How a six-month-old startup got bought by Google

How a six-month-old startup got bought by Google

zenterlogo.pngI met the two startup founders of Zenter, Wayne Crosby and Robby Walker, and blogged about how they wanted their online version of PowerPoint to get bought by Google. I listen to a lot of young entrepreneurs who desperately want to get bought by big companies like Google (GOOG), Microsoft or eBay, but Crosby and Walker actually made it a reality. On Tuesday, Zenter, an interactive presentation software, was acquired by Google for an undisclosed sum as mentioned in my colleague Erick Schonfeld’s blog.

A little less than six months ago, Crosby left his pregnant wife at home in Phoenix and together with Walker, drove to Mountain View in an old Honda Civic to pursue the American dream. Crosby and Walker rented a small apartment, slept on air mattresses and began crunching out thousands of lines of codes day and night. So how did the pair, who met while working at Go Daddy, end up making a product (which, incidentally, was still in private beta) that Google had to snatch up? Here’s a look at how Zenter did it.

  • Don’t focus on getting acquired. That’s like being a single woman who desperately wants to get married. Of course you want it to happen, but 99% of the time if you purposely try to get acquired (or married), it won’t. "Stick to your knitting," says Paul Graham, a founding partner of Y Combinator, the startup factory that funded Zenter. "The way to get acquired really fast is to not focus on it. If people get the impression that you want to get bought, you won’t."
  • Instead, focus on the user. This is possibly the single most important thing for entrepreneurs to remember. "Every startup that dies fails to do this," Graham says. "A lot of startups focus on their competitors or lawsuits, but what really kills startups is if users think it’s boring. It’s a much quieter and dangerous reason, but if users don’t care about your product, that will just kill a company."
  • Ignoring limitations lets you tackle problems from a different angle. It’s not enough to just build an existing offline product (ie. Microsoft Word or PowerPoint) and port it onto the web. Zenter looked at how they could build a slideshow application that really takes advantage of the Internet, like adding community slideshows, delivering presentations online in real-time and dragging and dropping content from the web into a presentation. "Every system and every platform has limitations. Some people look at a problem and say, You can’t do that because a browser won’t let you and proceed to work around those limitations," says Crosby, who spent his first day of orientation at the Google campus yesterday. "What we did was look at what we wanted to happen and then found a way around the limitations."

  • Don’t be afraid to tackle the giants. Big companies like eBay (EBAY) and Microsoft (MSFT) may have more manpower and financial resources, but they also have disadvantages. "Often times, they’re not as driven. They’re not willing to make the sacrifice, like two guys sleeping on air mattresses, to make their product really good," says Graham. Case in point. Google bought YouTube, which was far superior to Google Video. eBay bought PayPal because clearly, no one was liking eBay’s Billpoint. Big companies also have restrictions that startups don’t have to worry about. Adds Graham, "Microsoft has to think about web-based applications that don’t threaten Windows. A company like Zenter doesn’t care about hurting Windows. All they want to do is make the best application."
  • Pay attention to the details. When your product is 80% done, that means you have another 80% to go. "To get something pretty close is easy, but you need to concentration on the little things. That’s what will set you apart from the competition," says Crosby. "You can have the best algorithm in the world and the fastest process, but at the end if the day, if the user struggles to find out how to click a box or delete something, then you don’t succeed."
  • Have a really understanding spouse. Crosby’s wife was four months preggers when he left to join the Y Combinator startup school in Mountain View. "She was extremely patient through the whole process. Knowing that she always believed in me and Robby just made me work harder."

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