If you ask serial entrepreneur and technology guru Alon Cohen, now with Phone.com (Newark), how he got his start, he will briefly explain that he and a friend shared the same passion for voice and computers. The rest, he says, was “a leap of faith.”
As part of the NJ Entrepreneurs and Technology Startups Meetup at JuiceTank (Somerset), Cohen shared his story with the 90 attendees about building multiple successful technology ventures. The inventor of the audio transceiver, he is widely recognized as a creator of the voice over IP (VOIP) industry.
Cohen is the cofounder of VocalTec Communications, the first company to provide Internet voice technology worldwide. VocalTec had a successful IPO in 1996, the early days of the Internet.
The meetup included a presentation by digital strategist and new-media marketing consultant Oz Sultan, head of Sultan Interactive (New York). Sultan has worked with many high-profile companies, helping them develop an effective digital strategy by resurfacing their social media and changing the way they interact with customers.
The NJ Entrepreneurs and Technology Startup Meetup was founded by organizer Zion Kim in August 2012 and already has more than 550 members.
Both speakers focused on the entrepreneurial challenges that developers and innovators face and how to overcome them.
Cohen recalled that in the early days of the PC, he and a close friend came to the same realization: something was missing from computer technology. “We believed that computers had to have voice,” he said.
Starting that business — taking that leap of faith — led to the two working on projects for the blind, on music playback and on adding voice to presentations.
Cohen cautioned the technology entrepreneurs in the room that “you can’t do it all.” He stressed the importance of having mentors and partners — good ones.
He also trumpeted the importance of focus: “You must have internal drive. Someone else out there has the same idea that you do. You have to push yourself if you want to be first.”
As Cohen shared details of his business experiences, he offered guidelines and a few warnings to help the entrepreneurs build successful startups:
- Investors are not friends or mentors. Their role conflicts with making the best decisions for the business. Seek business advice from mentors with experience relevant to your product.
- Ideas are everywhere, and they do have expiration dates. It’s good to have a lot of ideas. Keep them in a file for when you need them.
- It’s easier to sell an investor a dream than a working product. Introduce your idea as a presentation first, in case the investors are interested in a variation of your product.
- Extend your “runway.” Resist the urge to spend money early on so your ideas can remain flexible.
- Never work for free. Investors believe if the money runs out, you should continue to work. If you must do so without funding, count those hours as an investment so you and your work remain valuable.
- Find a good partner. It’s easier to work with someone when there is synergy and balance. If both people are not vested in the time they can devote to the project, the imbalance will strain the progress of the project and the working relationship.
- Be nice to your employees. One day they may be the ones to hire you.
Echoing Cohen’s sentiment’s about starting a business, Sultan added technical insights and practical advice.
As a social media strategist who has personally raised more than $10 million in venture capital for startups and mid-stage companies, Sultan advised that when building your business you should include social/digital strategy in your plans from the start.
Sultan reminded the audience that while ideas and concepts may produce catchy, visually appealing names, it’s more important that those names be pronounceable and easy to spell in English. As a consultant, he’s sat through meetings at which potential clients missed out on the full impact of a concept because they couldn’t pronounce it and were unable to find a brand online due to a unique spelling.
He cautioned techies to not rely solely on their technology to seal the deal but to get out and network. He suggested conferences targeted at prospective investors, customers and social media peers.
Finally, Sultan urged technology entrepreneurs to think of their partners — those in sales and marketing — as assets who can help get their names out there. Having people know your name and recognize your brand or product is key to being successful in business.