One Year at 500 Startups:
Life “In-Residence”

By Daniel Riaz
Growth Hacker-in-Residence

“Man, it’s early” I think to myself as I stare at my colleague across from me diving into a bowl of deep fried noodles. It’s only 6:30am and we’re having the complimentary breakfast at a popular hotel in Cyberjaya, Kuala Lumpur — the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.

We’d been up pretty late the night before, and my body was still in full-recovery mode. “Hey, have you ever read that book Monkey Business?” I ask.

“No. What’s it about?” she replies, continuing to quickly eat her food.

“It’s about the shenanigans of two I-bankers as they travel the world hunting for deal flow. This kind of reminds me of that…”

Looking unamused, “eat your food” she says. “We have to be at Grab’s office by 8 o’clock.”

It’s the middle of August, and my colleague and I are in the midst of launching 500 Startups’ first-ever Distro Dojo — a growth marketing bootcamp aimed at helping local startups build their businesses — in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

We’d been dropped in as an army of two to run the program and provide hands-on help to seven different startups. Grab, a 500 portfolio company, and the ride-sharing unicorn of Malaysia just happened to be one of them. They knew I was an early employee on the Lyft growth team and were eager to hear from me. No pressure of course.

That trip would later include many other adventures to near-by cities in Vietnam, China, and of course popular destinations in Malaysia itself.

So began my year globetrotting with 500 Startups.

Needless to say, the new room I was in would not disappoint. I have met some of the most talented people I have ever met in my career either at or through 500. Self-made entrepreneurs, hyper-intelligent VCs, growth leaders with resumes filled with the most iconic web 2.0 companies — Facebook, Twitter, Paypal anyone?

Let’s just say sitting across the table from some of these folks has been intimidating…

“How the hell did I get here?” I remember thinking to myself. “I guess early growth guy from Lyft is good enough?”

The year to come would be filled with a wide range of new experiences.

Obviously there was the initial meet and greet with Dave McClure, the guy is an icon in the valley so I couldn’t help but be a little star struck upon my first encounter. Turns out he’s a pretty nice guy, and has this sort of endearing “nerdiness” to him that I as a fellow nerd found compelling (sorry to blow your cover Dave!).

In May, a colleague and I were invited by the U.N. to attend the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, specifically the U.N. wanted help running a hackathon and thought folks from 500’s staff would be perfect.

“Why not?” I thought. I have never been to Istanbul and it was for a good cause, the hackathon was aimed at building solutions for Syrian Refugees.

Looking back, what’s striking is this was one month before the terrorist attack in Ataturk Airport, and only 2 months before the coup attempt to overthrow President Erdogan. Security was clearly on high-alert in the city (police were everywhere) but we had no idea how unstable the government had become.

The event itself was of course interesting, we got to meet do-gooders from all over the world. Some of these folks had spent years on the ground fighting Ebola in Africa., and needless to say, had interesting stories to tell.

But outside of all the travel, there were also the days spent in the accelerator, advising 500’s growing portfolio. Saying these meetings could be challenging is an understatement. With each team I mentored, I played a critical role in defining their north star for the entire course of the accelerator. No small task given what’s at stake for each startup.

Looking back, the exposure has been pretty incredible. I must have worked with close to 50 startups engaged in various business models (direct sale, freemium, subscription) and verticals (e-commerce, hardware, enterprise SaaS, marketplace). And when you consider that many of these teams were focused on emerging markets (India, South East Asia, Latin America) with unique consumer behavior and IoT infrastructure, the sheer breadth of marketing challenges becomes readily apparent.

Of course, life “in-residence” is not without it’s pain points. We live in a society where our education system conditions us to depend on formal structure and hierarchy, however this is in direct opposition to the private sector, which best rewards those who can thrive outside of such constraints.

This was a new challenge for me. Being 100% responsible for my own productivity, and the outcomes that they generate. With no direction, it’s easy to feel lost. To feel anxious. To feel depressed. But you eventually learn that you’re responsible for your own direction. Not just in work, but all aspects of life. The onus is on you and no one else.

That may sound cliché, like the product of “Western Determinism”, but I will counter with what’s the alternative? To float on the vast ocean of life, letting the tides pull you in all directions? To surrender yourself to chance? To simply say, it’s out of my hands anyway, so I will let someone else tell me what to do, or how to think, or what to believe?

No of course not, that’s nonsense.

We need to take responsibility for the lives we live, the decisions we make, and the consequences of our actions. This sense of personal responsibility is only magnified in entrepreneurial endeavors. But it’s important for all of us. Always.

So where do I find myself now? On the East Coast as it turns out. Learning more about the NYC startup ecosystem. Meeting new faces. Running into familiar faces. Setting new sails, and embarking on new adventures.

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