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Robin Pimentel: International Engineer, Tech Executive, Entrepreneur, Investor

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Robin Pimentel.

Robin PimentelRobin is a Venture Partner with K5 Ventures and a member of the UCLA Venture Fund. Robin has been advising startups since 2007. Through a blended portfolio of funds, he has access to over 50 active startups. With experience in semiconductors, Internet scale networks and large scale global clouds, Robin can provide direction for technology scaling, product/market fit, funding, organizational and corporate development.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the Canadian IT Pro Connection where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:32: You are a Venture and General Partner with K5. What is a venture partner and what tips can you share about this work for people wanting to launch a startup?
"....In general a Venture Partner is responsible for interfacing with startups. They are usually very active in their respective ecosystems....Think of them as someone who invests time into the fund and in the case of K5, the Venture Partner not only invests time but also invests their money into the fund...."

:01:48: How long have you been a partner in a Venture and General Partner within K5?
"....It's coming up on three years now...."

:02:02: You are a member of the UCLA Venture Capital Fund. Can you describe your work and useful lessons from your experiences with the fund?
"....The UCLA Venture Fund, in terms of the management of it, I'm less active so I'm more akin to what somebody in a traditional fund would call a Limited Partner, someone who invests and doesn't get too involved....UCLA is a non-profit fund so it's a different nomenclature, instead of being called a Limited Partner, I'm called a Member and that's the way they've designated their roles...."

:03:00: In your view, what are the growth/evolution stages for a startup and criteria for success in each stage?
"....If they have an existing network of investors or if they are new entrepreneurs that can change how they progress through the steps of their startup. The geography that you are in can also have an effect....In the beginning maybe you have an idea and a product in mind, which I call the genesis stage. Then comes the bootstrap stage and it basically means that you've got some rudimentary prototypes that you're building, you're testing traction, employing some experiments and validating some of your assumptions. After that you might get some first money and you start building your MVP. After that first money phase, depending on how the first traction goes, at some point you may enter an accelerator or an incubator, a way to formalize the working environment but also to bring in some initial institutional money. (Some startups get to skip this phase depending on the founders and their experience and whether they have a place to work and things like that.) After that typically you may raise a significant seed round....Some people just have a seed round and then an A round - that happens all the time. But in the case of a regular startup and one that you would typically find in Orange Country, after that seed round you would then significantly pick up your traction and you figure out everything that you need to fill your traction, whether that be revenue or users and then you continue with your growth...."

:07:13: What lessons from startups can be applied to small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and enterprises to drive innovation and growth?
"....One of the hardest things to do in small businesses and in startups is to disrupt yourself, but it can be done....I really believe that when it comes to businesses, that user experience, the product, the way that you consume what the business is offering is 80 percent of the equation and maybe the other 20 percent is basically good financial management...."

:09:02: What are the triggers to higher levels of investment for startups?
"....I think that it really goes along with some of those stages we discussed....I think having a co-founder is probably the first enabler to building a robust prototype and a robust product and as I said the prototype is good for that first money. After that you want to be able to bootstrap yourself and you should be working on a good experiment for your product, you should be reading the market really well. You should be spending a lot of time with users and iterating the product. Once you feel like you have something where users are sticking to it and finding value, something that they have to pick up or use in their day to day, then I think you have an opportunity to polish it and build a MVP with a little bit more money and help from startup professionals. Then to be able to get that first seed round it's going to take significant traction which then becomes the thing that enables you to raise additional money. It's very similar with the Series A, when you've got product/market fit as demonstrated not just by traction, but by retention and engagement and by you knowing your product and your consumers better than anyone else and knowing how to push the buttons that accelerate growth...."

:12:10: Those are some great tips and trigger points that you've given to the audience. I should mention that when you mentioned MVPs, those are Minimum Viable Products.
"....I've heard a lot of people even say Minimum Valuable Product because one of the most common things I see as an investor is that some founders just miss that V just slightly. They miss out on the viability part and they build something but it's not actually creating value for the users...."

:13:04: Do you have views on the work of Eric Rise, Steve Blank, Alexander Osterwalder, Ben Horowitz, Peter Thiel, Clayton Christensen and others?
"....I do, I think they are all great reading. Some of their texts and blogs and maybe even talks do get very deep into the way that they see the world, but there are always some meaningful takeaways from all of the things they discuss. I enjoyed Ben Horowitz's approach to leadership and in particular some of the things that I've learned from him that I applied to my prior experiences....I enjoyed Peter Thiel's book and the way he describes innovation, as something that goes from something that isn't there to something that is there, in a very insightful way....I also enjoyed Clay Christensen and the Innovator's Dilemma. He has such a body of research in addition to the book, around disruption and innovation which I really enjoy...."

:16:54: You talked about Peter Thiel, what are your thoughts of this fellowship program he has where he says, you are planning to go to college but maybe you should try to be an entrepreneur first?
"....I think it brings great relevance to education. I'll tell you that I accidently took a similar road....It really gave me purpose and visibility into what education could do for me and what bits were really important to retain as I went through my undergraduate years...."

:18:05: Can you provide an overview of your experiences with some past startups and share useful experiences from each? For example, Gaikai, Onlive, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc.
"....If you think about Intel, Cadence and Teradyne, they make products that are consumed by other enterprises so there's a lot of B to B sales, but at Yahoo it was very consumer-facing and I learned a lot about that. I learned a lot about infrastructure, staff and about a different kind of software all together that isn't shrink wrapped or packaged up and that was interesting. At Google I learned about scale and innovation, how they cultivate culture and how important it is for talent retention, how to scale from big to inconceivably big, how to have software as infrastructure. Facebook was very much about startup problems and startup culture and starting from something that's very small and growing it....I think one of the key lessons for a startup is you always have to iterate and that's one advantage that you have over a large organization....At Onlive I learned what it's like to be in a startup that is in stealth mode, incubated for years and years before even releasing a product. Gaikai I think was a great opportunity to see a startup from very early all the way through to an early exit, so that was a great opportunity to see how a company gets sold...."

:22:57: You are a founder yourself and you see founders with the startups that you're supporting with the venture funds and also with these famous companies that you worked with, do you see any things in common that makes for founder's success?
"....As long as you are being productive and creating value I think there is no way to do it wrong. One of the things I would look for as a common thread is are you creating value and do you know how to create value inside an organization or by yourself? If you have that indomitable spirit, if you have the tenacity to find the solution, but at the same time know when you've tried enough (where you have enough evidence to know that it's working or enough evidence to know that it's not going to work), if you have the skillset to know that, that also translates pretty universally...."

:29:51: There are stratospheric growth companies like Facebook but even they took eight years to IPO from 2004 to 2012. You see this O2O this online offline revolution and companies like UBER and am surprised at the valuations which are through the roof. Can you talk a little about company valuations?
"....Valuations are interesting things to witness. I think the market dynamics are what are causing these things and there's a lot happening that pushes them in that direction of high valuations and raising cash flow while you can...."

:31:52: What are the stages in developing a minimum viable product (MVP) and knowing what features to include?
"...It really does come down to creating value, whether you're an investing or creating, it really comes down to that...."

:36:35: For start-ups, what is problem/solution fit and then describe how this matures to the stages of product/market fit?
"....I think so much of getting innovation right and creating value is about defining the right problem. If you can define a real problem and you can define it with all the nuances that it merits, then you are half way to creating an answer....I think intuition is really great for vision, I think intelligence is really good for strategy, but I think good data is what builds good products. That data helps you define the problem and helps you define the answer to that problem and that later translates into product/market fit...."

:40:01: Robin talks further about product/market fit.
"....Product/market fit becomes a situation where through the acquisition of good data you get to a situation where you are able to measure what the market wants and where the demand of what you are making sometimes feels overwhelming. That is what product/market fit feels like....There's a very precise measurement of what happens when you change things, all these attributes and features and what it costs the user and when you change that cost/value. Cost and value are always on this scale - on one side you have the perception of value and then on the other side you have perception of cost - when these things are in balance through measurement through good data then you are going to have good product/market fit..... Every good product has a moment where the user feels I get this and I know how to do this; every good product should feel that way. If you make the wrong promise about a product it's not going to feel as good as if you make the right promise and the promise gets fulfilled...."

:48:00: For startups, do you have any other recommended resources (books, people, etc.) they can study?
"....If I had to give you an ordered set about what to focus on what I would say as an entrepreneur, an inventor, study your users first because that is the best place to learn the most that you can. Whatever field you are in make sure you understand that technology, but also understand your users, understand the thing you are going after, then study your metrics. See what those people are telling you, see what lessons you are picking up from your market as you develop this product. There are some other resources of course like learning how to run a startup, learning how to recruit, learning how to educate a team, learning how to build a strong culture and for that the books that you mentioned are certainly the right place to go...."

:50:55: As a successful entrepreneur, can you summarize your top lessons for success?
"....One of the earliest lessons I picked up was not being afraid to fail....Just execute....Interate quickly, you get to perfection by iteration and there's no shortcut around that, there's no shortcut around failure...."

:54:28: There's a study out of Harvard and Brigham Young I think they call the DNA platform and they have 5 qualities that make for disruption or disruptive innovators. That's questioning, observing, experimenting, associating and networking. You are touching on these areas as you are answering the questions and you are backing this research.
"....I think it's a wonderful framework and as you described it the research that they put together is absolutely a great way to structure your thought processes and interactions...."

:57:59: Can you share some stories of "impossible" challenges you were able to master?
"....As I mentioned the path is not too inorganic, in other words there weren’t any serendipitous things necessarily....I think that is one of the things I experienced is how do I go from being a technical leader to being a director and executive. These things seem insurmountable but I think if you onboard your people well, educate them, really take time to focus on their development and really work with them one-on-one, then I think it is possible to build a really effective organization from nothing....."

:01:03:48: What important lessons can you summarize from the last question?
"....By executing and by doing what needs to be done you can get to impossibilities and innovate your way there. Think about Moore's Law. When he said it, it seem completely impossible yet it's still holding up and finding ways to innovate....That's how you keep momentum, you just do things. You keep iterating and you are not afraid to fail and you measure all along the way...."

:01:06:42: As a successful senior technology executive, what are your best leadership lessons that can be used by executives?
"....I think great management comes from building great teams. I really define myself as an executive by how well my team is executing and by the product of that execution. Training is really important and having meaningful one-on-ones. It's a situation where it's about the employee in that one-on-one and not about the project....I love this concept of having recourse. I think it's also true in product. If you are using a product and something is going wrong and you don't have a way to get help it's really frustrating as a user experience...."

:01:11:26: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See and the Global Industry Council,].
"....In the technology world the talent someone has for technology is used as a way to provide a service and you absolutely need a way to recognize those who are doing it well and have a way for those who are not doing it well to measure themselves...."

:01:12:45: You have many interests. Can you talk further about them?
"....My interests are very typical to what your listeners might have. I'm very interested in technology. I have a partner who is in robotics and I learned a lot from him and I love robotics. Outside of tech I love to ride a motorcycle around the track....I enjoy that and think it's a great way to have excitement in my life. I think it's what everyone should strive for, a good balance of the professional life, family and the exhilarating life...."

:01:14:45: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, are there some stories you can share (maybe something amusing, surprising, unexpected, or amazing)?
"....I guess I'm a geek at heart. I think everyone should see a carrier hotel. If you don't know what a carrier hotel is, it's essentially these buildings (in some metros it's only that one building, but larger metros there are multiple buildings that are carrier hotels), where networks exchange data with each other. Essentially build the intersection of points, the connected topology of the internet where networks exchange traffic....Through my travels because so much is around infrastructure when you asked me to tell something about my travels, somehow my mind goes to these wonderful carrier hotels where we used to camp...."

:01:17:20: You choose the topic area. It's very free form. If you had the opportunity to discuss any broader questions or challenges, what would they be and how could they be solved?
"....I will take some liberties then. I would say one of my favorite problems in the atoms is energy, particularly energy storage or the equivalent of good energy storage. How do we compact energy generation? I think that the key enabler for robotics and for society. That is the physical world....I think if I were to pick a problem in the software world, I really like problems in distributed computing as big challenges. So multi-master database information replication I think is really fascinating..... Then in the human realm, the way we relate to each other. I guess making Congress more effective is a big problem which I would like to see that tackled. Lobbying is another I'd like to see that addressed. I can imagine the world as a thought experiment where lobbying is illegal. Imagine if you couldn't pay to advocate and you just had to use your voice and you were just one of many voices that had to be heard...."

:01:22:19: Robin, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.