Creating Awesome: Three Startups Tell How it’s Done

It was a stage packed with million-dollar ideas – and a man who helped bring them to life. And the topic was awesome.

The founders of three of the tech world’s hottest startups joined Marc Andreessen, inventor-turned-investor, to discuss what it takes to create “awesome” in a rapidly evolving world. Their wide-ranging discussion was part of Intuit’s annual Create the Offering Forum, the company’s annual event dedicated to inspiring product developers, managers and designers to create awesome products.

The panelists included:

  • Andreessen – Moderator and cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Helped create the breakthrough Mosaic browser, which became popularly known as the Netscape Navigator. Company invested in more than 150 startups, including three that shared the stage with him.
  • Chris Wanstrath – Cofounder of San Francisco-based GitHub. Company is a repository for developers of open source software, or as Andreessen said, “the place where code lives.” Named by Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies of 2013.
  • Justin Rosenstein – CEO and cofounder of Asana. Created a task-management tool designed to simplify workflows with a goal toward eliminating email. Cofounder is Dustin Moskovitz, who also was a cofounder of Facebook.
  • Alfred Chuang – CEO and founder of Magnet Systems. Created a system to help enterprise IT departments develop business apps for mobile devices. Former chairman, president, CEO and the “A” in BEA Systems.

Creating Awesome: Three Startups Tell How it’s Done image StartupsCTOF20131 300x168Creating Awesome: Three Startups Tell How it’s DoneAndreessen’s firm has invested millions of dollars in these startups, and he called them the best of a new generation of companies. “One of the great things about being a venture capitalist is going out and finding the guys who kicked our ass,” he said. Here’s a summary of their discussion.

On what they do:

Chuang was “laughed out of the room” several years ago when he predicted apps would one day run on the Web. “Now when I say 100 percent of your apps will run on mobile and in the cloud, they say ‘You’re right.’

“I happen to do stuff that nobody else likes to do. I’m in a strange business. I don’t get feedback or requirements from end users. I have to invent it. You have to invent on behalf of users. This is fun.”

Rosenstein: “Think about how much time you spend doing work, rather than work about work…What would it look like if you could understand what was going on and understand what was going on all the time.

“In the old days it was about building something that people tolerated and met the CIO’s checklist, rather than building something that users love.” The challenge, he said is straightforward: “How do we build software that people don’t just tolerate? How do we build software that they love?”

Wanstrath: GitHub began as an informal effort to collaborate on open source software. “All we wanted to do was work on open source software together. We were doing a lot of work about work,” he said.

The company grew from 1 million users in 2011 to more than 3 million users today, with more than 5 million software repositories for projects large and small. The key, he said, is communicating with customers.

“We hang out with them a lot. We do these things called drinkups all over the world. It sounds like a fun excuse to drink a lot of beer and it usually is. But you get the most important product feedback from someone who only has a few seconds to tell you what they think.”

On whether to ask customers what they want, or create it and let them decide:

Chuang: If you want to make a fundamental platform shift, to go from a dumbphone to a smartphone, you can’t ask the user for feedback, because they don’t know the shift. For me to ask users, they’re going to look at me with a blank stare. User testing doesn’t play a role until later. They’re blindfolded until it comes out.”

Rosenstein: “You have to understand what users want. They will phrase it in terms of a feature. Your job as a product designer is to look through that. What’s the deeper want? We don’t do what they ask for, we do what we think they want. Balance is one of the core values of Asana. Either extreme will lead you to a bad place.”

Wanstrath: “We like to start with something our people came up with and iterate until we come up with something people really like. We’ll test it with designers and employees. We try to iterate and get it out there and see what people think about it.

On the most impressive company in terms of product design, with the exception of Apple:

Wanstrath: “Amazon, because they keep going into new businesses and getting new customers — things that are completely different from their core. They started selling books online and they basically brought the cloud to the mainstream. That’s super impressive and a lot harder to do than it looks.”

Rosenstein: “Facebook. They amassed a great team, and they keep launching more and more functionality that does more and more over time. It has a huge wellspring of functionality.”

Chuang: “Tesla. The internal combustion engine is ending. Every aspect is so out there, yet they were able to get the traction they need. They’re innovating, inventing and grinding to be successful.”

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