The CliffsNotes Version of True University—The 2-Day Startup School from True Ventures

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other venture firms copying True’s event—although first they’d need to hire someone as energetic as Shea Di Donna, the True vice president who conceived and organized the event. I’ll bet a few CEOs are on the phone to their Sand Hill Road partners right now asking why there isn’t a “Kleiner University” or a “Sequoia University.”

I won’t give away True’s special sauce by repeating everything I heard at the event. But below are a few of the choicest quotes from the True University instructors whose courses I attended, organized by major.


“A startup is a temporary organization whose purpose is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. There is no such thing as a 15-year-old startup. There’s a three-year-old startup attached to a 12-year-old failure.”—Steve Blank, author and retired serial entrepreneur

“If you only hire people you know, you run out of people. You hit the wall at 30 and then you have to start hiring strangers from Safeway…Real ‘A players,’ game changers, are well loved, well compensated, and generally happy doing what they’re doing, so you have to go after them very aggressively. You have to be more strategic. You have to convince them to come play with you.”—Lisa Blos-Johnson, Bereina


“Understand your users’ incentives for being on your site. Don’t bury the lead. Get newcomers invested right away; find your ‘aha’ moment and get to it quickly.”—Daniel Burka, Milk Inc.

“Data liberates us from the delusion that we understand all the needs of our audience…From a large enough distance, ‘Following your gut’ and ‘Wasting other people’s time and money’ look a lot alike.”—Ryan Freitas,


“There is a secret to closing [a hire] when the person you’re hiring already works at a big company. You say, ‘Out of the 12,000 people there, only 200 people do all the coding and create the product. All the others are there to tell you why you can’t do what you want to do. None of those guys work for us.'”—Amit Kumar,

“Nothing is easier than poking holes in a new idea. The most precious gift you can give somebody is your undivided attention. You express your generosity by listening fully and clearly. The first thing out of your mouth should be ways to respect and enhance the idea. That way, you get a neural workout that might cultivate your own creative qualities, you might help improve your friend’s idea, and you might become known in your organization as the person to go to when there is a fresh idea.”—Carl Nordgren, Duke University

Customer Interaction

“A freemium business is way harder to execute than a premium-only business. But companies that do it well ride a wave of customer evangelism. Once you get it right, it’s hard to compete against.”—Sean Ellis, CatchFree

“[At Solar Winds] we tried making our free products smaller and more irritating. We constrained the UI, we put ads in, we made every link drive back to a landing page. Everyone of them was a really bad idea. The whole point of free is to be an organic growth engine, to get people to talk about your product. You have to make the [free] product really good.”—Kenny Van Zant, Asana

“Your instinct will be to hire someone to go [gather customer feedback and data]. That’s a going-out-of-business strategy. If the founder isn’t doing the first tranche, you’ve offloaded it to someone who doesn’t have the vision, the strategy, or the understanding.”—Steve Blank

General & Interdisciplinary

“Equanimity—a state of emotional stability, especially in a difficult situation—is one of the most important qualities you can have in a startup. [Disasters] are not the kinds of events that create culture, they are the events that test the culture you’ve been building all along.”—Jeffrey Veen, TypeKit

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Hi, Wade:

    Very nice write-up of the key take-aways! It was nice to see you at True University.


  • Alexa

    Good info. Thanks for including the notes about the team beyond c-suite. There is always plenty to read about founders.