Welcome to Mentor Monday, a series that lets us inside the minds of some of the people giving their time and know-how to help the companies here at Highway1.
Today’s mentor is Renee DiResta, co-author of The Hardware Startup.
Who are you? What’s your origin story?
My name is Renee DiResta. I was born in New York, went to school for computer science, and wound up working on Wall Street for about seven years before leaving for San Francisco to become a VC, where I got really involved in the hardware ecosystem.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I run business development at a company called Haven, which is a marketplace for buying and selling freight capacity (ocean and air).
In your capacity as a mentor, what do you find people tend to ask you about the most?
Most of the time we talk about fundraising. That’s always a really big piece of the equation for these companies, because without funding they can’t take the product to market.
So we talk a lot about how to tell a story to investors that hits the near-term milestones you’re going to use the money to reach, as well as longer-term milestones that convey the vision you have for the company as a whole.
Is there something you wish they’d ask you about that they don’t?
I think a lot of what I like to talk about is actual consistency across the story; making sure that:
- The pricing ties in with the distribution model
- Your price point is at the right level for your target demographic
- You’re making sure you’re selling your product into the right channels to reach your chosen demographic
- That your branding and marketing is telling a story in the language that reaches that demographic
I really like getting a sense of the cohesiveness of the entire vision for the business, and that comes up much less; I think people tend to think of things in very piecemeal ways — “Oh, I know Facebook marketing works, so I’m gonna go with Facebook marketing,” even if the majority of their audience isn’t using Facebook to make purchasing decisions.
What’s your favorite thing about being a mentor?
I like the opportunity to give back. I was fortunate when I was changing careers to have people really go above and beyond to help me.
One way that I’ve really found tech to be differentiated from finance is that in finance, you’d never ask someone at another firm for advice about something — you could ask maybe within your firm, but you’d never express reservations about a decision you may have made to someone else.
Whereas in tech, I feel like there's a really great, frank conversation, and I welcome the opportunity to be a part of that.
Given the other things you could be doing, why be a mentor at all?
I meet a lot of people and I love to see ideas in their early stages; I’m personally very curious. I like seeing what’s coming through the pipeline both as someone who helps fund companies and as someone who helps them set up their supply chains, looking at all these interesting ways people are tackling supply chain problems as small businesses.
What do you think makes a good mentor?
In my experience it’s been someone who’s been very willing to take a Socratic method to helping me solve problems in my own businesses — people who’ll share their own experience and say “This is what I did, this is what worked for me; let’s talk about how that relates to what you’re doing,” and so I have the benefit of learning from their experience, but then we work together to tailor their advice to the more specific problem I’m facing. I enjoy someone who’s supportive but also challenges me.
Have you had mentors? What were they like?
On Wall Street, I had people who were teachers more so than mentors, meaning you learn very specific skills from the people who are sitting right next to you; it’s their job to train you.
I didn't really feel like I had mentors until I moved to Silicon Valley and found that people took a much greater interest in your career arc as a whole.
I was fortunate enough to work with people like Bryce Roberts and Tim O’Reilly, where I was able to learn the ropes of venture capital from them, but also could discuss broader career questions: “I’m thinking about starting a company, should I do x, y, or z?” I felt it was a much more holistic approach to the teaching process.
Is there someone in the industry you think would be a good mentor who isn’t doing it right now?
I’m really impressed by how even the upper echelons of Silicon Valley leadership and talent do what I would call mentoring at scale, where they write blog posts that convey their learnings.
While it’s not a personal 1:1 relationship, there’s a constant stream of content that they’re putting out with the goal of helping the ecosystem to grow as a whole; they’re scaling their ability to reach individual entrepreneurs by putting it out more as a roadmap or a guide.
That’s one of the things Brady and Ryan and I had in mind for the book, which was “These are questions we hear a lot; maybe we can take this advice and put it out there in a single serving all in one place.”
What’s one tip you’d give to hardware startups right now?
I think it would be to do a lot of really careful market research up front. A lot of the products out there, particularly in the wearables category, are kind of incremental improvements on the same thing, so you really need to get at what you’re making and why you’re making it.
A lot of hardware itself is commodity, so what you want to see is: do they have an idea and a differentiated enough audience where they can build a brand around a product and really make something big?
What’s one thing you think they have to look out for in the future?
There’s so many different pitfalls. With my VC hat on, I’d say not properly budgeting for the amount of money you’re going to need. We see a lot of companies who have to do a series A’ or a seed+ round or whatever, because they haven’t properly calculated their cost of bringing the product to market.
With my logistics hat on, I can’t tell you how often I see people who get their product made, hit some delay, and have no idea how they’re going to get the product here.
They didn’t look into ocean freight, they didn’t pay attention to their supply chain, and all of a sudden they’re paying 5x the cost to rush the product over on air freight, which really significantly eats into their own margins. So it depends on what angle I’m looking at it from. If I were more technical on the hardware side, I’m sure I’d have an answer having to do with prototyping.
What do you think of the hardware renaissance?
I love the way that Maker Faire has inspired people. It’s given them a series of things to look at where they say “Hey, regular people made that in their garage, this isn’t something that came out of the R&D lab of a giant corporation; this is something that this person was inspired to make and went out and made.”
So when I look at the hardware renaissance, I see the outgrowth of that movement, and what I’m excited by is the progression of these companies that are trying to be businesses rather than simply products.