Value or vibe, what is a startup culture and what does it take to build one?

By Dennis Clemente

A pingpong table does not a startup culture make, as six distinguished panelists can attest to at the meetup, “How to build a startup culture” last September 17 at the Orrick offices at CBS building.

The panelists were Dane Atkinson, CEO, SumAll; Wiley Cerilli, former CEO of SinglePlatform, Current VP of Constant Contact; Mark Peter Davis, managing partner, Interplay Ventures; Allyson Downey, co-founder & CEO, weeSpringZain Jaffer, CEO, Vungle; and Joaquin Roca, consultant & COO, Venwise.

How do you build the culture you want throughout the life of your company?

For Roa, it’s about “knowing your culture is connected to your business strategy and how you must all be together in knowing how to win your market.” He insisted on having “core values that rarely change” right from the start. For Downey, an ideal startup culture is about having “some radical transparency.”

Cerilli, who probably has more staff than all the panelists with more than 120, agrees. “Hire people brutally honest with you and have a no-a–hole policy.”

Creating and preserving your startup culture requires some honest assessments. Cerilli likes to give leeway when it comes to off-hours camaraderie.

“As you get bigger, not everyone likes going out for drinks. People have different ways of celebrating,” he said, in response to how some startups think: “You must work together if you look at someone and think you can drink with him.”

As for how people choose a startup culture, Jaffer, who has about 40 staffers, responded to how people sense it, intuitively. “Culture is about unspoken things.”

When it comes to hiring people, Cerilli said he doesn’t do interviews anymore but at one point in time, he said a person who often said “I” instead of “we” and those who mentioned their previous bosses (in an unflattering light most likely) are big no-nos.

For Davis, it’s crucial that he gets people who think in terms of being a partner than just an employee. “If you feel you can’t deliver bad news, that’s a boss-employee relationship, not a boss-partner relationship.”

In terms of talent, Jaffer said he likes “hiring people smarter than me” whereas Atkinson puts a high premium on “trust” and, borrowing from Cerilli’s management style, having a push-up drop-down policy for those who think they’re getting “pudgy.”

“We ask if a someone had a bad day for three successive days,” Atkinson said. This way they can respond accordingly and do their best to help.

For Roa, diversity is the most important thing. “Ask yourself what you are missing in your team, because oftentimes we like people who like us. And if we’re white and we only have white men, that’s not good. A diverse team sees things wholistically.”

In Downey’s case where she and her husband are co-founders, they try to be honest about what the other half can’t do—and that includes knowing how to balance work-life balance and a virtual workforce. “If you can’t do (the latter), you’re doing it wrong.”

But how do they communicate culture? For Davis, he likes to “drop the F bomb” and see how his interviewee reacts. “It’s all about show and tell.”

Jaffer went for a more measured approach. “We do anonymous surveys,” especially for those exiting the company, because they’re more honest. Cerilli likes how people communicate Wow moments on a wall at his company’s office.

But how do they handle a problematic employee?

Davis said you don’t want to be last person to find out if there’s a problematic employee, because it can affect your bottom line. He said he has given someone another change, but when things didn’t change, he went by “addition by subtraction,” as he noticed the company and staff became more productive. “We just had to let this person go.”

Jaffer likes to ask himself, “I ask “Is it my fault? Did I give this person an opportunity to succeed. If we didn’t, everybody is accountable. You have to give this person a chance.”

The meetup was hosted by David Concannon, a partner at Orrick.

Should startups cash in early or stay on?

By Dennis Clemente

So if you’re a startup, would you rather cash in early or stay on for the traditional 7-years long cycle to profits before cashing out? Which one makes more sense?

For those who are thinking of a quick exit, lawyer Roman Fichman had the following to say after hearing from a five-man roundtable panel of executives from a cross-section of verticals who spoke about how they pick founders, define startups, prepare for acquisitions and exits, and predict the hot trends.

• Founders get cash quickly
• Because there aren’t too many investors at that point, founders get a larger percentage which translates to higher dollars per year of work, in contrast to having continued on a longer path and collected investors along the way
• They get an exit notch on their belt which is important if they intend to start up a new company
• Bird is on hand versus who knows what the market is going to be like in 7+ years?
• Smaller deals can be done quicker and cheaper
• Founder relations haven’t had the time to sour yet, i.e., one can remain friends with fellow founders

Either way, it should encourage anyone to start a, well, startup if you’re not there yet and for those in there, to think how you can stay long enough to learn more, as we did with the panel of speakers consisting of Anand Sanwal, CEO/co-founder of CB Insights; Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of SecondMarket; Ben Boissevain, founder of Bois Capital, Ed Zimmerman, venture lawyer and tech chair of Lowenstein Sandler and Wiley Cerilli, VP of Constant Contact. They all made for an interesting mix of proselytizing speakers, pragmatic ones and even slightly controversial ones.

“I want people to leave their safe jobs,” said Ed Zimmerman last September 11 at the Enterprise Tech Meetup at the Midtown office of Lowenstein Sandler where he is the tech chair.

The point Zimmerman was trying to make was how our jobs don’t guarantee us a golden parachute but which is possible in the tech world. “Can you get a $200 million exit strategy from you jobs?”

But if you did listen to him, how would he go about choosing you? For Zimmerman, it’s all about charisma and what he thinks is almost impossible to find. “Unfortunately, technical talent and charisma don’t always come in one package,” he said. This makes a technical co-founder vital in a startup.

Zimmerman represents start-ups and growth companies in raising money, selling the company or cashing out, and depending on market conditions, considering public offering.

Zimmerman has angel invested in more than 30 companies and invested as an LP in several venture funds. One of his VC clients called the companies Ed likes to help “tinkertoy internet companies” (as opposed to heavy core tech and drug discovery companies) and that suits Ed fine. Digital media, e-commerce, social media, fin tech, SaaS, cloud/virtualization, enterprise software and adtech are, apparently, all tinkertoys. Ed also founded First Growth Venture Network for startups which doesn’t charge or take equity, GrabArborVC, AngelVine VC, and the charity HoopAPaluza.

Once you have a startup in place, Cerilli said you will need to find out where you in your startup phase and in the process figure out, “Are you in the family, tribe or organization?” phase. Cerilli clearly knows what he is talking about, having been in two startups, Single Platform which was acquired for $100 million in 2012, and Seamless Web.

In front of all these VCs and executives, the obvious question is, how do you know when you need to raise money? “The time to raise capital is when you have a perfect storm of an idea,” Zimmerman said. “You have a great idea? Get enough money to survive till seed (funding) stage.”

Boissevain added how important it is to “get funded right away” and iterate like a “rocket ship before big companies” catch up on you.

And once you get the funding, Silbert said it’s important to stay focused.

How do you know if your company is doing well early? Sanwal said if startups can hit the milestone, good. If it pivots all the time, there’s a problem. Silbert cautioned, though, how companies do a lot of zigzagging and should always be aware of not “misinterpreting it.”

In terms of recruiting talent, Zimmerman said he keeps a wish list of founders and tech talents, even if I don’t have a business in mind yet. Having done a lot recruiting, Sanwal said he always felt pressure when hiring. “We hire the wrong person and recruiters are just useless.”

The meetup was moderated by Deirdre Bolton, an anchor on Bloomberg Television and host of the alternative assets show “MoneyMoves,” airing weekdays at 1 p.m. ET, across Bloomberg’s digital platforms, including Bloomberg Television and

The Enterprise Tech Meetup, the only community-run network of support for technology startups driving innovation in the enterprise, brings together large corporations, entrepreneurs, investors and others to help grow the next generation of influential startups in NYC.

Startups and founders talk tech in Queens

By Dennis Clemente

The Queens Tech Meetup in Long Island City is quite a trek from Chelsea’s Silicon Alley, but you can trust techies to go where location has always been relative.

Last February 21, five founders brought their amazing stories to Queens: Wiley Cerilli, he of the famed SinglePlatform ( until he sold his company to Constant Constant for a deal reportedly worth $100 million; Adam Sanders of Backspaces (; Peter Pelberg of Yog ( and Stefanos Missailidis of Fiestah (


Where the other founders focused on talking about their products, Cerilli talked more about his interesting journey. He dropped out of New York University to set up his online business, “faked” some functions in his site, and even promised more than he could deliver to a huge potential client but did deliver anyway (probably inspired by how Bill Gates did it with IBM back in the days).

SinglePlatform by Constant Contact helps you manage and publish your business or restaurant information and content in one place, and reach millions.

Cerilli lives by the quote he showed in his slide about adapting, “The winner between the alligator and the bear is determined by the terrain.”

Cerilli is now a Vice President at Constant Contact, and he sits on the Constant Contact Executive team. He was once named one of the Top 25 CEOs in New York and Top 100 Most Influential People in New York.
Backspaces’ Adam Sanders showed his iPhone app, showing how it works to create and share stories with friends. He showed how by using the event to tell his story at

The app only allows you to create storing using words and pictures, not videos, as he and his two other co-founders prefer to keep it simple and fun. Why no videos? “We all love videos, but it’s really hard from a mobile and bandwidth perspective,” he says.

How have they done so far? “We prototyped it in May last year, launched it in August. We’re growing 1,000% a day,” he adds.

He demonstrates the app with stories that moved him, especially one that came as far as Indonesia. The app allows you to share your stories with a simple web link; discover other stories and follow your favorite storytellers.


Pelberg’s Yog is also an iPhone app. This one connects you with runners around the world so “you’ll never have to jog alone again.”

“You run with anyone, anywhere in the world, in real-time,” he says of the social running app he worked on at night after work.

How do you invite friends to a run? SMS, email, Twitter or Facebook will do it and you can run with as many as 20 people.To use it, you need to Create a Run by selecting the distance, date, time, music and other people you’d like to invite to go running. Then join a run created by another runner on Yog.

Missailidis of Fiestah presented his event management website, just a month after a co-founder presented it also in another tech meetup in Chinatown. Being only a year-old, it’s normal for these startups to make the rounds to promote their businesses.

Fiestah helps you plan your event by taking the hassle out of finding, contacting, and managing multiple vendors. Right now, he says they have 250 vendors, most of them in the food business.
To avoid rate haggles or price wars, Missalidis says the site does not indicate the price or rate of the vendor to other vendors. “Only you as the event planner can see the different rates of the vendors.”

He monetizes the site by taking a 10% cut from vendors.

Queens Tech Meetup had a surprise guest. Eric Abrams from the Queens Chamber of Commerce came to announce a $30,000 prize for developers to come up with an idea and website/app to promote Queens to the world. Deadline is second week of March. For more information, call him at 718-898-8500 or email him at

Photos courtesy of Queens Tech