Using Big Data to Make Better Seed Investments… Would YOU Have Invested in Instagram?

This topic has been been brought up a lot lately and Danielle Morrill’s awesome post with a couple graphs on the number of Twitter mentions Instagram had from launch until acquisition is great but it only covers part of the story, in my opinion.

I’m sure that if you subscribe to Mattermark you get the in-depth analysis for Instagram (among a bunch of other really useful and insightful data) but because I did a bit of research on this very subject, I thought it would be useful to include my 2 cents as well.

Six months ago I was doing a little investigatory work with one of my favorite early stage VC’s and the project was all about using “big data” to increase the quality of leads for early stage investors.

During this time, a good friend of mine posed a question to me… He said, “That’s cool and all but could you have actually chosen Instagram?” I couldn’t let the question go. I had to find out the answer…

So I used a couple programs to look at historical Twitter data (one of the biggest real-time signalers in our algorithm for measuring a start-up’s traction), and I found virtually the same graphs that Danielle put in her blog post (see below).

The big difference is that I came to a different conclusion… At the time that I did this admittedly surface level look at Instagram’s Twitter mentions from launch, I was also looking at thousands of current startup’s Twitter mentions among other metrics. While alone the Instagram data may not be actionable, when compared to other startup’s at a similar stage, the data may indeed be actionable.

Below is a graph of the cumulative Twitter mentions for Instagram’s first 2 months after launch as well as Ovuline’s. Ovuline is a very compelling TechStars company that uses data to help couples get pregnant more efficiently. Even more relevant to my analysis, is the fact that they announced a meaningful series “A” just 4 months after seeing their first Twitter mentions (IE this is a great company with great traction).

See bellow for a graph that illustrates my point:

By no means am I saying I did a deep dive on Instagram and I know before an early stage investor at that time would have written a check, they’d have had to do more diligence. I am saying however, that the data is none-the-less interesting and may indeed be actionable.

Take Yourself Out of the Equation

I had a discussion with a good friend of mine this weekend where I explained a theory of mine concerning one of the main differences between ‘successful people’ and ‘non-successful people.’ The discussion made such an impact on her that I thought I should share it here.

The concept is pretty simple…

When someone wants to accomplish a goal, they start at point ‘a’ and they want to reach point ‘b.’ Most of the time reaching point ‘b’ is very difficult and that person claims that they will do ‘anything’ to reach point ‘b.’

However, ‘anything’ usually involves a lot of personal ‘mental obstacles.’ This can be virtually anything. Said another way, “I am willing to do anything to reach point b, as long as I can remain within my comfort zone.”

This is usually whom I would classify as the ‘non-successful person.’ A ‘successful person’ is willing to change everything necessary to reach point ‘b.’

Learning and Student Engagement

I recently took a trip down to Boulder, Co to visit with Dr. Mike Klymkosky and his students to see first hand how Highlighter was working for them.

The trip was great and it was fantastic to get to meet Dr. Mike in person and speak with his students about Highlighter.

One of the main reasons why I went down there was to shoot a video featuring Dr. Mike for our new feature that will be launched this week called ‘Groups.’

After we launched Highlighter, we saw a number of requests from educators, universities and professors who wanted to use it but needed to be able to divide their classes into groups and then sub-groups.

This is the foundation and the main reason for our groups feature.

It allows professors and educators to add Highlighter to their online course material and invite their students to sub-groups so they can make comments in-line that only members of their sub groups can see.

The professor can easily see all the students who have accepted the invites, made comments, and even see what content is the most engaging or what raises the most questions with students.

As Dr. Klymkosky says in the interview, he now knows which students are coming to class having read the material and which students haven’t.

This is EXTREMELY profound! This allows professors that ability to actually teach the material in class and answer questions rather than just reading the material to students. A monumental shift toward bettering eduaction.

Highlighter and our Groups feature is still completely free and works on ANY website, content management system, and any online course material.

Check out the final video as produced by non other than Mike Folden:

Highlighter Groups from Highlighter on Vimeo.

For the past six months, Matt, Nate and I have been working on a new startup;

Highlighter is a WordPress plugin that allows authors to actively engage their audience. They can direct readers attention to any part of the post by ‘highlighting’ any word, sentence or image.

Although we are starting with a WordPress plugin, Highlighter will eventually unify what you highlight, comment, and share across all content, platforms and devices, to create a dynamic relationship between publishers and readers.

That means whether you are reading a blog post from your computer or an eBook/PDF on your iPad, the interaction with content will remain the same.

Highlighter will keep those highlights, comments and notes in a centralized location that you can share with others and/or review at a later time.

Readers can now highlight, comment and share any word, sentence, paragraph or image on a blog post as well, giving the audience unprecedented ability to interact with content.

This means that conversations are no longer limited to the just “comments” of the page – now visitor interaction can take place anywhere within the content. Visitors can also share any sentence or piece of text just by highlighting and clicking!

Sound confusing? It’s not. Check this video out to see how it works.
Collect more emails

The rules of “Internet Marketing 101″ say that an email list is the foundation of all internet marketing efforts. Highlighter has built-in email collection tools that will allow you to integrate with Aweber, Mailchimp or GetResponse. This means that you can capture commentor’s email addresses that before would have been lost.

Anyone who knows anything about online marketing knows that emails convert better than Twitter and Facebook combined.
Increased traffic

Highlighter makes sharing remarkably easy. All a reader has to do is highlight any word, sentence, or image and with one click, readers can share via twitter, facebook, or email. This means that instead of just sharing article titles, your audience will now be able to share the specific elements that they find interesting.

The easier it is to share, the more your visitors will do it.

Commenters will also be notified when someone else responds to the conversation, which also increases pageviews.

How does it work?

If you want to comment on something, just highlight it and click the comment button. Highlighter allows the publisher to moderate inline comments just like regular comments. Therefore unless the author has changed the default setting, comments will need to be moderated before they appear.

Once you have made your comment, a little bubble will show up letting all other readers know that someone has made a comment.

You will find that on any previously commented line of text, the text has a slightly grey dashed underline followed by a little comment bubble. Upon hovering over this text, you will see the comment bubble enlarges with a number in it. This is the number of times this text has been commented upon.

What about blogs with mountains of comments?

The guys at Highlighter were aware that with any significant amount of conversation around a topic, it would be less convenient to read via the bubble.

That is why they created the Highlight Box, which displays all of the inline comments in one place for readers to view. However, with the Highlight Box, each comment or conversation is in context to a highlighted word, sentence, paragraph or image on the blog, making the conversations on the blog much more valuable.


Why would readers want to comment inline? Often with a highly commented blog post, the context the comment can be lost after XX number of comments. Highlighter makes it much easier to retain the context of conversations.

Highlighter is also ideal for longer, more in-depth posts.
Inline commenting

For some verticals, there can be many uses for inline commenting, such as:

* To reference a particular word or term in the medical or legal fields
* To provide peer review/feedback in an academic or enterprise setting
* To display a relevant affiliate link or advertisement within any kind of review/promotional blog post (links and images can be easily embedded within inline comments)

A more social web

Imagine how much more ‘social’ web pages will become when ANYTHING within the content can be attached to a specific, in-context conversation or shared with just one-click!

Of course, giving the publisher fully-moderated control over what is and isn’t displayed is paramount. The last thing anyone wants is for a web page to be graffitied up with spam or other nonsense.

Thankfully, Highlighter gives the publisher full moderation control and fights spam using WordPress’s built-in spam tool, Akismet.
Try Highlighter on your blog

Highlighter is still in development. We are running a few case studies and want feedback from you!
If you are interested in running Highlighter on your blog, you can download it now. Highlighter is currently just a WordPress plugin, but the guys have plans to expand it to all blogging platforms via a Javascript snippet soon.

What do you think of this new way to interact with content? Let me know in the comments, or better yet, comment on any word, sentence, paragraph or image in this blog post!

Go to Stanford, Be Successful

The title may be a little misleading but it is also true in some instances.

I have often thought that the reason why graduates of ivy league or prestigious universities have higher success rates in getting funding for their start-up or landing a dream job, was mostly because of the network of alumni and/or family.

I know now, in the context of creating a successful start-up and getting funding, that is not necessarily the reason. Angel investors, venture capitalist, and seed investors (I use these terms interchangeably), are looking to fund great teams much more than they are looking to fund great ideas.

Now, if you spend much time reading venture capital blogs or start-up blogs, I am sure you have heard that phrase many times, but why is that the case?

As a first time entrepreneur you see the the world from a certain perspective. Most likely you are bright, motivated, and to you, the idea you have is going to make a ton of money. This is definitely not the way an investor looks at the world and certainly not the way he looks at you and your idea.

Seasoned entrepreneurs and investors have much more start-up experience and that has changed their perspective. Seeing companies be successful and seeing companies fail has allowed them to understand what kinds of people and companies will be successful, at least some of the time.

They know that the idea that you have as a first time entrepreneur could very well be the next Google or Facebook but most likely it really sucks. :)

However, if they believe in you, you might still get funding for your idea and be successful. I know this doesn’t make much sense, at least it didn’t to me at first.

This goes back to the point about investors funding in great entrepreneurs and not great ideas. This also goes back to the point of why going to Stanford or Harvard or Yale can make you more successful and not necessarily because the alumni network or your family name.

Essentially going to a prestigious university gives you credibility. A large, well respected institution has given you, the graduate, a certificate saying that you are smart and capable.

If you are an investor you are looking to maximize your return and minimize your risk. By investing in entrepreneurs with ivy league educations, venture capitalists are simply doing that.

Even if the entrepreneurs idea isn’t perfect (almost no idea at first is), the investor is actually betting that the entrepreneur is smart enough to pivot around the idea and eventually go in the direction that will make the idea or business successful.

I am not a venture capital expert but I felt compelled to share my thoughts on the subject and in doing so, hopefully I helped someone.

Customer Discovery Process

So it’s been a while and I am sure no one will read this but I have some thoughts that are useful enough to share.

A discussion with one of our mentors the other day brought about some interesting points on the “customer discovery process.”

This discussion is going to be the most relevant to those of you who have an idea for a new product and are forming your thesis of who the customers are and what the product actually is.

There are several books on this topic, the best one being, “Four Steps to Epiphany,” as well as a ton of other useful blog posts, videos, etc. I am writing this post mostly for my own learning.

There are 4 main steps to the customer discovery process as outlined in the book, Four Steps to Epiphany:

-phase 1 – hypothesis

-phase 2 – test problem hypothesis

-phase 3 – test product concept

-phase 4 – iterate & expand

The first part in this process involves placing your best initial guesses about the product and it’s development. That should include things like; product features, product benefits, dependency analysis, milestone schedule, and what will it cost new owners to adopt it?

After you have your best guesses about the product written down in an organized fashion, it’s time to move on to focusing your attention on the customer. This part of the exploration process should either confirm your product feature set or force you to alter it.

Your hypothesis about your customer should include the things like; types of customers that will purchase your product, problems your customers have, a day in the life of your customer, what ROI is your customer going to have from purchasing your product, and the minimum feature set.

To me, there are really two things that you need to understand WAY more than anything else. That is, what problems your customers have and the minimum feature set.

If you are launching your first product especially you need to have a very, very minimum feature set. I have heard this from so many successful entrepreneurs I cannot over emphasize the fact that it is so much more important to actually launch a product than for it to be perfect.

Literally release it as soon as you possibly can. That is why you need to figure out your absolute minimum feature set.

That’s it for now :)

Spec work is evil and unethical… no way!

There are a lot of designers out there whom I respect tremendously. Some of those same designers are completely against doing spec work, and I can definitely see their point of view.

I am referring to Andrew Hyde and Arlo Bryan Guthrie. Both designers/entrepreneurs I respect deeply and their accomplishments speak for themselves.

I feel as though I have a unique perspective and can add something to the conversations about crowdsourcing.

Unique Blog Designs and Crowdsourcing…

As you all know I co-founded Unique Blog Designs with Matt and Nate almost 2 years ago, and even before that, Nate and I co-owned a different web design firm which we dissolved upon launching UBD.

So from that angle, I would assume that most of you would think I would be siding with the designers I mentioned above… but I’m not.

You see, we have seen all the stages and the positives and negatives about being a freelance designer as well as a professional design firm who does work for fortune 500 companies.

I remember the days when I was trolling malls and local small businesses to find work for infinFX (Nate and I’s other design company before UBD). It was basically Nate who was the designer and me who was the Biz Dev guy trying to make it work. We did get some business but having many consistent paying customers eluded us.

Over time we found sites like and that gave us ideas and some additional work.

The goal for us was not to stay freelancers but to build revenue and clients well enough to form a solid company.

With the launch of crowdsourcing sites like and, the dynamic of being a freelance designer has changed. I think for the better.

Better for both the consumer and the freelancer. When we were just getting started, it would have been great to have tons of options and consistent work for us to do while building our brand and customer base. Both of which freelancers can more easily do using and

For the consumer, they now have access to thousands of designers for their projects and can also get them done for a lower price… generally. The best part is that they don’t have to pay for anything that they don’t want to use.

Now, Why Crowdsourcing Does NOT Negatively Affect Professional Design Firms…

I would consider Unique Blog Designs a professional design firm, although we are very small. It is Myself, Matt, Nate and 4 in-house employees. I can only speak from my own experiences.

We have worked with everyone from the individual doing a first time start up, to and, to working with Yahoo and Nike.

Most owners of professional design firms that I have talked to, take pride in the fact that they turn down customers all the time in order to make every project that they take on as successful as possible.

Over time you come to realize that not all projects are worth taking on, even if they pay a lot of money.

What’s the reason?

Not every type of client can match well with your particular firm. This design firm can specialize in artsy design, another can specialize in b2b design, one can specialize in UI, another can specialize in Ecommerce, etc, etc.

Professional design firms build their brand and success by ensuring that each client that chooses them, will be more successful for doing so. We pride ourselves greatly on trying to achieve this goal.

It is impossible for us to take on even 25% of the clients who want to work with us. Mostly for budgetary concerns but also because of the things that we specialize in and don’t specialize in.

Having sites like,, and, are great resources for us to be able to refer potential clients to, without having to put our own brand on the line.

Final Word

I would really love to hear what some of the guys who also own professional design firms would say about my perspective.

I would also strongly recommed reading Jeremiah Owyang‘s post on the subject. He is an analyst from Forrester Research and was a UI designer in a past life.

Another resource for crowdsoucing is by Jeff Howe. I have personally read his book and it is a must for anyone interested in the subject. Jeff is also a writer for

Please let me know your thoughts and opinions as I am open to discussion about this seemingly controversial subject.

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Do Something That Matters. Spend Ample Time in Mountains. Drink Lots of Coffee.