April 6, 2017

Ask a Mentor: Daniel Chui

This post originally appeared on the Techstars' Medium publication on April 3, 2017. 

Daniel Chui is a Techstars mentor and part of the venture development team at Verizon Ventures. He is an experienced business professional in the emerging technology and media space, specializing in partnership management, strategy, competitive intelligence and analysis, and financial analysis. Prior to Verizon, Daniel worked at Alcatel-Lucent (now Nokia), Datamonitor Inc. (now Ovum), and Motorola.

What do you love most about mentoring startups? Why do you do it?

It’s more than just mentoring startups. Instead it’s really about mentoring people, helping them grow as leaders and teaching them how to solve business problems together.

By sharing insights from my own experiences, as well as asking questions that a startup may not have come across before, you get to be part of the solving equation and work with some amazing people. I enjoy being involved in that journey and it truly is a rewarding experience.

What is the best and worst advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is simple: always be truthful when someone asks you a question. Even if you feel compelled to give someone an answer they want, and that might be stretching the truth, it’s not worth it. Those types of instances oftentimes result in a loss of trust and can harm the relationships we have in both our personal and professional lives.

Conversely, the worst advice I’ve ever received is to not tell the truth. While we’ve all felt the need to hide our honest opinions or even use misdirection to lie without lying, this does more damage than good.

From a startup perspective, when you have little social and economic capital to build from, the tight knit group of people you work with and form relationships with are based on trust. The moment you start touting features that haven’t been developed or customers that haven’t been secured, this leads to a scenario that will be hard to bounce back from.

What is the most common mistake you see startup founders make?

From a corporate VC perspective, there is one key thing that founders can improve upon. Before meeting with a corporate VC, make sure you do your homework on both the corporation and the VC arm. That means leveraging publicly available information to understand a company’s strategy, its products and services, and how it works with startups (if at all).

Look into which startups a firm has invested in, the life stage, how much they funded, and most importantly how have those startups worked with the larger organization. Conducting basic research upfront results in a more effective conversation that covers important topics such as pre-identified areas of collaboration. You should be going in with ideas versus hunting for them.

What are some key traits you look for in a founder?

While having expertise in their respective domain is beneficial, I find that founders who have a thirst for knowledge and are not afraid to challenge existing norms are on a path toward success.

Humility is another important trait, because as an early stage startup founder, you are asking for something and not giving much in return.

What have you learned from mentoring the Techstars IoT and Techstars Mobility programs?

Techstars is a worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. I’ve often seen startups come into these programs initially looking for the golden ticket or silver bullet that will take them to the next level.

Whether it’s finding that big customer or investor that will get them connected to all the right people, or resources that will drive that hockey stick growth indicated in their pitch deck, having this mindset is not necessarily the right approach.

Techstars has an extensive network, which is valuable, but it can be leveraged incorrectly. It can mean spending a lot of time talking to everyone (without a focus on what they are trying to achieve in those conversations) or latching onto the first opportunity that comes their way, which leads to sub-optimal outcomes.

In reality, given the life stage that most of these companies come in, they should be seeking validation and product market fit that will then act as a catalyst for them to focus on talking to the right customers, investors and partners. The first questions I typically ask startups is who have they spoken to and how have they validated their opportunity.

Any words of wisdom for someone launching a startup?

Before you launch a startup, you need to be passionate about what problem or opportunity you are tackling. Passion will fuel your willingness to learn, ask questions, network with experts, and to keep moving along even when you hit the occasional obstacle. Treat your startup like you would treat your hobbies. You could be the world’s foremost expert in say Hot Wheels, have a huge collection neatly categorized and catalogued in a special room in your house, and spend exorbitant amounts of time and money hunting down that missing item. It’s that passion that keeps you going when your friends and family think you’re crazy.

And to be clear, this is just an example and not something that I do in my spare time. =)

Tags: investing , Techstars , Startups , Daniel Chui , Q&A