, we’re greeted by an extremely well-built, well-dressed, blonde man who approaches and greets each of us with a smile:
‘Hi, I’m Sean’.
My first thought is that we can learn as much about fitness as we can about entrepreneurship from this guy. A few minutes of pleasantries follow and Bo walks in – trousers, a shirt and a sweater. He can’t help but look at ease with a cool stubble and long hair that’s been slicked-back. In fact, he looks more like a retired rockstar than an accomplished lawyer. His energy and easy manner put everyone at ease as he introduces himself and get’s us started.
What follows is a free-flowing conversation between Bo and Sean. Beginning with both their backgrounds, we traverse a range of topics: Sean’s journey as a serial entrepreneur, the various ups and downs he’s had, what he’s learned, how he built his companies, how he financed them, how he hired people, and the passion you need to overcome all the hurdles along the way.
Bo weighs in with his unique perspective that combines the roles of attorney, angel investor and CEO-confidant. He talks about finding the right kinds of investors and what he considers to be the important thing all good CEOs are able to do.
The conversation meanders over to the evolution of the start-up community in New York, how different things were even as recently as 2004, why things are so much better today and why they both feel so much more optimistic about entrepreneurship in the city today. The discussion is peppered with repeated interjections from both of them to the effect of ‘guys, let us know if this is relevant and feel free to stop us and ask anything that’s on your mind’.
It’s just a handful of graduate school students asking questions after that point. I’m struck by how humble, honest and accessible both of them are. Before we knew it, time was up and the entire group came away feeling wiser and better informed about the start-up world and its many nuances.
Some of the key takeaways from my perspective:
- YOU CAN A BUILD A TECH PRODUCT WITHOUT BEING AN ENGINEER. It’s tough, it’s risky, you have to find the right team and manage them well but it is possible.
- THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PEOPLE WHO ARE ENTREPRENEURS AND THOSE WHO LIKE THE IDEA OF BEING ENTREPRENEURS. While there’s no objective measure, it’s something that comes across to people who’ve been in the early-stage investing arena for a long time. Being self-aware about whether or not you’re ready to take on the risks and vagaries of entrepreneurship saves everyone involved a lot of pain, time and money.
- THE ROLE OF A CEO IS MAINLY THREE THINGS: PICKING THE RIGHT DIRECTION, HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE, MANAGING THE RIGHT INVESTORS. While product and industry knowledge are important assets to have, these are the skills that CEOs really need to excel.
- GREAT CEOs AVOID PARALYSIS BY ANALYSIS. They know how to solicit advice on specific issues. They know how to filter the information they get and use it to make their own decisions. Most importantly, they do it with conviction.
- ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS ABOUT THE SATISFACTION OF BUILDING SOMETHING WHERE NOTHING EXISTED BEFORE. Money is secondary. As long as you build something that your customers value, the money will take care of itself.
In sum, we’re in the right place at the right time.