Judges on Fire: Jeff Vance, Founder and Editor, Startup50

In our Judges on Fire series of podcasts, we aim to let you get to know our judges a little better. It’s also a chance for them to reach out to potential entrants and share tips for entering the Tech Trailblazers Awards. For our fourth outing we are connecting with Jeff Vance who is joining Tech Trailblazers to judge the Networking category and possibly Big Data too.

Jeff is the brains behind the Big50, a free competition where startups complete challenges in order to earn a place on the list of 50 top startups to watch out for in the coming year. If you’re interested in appearing on that list and work at a startup that was formed after 2010 then check out his website for entry details: Startup50 entry page

In this podcast you’ll find out all about how Jeff has been writing about technology trends for 20 years and his experience in evaluating startups, how VC funding has changed during the pandemic, why startups should be focussing on “the steak not the sizzle”, with a little dash of Chinese espionage thrown in too.

So, over to Rose Ross, Founder of the Tech Trailblazers Awards, as she interviews Jeff Vance in our fourth Judges on Fire podcast.


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Interview transcript

RR: Welcome everybody to the Judges on Fire podcast, from the Tech Trailblazers. If you enjoy this, please leave a review at the end for us on the Tech Trailblazers social media, @Techtrailblaze on Twitter, and you’ll find us on LinkedIn as well, as the website.

I’m delighted to be joined today by Jeff Vance. Jeff is a man behind the Big50, and were delighted that hes joining us to judge the Networking, and hopefully if he has time, the Big Data category. So, welcome Jeff, thank you for joining us today.

JV: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it Rose.

RR: Brilliant, well youre joining us from the States, and perhaps you could kick-off with… I’m sure a lot of the listeners will already know you Jeff from your work with Network World, and the Big50, but can you give us a potted what does Jeff do, and how have you got here.

JV: Yeah sure, thanks Rose. I’ve been writing about technology trends for 20 years or so. My first big role writing about technology started way back with my first job out of college, with the PBS station (WPSU-TV an American Public Broadcast Station), as the young guy I assigned the tech and science subjects because nobody else was comfortable doing them, and then that just kind of… metastasised maybe isn’t the right word, but we’ll go ahead and use that, that metastasised into me just writing more about tech as my career advanced. I started editing some insider investment newsletters back in the early 2000s as the dot-com bubble was still inflating. Then that just pulled me into this startup world.

I’ve been writing about startups for a bunch of publications your listeners would know about, anything from Network World to CIO, to Forbes, to Wired. So I’ve kind of had a strange role as a freelancer, it’s hard to make a living as a traditional freelancer, just writing stories. I learnt that very early back in the early 2000s. So my early freelance career kind of ping-ponged back and forth, I would be a journalist for a while and then I would get an offer that was too good to refuse, and then I would go inside a startup for a while and help them with things. Then there was also this kind of hybrid periods where I’d be doing a little of each, and not always startups, I’ve worked with very big companies, plenty of brand names like Cisco and Microsoft.

So, I’d been doing that for about 10 or 15 years doing that kind of hybrid model, so my site Startup50, and my big startup report, The Big50, the way those started is, anytime I would write a startup round-up for a publication, for Network World, or CIO or something, to get 10 startups you have to evaluate 20, 30, sometimes 50 or more startups, and there was just a lot of good information and good content there that I didn’t want to just go to waste. So, this whole project that I’m doing with the Startup50 in the way I am, do contests to bring startups into my ecosystem, that all started as a side project to just try to figure out, ‘What can I do with this stuff? How do I make this batch of startups that I’m evaluating, that I’m looking at, how do I give them more time to maybe gestate a bit, maybe get their business model a little further along, maybe plug the gaps in their portfolio for why I wouldn’t include them in a roundup. Then it also gave me an ability to track and watch them through various techniques, just getting them on email lists and things like that, so you can track and keep tabs on their progress.

So, now it’s turned into a much bigger thing, now that the Startup50 and my Big50 competition are my big core things I do every year, and I kind of consider, I still write for third-party publications, but that’s a little bit more like my marketing in a way. It’s just keeping my name out there and keeping me top of mind to the startup community. Now that said, I still love to dig into feature articles every now and again, I just did a big one on how startups are navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic for Network World. So I never want to give that stuff up, I like doing the investigative work and everything.

Now my main challenge each day is figuring out new ways to put startups through challenges to surface the things they don’t necessarily want to tell you about, so that you can identify them. That’s always the trickiest thing about… I shouldn’t say identified… so you can evaluate them, that’s always the trickiest things about startups, is so much of what they do is still proprietary, or private, or they don’t want to talk, they don’t have the reporting requirements of public companies. So how do you know that anything they’re telling you is true? That’s kind of been my challenge from day one with covering startups! I’ve come up with a lot of tricks, hacks, and secret methods for doing that, and to-date it’s been working pretty well, and I’m pushing it into new ways with this, right now the 2020 competition is open, so I’ve a new batch of startups that I’m challenging this year.

RR: Fantastic. Well, it sounds like your side hustle as everybody likes to call it nowadays, became your main hustle, which is very exciting.

JV: Yes, that’s a much more concise way of putting it Rose!

RR: I’m a headline type of girl! From your perspective, what are you going to be looking for? I dont want you to share your secret source for the Big50 of course I do want you to do that, but I wouldnt ask you to do that. What kind of things are going to make you excited? Obviously for the Tech Trailblazers we look at a particular type of startup, were looking at the enterprise tech space which is your home too, we share that world together. Were looking at people who are Series C and below, but also privately funded, seed funding, so some of them very early-on in their startup journey. For the ones that arent Firestarters, so the Firestarters are up to two years old, and havent received VC funding yet. So obviously theyre very much at proof of concept, theyve just come through MVP in all probability. Theyre not going to be able to talk about how theyre penetrating the market, theyll be talking about how they plan to.

But obviously for the others, you are going to be looking at how they fit into the world as it is, and lets be honest, that world has changed considerably. So Network World is probably going to be fascinating as well. So, if thats already been published it would be great to get a little synopsis of that at some stage. But from your perspective whats going to get Jeff excited when he sees one of our Tech Trailblazers hopeful’s entry forms?

JV: What gets me excited, there have been plenty of startups that look like they could change the world, and they’re massive. Until they start doing it – there’s so many things that look good on paper that flop in the real world. So, I look for those signals that point to viability, so you’re talking about under-two-years startups. Now my system is set up so I might miss some of the newbies, dorm-room startups, because I look for…

RR: Can I just clarify just quickly because I might be confusing you here. So, the Firestarters is one of our categories, the remainder, which is I think where you will play, which is the ones who have maybe got their first one or two rounds of funding, and are up to maximum five years old. So as long as they havent had their 6th birthday, so they havent had six candles on the cake yet, then were going to be talking to them. So that hopefully clarifies what you might be looking for now, because hopefully if theyve got to that stage they will have that type of traction in the marketplace, or beginning to get that kind of traction.

JV: Yes, so when I look at newer startups, it depends; I would evaluate a Series B, a Series C startup differently than a seed or A startup. But A, is kind of a decent seed round, or a decent A round, that for me is the starting point when I start paying attention, before that I just kind of had startups a little bit on my radar and just looked. But what gets me excited are the things that signal to me that there’s the potential for viability. So, I look for various track records, so what’s your team look like, has your team done it before, do they have the right experience from the space? When a startup is newer and they’re pre-MVP or right about the MVP time, they won’t have as many data points. Now, as the startup gets older I look for third-party data points. Have you raised enough funding? Do you have enough runway to get to some degree of market penetration? Do you have the right systems and teams in place? You can’t always evaluate the systems, but you can look at the teams and see where they came from, and make some deductions about what their systems probably are.

But for the newer startups, you don’t have a lot of that stuff. If the startup’s been around for three or four years and they don’t have a reference customer, that’s a problem. So I look for those signs of third-party validation, and I also look for any sign that proves to me that they have what it takes, the infrastructure in place to achieve viability, assuming that their technology and their solution’s the right one.

Now, that brings me to the second thing, and this is kind of my secret sauce, and I don’t really mind revealing it because it’s no big secret, it’s just harder to get startups to really zero in on this. What I really look at is, do these startups understand the customers, and the customer’s pain point? So, if they don’t understand customer’s problems, if they don’t understand why, and if they can’t articulate why a buyer is going to choose this over the status quo, because change costs are always a big deal. Change costs, I’m including just changing your daily routine, going to a different website to accomplish what you did through some SaaS service, versus what you used to do through your enterprise portal, or what have you, those change costs matter as well. I look at things like, are they selling to the right people, do the people they sell to have budgetary authority? No? What’s their plan for then attracting those?

So, I look at some of those ‘nuts and bolts’ things of basically, do they understand the customer? Is the pain point big enough that somebody is going to pay to have this solved, and are there enough of those pain people to create a viable market? That’s what I look for, and those are the things I really push on. So, I always ask the new startups to estimate market size, well sometimes they’re in a new space and so you have to have those different things. When I was working in startups and I was running the marketing for Aryaka, an SD-WAN startup, the way we always estimated the SD-WAN market was through MPLS, which was the technology we would be replacing. Now, there were other technologies that SD-WAN can encroach on like VPNs and stuff, but just MPLS was a simple easy reference, and MPLS was saved, we would look at that and say we’re saving them so much money, it’s a no-brainer for most of these branch offices. So, we’d just say, yeah the MPLS market is $1 billion, and that’s what our addressable market is, but it’s growing because the world is going more and more online.

So, I look for those types of things, and I also look for a bunch of negative data points as well. So, if a pre-product startup tells me they’re a leading provider, that’s a big red flag, you’re not a leading provider, whoever is telling them to do that is giving them bad advice. Oftentimes I find that comes from the CEOs who don’t understand what good marketing and PR look like, but honestly the PR pros who are allowing them to do that and are agreeing to do it, frankly I think it’s malpractice. But I look at those things that tell me, is this startup telling the truth, are they on the level? I don’t mean to say they’re liars or whatever, but they’re in the marketplace, you’re in a noisy marketplace, so if you have a good solution you’re able to just kind of hype it up as in, hype it up based on its merits, or is it empty hype? So, I’m always looking to separate that, hype with substance versus the empty hype, and I have a lot of tricks to do that.

But that’s one of the big challenges with startups though, is can you believe what they’re telling you, because a lot of times if you’ve got your early funding on hype, well what do you think you’re going to keep doing? And we had a lot of those frothy markets that become really hot for a time, and VCs get pressure too, and so ‘Hey, do you have an AI play yet?’ They don’t have any AI plays and so they feel like they have to get a couple onboard. So, a whole lot of garbage can get funded. So I’m always trying to separate the hype from the substance, and that’s really the core of what I do, and my various methodologies are trying to do that.

RR: So, youre blowing the froth off the coffee cup of the startup world.

JV: Doing my best to see if there’s any coffee remaining down there! And how strong it is, it had better look dark!

RR: These caffeine-fueled startups, hopefully we’ll have a lot of those for you to have a look at in the networking category, and as you say, your pedigree, where I think we almost crossed paths because Aryaka was actually our networking winner two years in a row I believe, when we first kicked off in 2012-2013.

JV: That’s kind of funny, I would have been probably just doing some freelance copywriting for Aryaka in that timeframe, and then I think it was around 2015-2016 were the years I was running their marketing for them. So, very close, we just kind of missed, who knows I might have even edited their entry, I don’t know. I don’t remember what I was doing back then.

RR: I was wondering, I didnt want to put that one out there, but quite possibly yeah. Maybe you were one of the reasons why they did win, because you were making sure that there wasnt any froth, it was only nice dark rich coffee on show. So, thats good.

If we may, Id like to dive in, because unfortunately we are in a very challenging time, a very volatile time, a very uncertain time which for startups is very challenging in some ways. The ones that already have the funding are now looking at their sales pipeline and ensuring that goes through, and that a lot will be pivoting to respond to the changes that were seeing at the moment, as we were talking about before the podcast started, about the working from home, the dining table warriors versus the road warriors. What have you been seeing in this COVID-19 impacted world that were all living in at the moment?

JV: Well, of course anything that makes networking work better is getting attention. The teleconferencing space is definitely heating up, and there are some problems there, like Zoom which we’re on right now. I would advise against using that because there are problems, and I’m not making this up, with Chinese espionage of course, as with TikTok. So we’re in a weird information space right now, and this might sound like it’s ancillary to our discussion, but it’s really not. We’re entering a new era of great power competition, between China, Russia, and Iran on one side, and the US and the EU on the other. Espionage is riddling certain areas of tech, and teleconferencing is one of those, social media is another. And then as we saw with Huawei, 5G infrastructure is another. Huawei was basically creating these listening posts through 5G infrastructure, and the United States and I think the UK is on board with this now, they were dragging their feet a little bit, but most of NATO allies have disallowed Huawei in their country networks.

So, you can’t overlook that stuff which has accelerated during the pandemic, because everything is so virtual. So virtual is now the big attack vector, it’s not just about people staying home, it’s about all these other things. If I’m a startup I would be very reluctant to have any kind of sensitive meetings with VCs, or what have you, on Zoom because China has shown that a large part of the way they’re keeping their economy propped up is through IP theft. So I wouldn’t want my startup secrets on any of these teleconferencing apps, unless they were very vetted for end-to-end encryption, so I would definitely be vetting the security protocols, that I think is heightened. But I’ve been rattling people’s cages about bad security since I got into technology, and that’s always kind of a, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that tomorrow’. That’s always one of those things that until the crisis is on your door, people seem to still give it a little short shrift.

But as far as the pandemic goes, what I saw in the investment community is there was a pause, and the VCs looked at their existing portfolio and just triaged it. Who do we need to finally get them through this pandemic? Who’s doing okay, and maybe we just need to give a little reinforcement, or give a little more hands-on mentoring and stuff. But then after the pause, which lasts maybe a month to six weeks, funding is happening, we’re in a down market so it’s not as robust as it was, but if you have a good technology, a good product that taps into an existing proven marketspace then you can still get funding, it’s going to be more difficult. And then I think some of the other difficulties are things you just don’t think about until you start thinking through, like what it takes to form a company. So, definitely now when I look at startups, if I’m evaluating them I would give more weight to the startups with teams that have worked together before, it’s going to be easier for them to keep the same kind of rapport virtually, because they know each other.

So, startups are just facing new challenges, and these new challenges, some of them hit the incumbents every bit as well, and that’s the thing, these are double-edged swords. So incumbents have some real legacy baggage now that startups don’t. If I’m a new startup that’s 100 percent virtual, I’m not paying for commercial real estate that’s sitting empty. So it’s a different challenge right now, but then the incumbents, hiring is a real difficulty during a pandemic, and so that’s a challenge that’s harder on the startups than the incumbent, even if the incumbent is bringing people in, they still have bodies there, they have an established culture. Usually their virtual hiring is just changing two of the final steps, rather than coming up with the whole process.

So, I don’t know. For startups, I look at what we’re going through now as their job is to disrupt things. Their job is to go in and find where the problem points are, where are the inefficiencies in the market. Their job is to find the sclerotic monopolies and knock them over. So, I think what you did in a time like now, in a pandemic and a time of entering a cold war 2.0, is it’s a more chaotic time, and to quote Game of Thrones, ‘Your chaos is a ladder’. So I think it’s a really good time for startups. They’re going to face different challenges, not the ones they necessarily prepared for three years ago, but the ones that they can tackle as good as anybody else. Some of the advantages of incumbents having big retail spaces, things like that, they’re just not the door right now, so it’s a different time. It’s not just the startups figuring things out, I think the whole economy is figuring a lot out on the fly, even local stuff, going to the grocery store, how much are restaurants going to be viable in the next five years, if you can only be a third of capacity? There’s just a lot of stuff for all of us to figure out right now.

RR: Absolutely. Interestingly enough I was interviewing someone else who is a VC in the UK, but is also very much involved with accelerator programme, his view, and it will be interested in what youre seeing, is that the VC funding as you say took a little short pause, but one of the areas that hes seeing an awful lot of impact, and certainly in the UK which is where his focus is, is on the seed and the Angel investment, because thats a lot more personal, and that is peoples own money versus a fund, which is being given to the VCs to manage. So, are you seeing any impact on that, he was anticipating

JV: Honestly, I don’t track the seed and really early investment. I tend to track A and beyond, so I’m not tracking the seed stuff as much. I may see that. My startups eventually have to reveal a bunch of data to me during the competition, so I may see a bunch of crowdfunded ones. I am seeing that, just the stuff that’s pitched to me, so I’m not really quantifying the data, but if you just go by my inbox and what I’m seeing, I’m seeing a normal flow of stuff that comes from Kickstarter and things like that. So, the seed-funded stuff that’s trying to pitch me, that flow seems to be about the same as it was before the pandemic. I have seen a couple of new VC funds launch, so there’s still stuff going on, it seems like people can still raise money. One difference though I did see, and I think this was a trend that’s maybe just accelerated but it was already starting to happen, the one that comes to mind is, there’s a new VC fund just launched to target Seattle tech startups. So, I think that could be a new wave right now, that one way that we’ll get around the pandemic is by going local again. So you can’t meet everybody but then does the whole world have to be what you focus on, or should you focus closer?

Let’s see, what was I just pitched today? A new venture fund called Fuse Venture Partners which will focus on Seattle-based AI and machine learning startups. Stuff is still happening out there, and they’re focussing on seed and Series A companies. So they’re early and definitely focusing on that kind of stuff, so I don’t see venture capital dry, this money still has to go somewhere! When you have the wealth disparity that we do in the developed world and the capitalistic market, that money at the top has to go somewhere, it just doesn’t sit and collect dust. I only see the VC world taking a pause, reassessing. But I do think there could be a return to local might be one of those things, and I think that could happen. You look at some of the traditional businesses that are coming back, like butcher’s shops, you might go to your grocery store and beef is $10 because there’s a shortage that week, or what have you, but then you go to the local butcher’s shop, it’s cheap, it’s local, and it’s better quality. So, I could see a return to local happening as a result of this pandemic.

On one hand it’s great for startups to say we want our talent from anywhere, but there might be some local opportunities there that they might want to focus on early, especially when they’re still in that phase of needing to establish a beachhead, get those first customers on the record, and stuff. So, I don’t know, I think we’re all figuring it out as we go along, but there are some early signals that some things might be a little different on the other side, and I think globalisation will get some brakes thrown on it, will get a regulator on it anyway. Though how that’s going to play out, how serious that will be, hard to say yet. If the pandemic only lasts until the end of this year, and then it dies out, then I think the effects will be blunt. If this takes us two or three years to get through, then some of those grooves are going to be pretty deep.

RR: Yes, I guess wed have to come back next year and reassess that particular side of things, which we may well do.

So, other than obviously sharing some of those insights which are fantastic, is there anything else that you think would be good to share with the listeners, a lot of them who will be hopeful about success within the Tech Trailblazers, and hopefully also within the Big50, at this time?

JV: I would just encourage startups to avoid hyperbole as much as you can. Focus on the steak, not the sizzle, because then if you have a good cut of steak, the sizzle will take care of itself. That takes care of itself the minute you throw it on the grill, so focus on that, and the only way to get there is to really know your customers inside and out, know their pain point better than they do. So, the startups that really resonate with me, let’s say in the old days when you could go to a conference, if I’m waiting to talk to a CEO of a startup and I’m able to listen in on the meeting before I go in, and I hear them describe the customer’s problem in words, in a depth better than the customer can describe it themselves, you’ve got something there. Most startups have that, but they have a hard time taking that understanding from the founder level, and then transmitting that throughout the ranks. Throughout the ranks, that goes to their service provider as well, especially PR, if your PR team which is kind of the tip and spear for you interacting with the world, if your PR team can’t articulate your value in a way that matters to your addressable market, to your target market, to your ideal prospects, you’re going to get lost, you’re not going to make it. In tech, a lot of tech founders and technologists like to believe that the best technology wins, that is absolutely not the case!

One of the best examples of that is Betamax versus VHS, although you can make a lot of arguments on the VHS side, cost, convenience, things like that, but the best technology doesn’t always win. What has to be there is a message for talking to your prospects in their language, and in a way that makes sense to them, and in a way that makes the buying decision an emotional and almost inevitable one. So that once they take your new whatever, your new networking gear and put it in their network, or hand it off to you with all these SaaS plays these days, they think, ‘How did I ever get through the day before?’, ‘Why was I doing it the old way? I would never go back to the old way’. If you can’t do that then you’re probably not going to make it as a startup.

So, it’s really about being able to read the prospect’s mind, because you’ve studied the prospect so much, you know what they need, you know what their pain points are, that seems like the simplest thing to do. For most founders that’s a way up, that’s why they started doing what they did, but then that connection, that empathy for the customer gets lost somewhere along the way. It gets lost as the team scales up and there are all these outside pressures to meet your numbers, get this case study done, and get prepped for this conference, or whatever. So, that’s really what I look for, does the startup understand the customer, and can they articulate that. Easier said than done.

RR: Yes, definitely a challenge. Well, we look forward very much to your views on our entrants as they come in over the coming weeks.

JV: I’m looking forward to it.

RR: Likewise, looking forward to working closely with you on that. So, thank you Jeff for joining us on the Judges on Fire podcast, for the Tech Trailblazers today.

JV: Great talking with you Rose, I’ve enjoyed it.

RR: Fantastic, likewise. Listeners, if youve enjoyed it too, then please leave a review, and follow us on social @Techtrailblaze, and Tech Trailblazers Awards on LinkedIn.

JV: And your listeners can watch how I evaluate startups as the startup50 competition rolls on, they can watch it happen in realtime at startup50.com

RR: Fantastic, that sounds really good too. Thank you Jeff, well catch up with you soon.

JV: Thank you Rose.