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Mental Model for Minimal Viable Products

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Last week I gave a talk at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (my alma mater) about multidisciplinary learning and minimal viable products.

One of the mental models I came up with was a theoretical framework for a “Minimal Viable Product” or MVP for short. In the post I want to put my idea out there for further refinement and get some feedback on it (in MVP style :))

Lets start with some basic definitions.

I like to define a minimal viable product as the quickest and simplest way to test a product idea in the open market. The MVP can be as simple as a signup form, or first prototype, or screenshots. The most important thing about MVP’s is how quickly you can put it out there to start getting feedback from your potential customers or whom you think your customers might be.

The reason why MVP’s exist at all is because it is much easier to test your MVP to see if people want your product rather then to build a fully functional product and figure out no one really wants what you made. An MVP is a quick way to test your initial concept before starting the product process.

The mental model I came up with for a MVP is inside a “while loop” a concept from computer science. A simple definition of a while loop is a “statement of code that can repeat given a boolean statement (true or false). If this is your first time ever seeing this concept I’d also suggest checking out Khan Academy’s talk on while loops.

With the basic definitions out of the way here is my mental model for a MVP:

while Traction is not True:
    Idea = Hypothesis
    Experiment = Market
    Traction = True or False
    Idea + Experiment = Traction

    If Traction = True
        Return Idea, go Build_Product
        Traction = False 

Lets break this function down and then also explore some interesting observations that come from this function.

The main premise of a MVP is you are trying to test for “traction” which I will explain in a bit. Inside the while loop your business idea is the hypothesis you want to test and you want to test this against the market. Said another way you want to put your idea in front of who you think your customers for the idea would be.

Once you run this experiment against your idea you will see if your idea generations traction or not. The True or False inside the while loop is a Boolean statement, which means you are either going to get traction or not.

One of the most difficult parts of this function is defining what “traction” means. It’s hard because there is no exact answer, e.g. if 10 people sign up for the beta release of your product that isn’t necessarily traction. Traction is much more of a gut instinct you feel when there is genuine interest, demand, or buying intent for your idea. E.g. If you’re creating a enterprise application and a large corporation wants to sign an Letter of Intent (LOI) as soon as they see your MVP that might quality as traction.

The best definition of traction I could think of is: if the reaction from your potential is significant enough for you to be excited and motivated enough to take the next step of building the first version of the product itself. The answer will either be yes or no (True or False).

If your MVP delivers traction then you are done and you move onto the build product stage, but if your MVP does not deliver traction then you need to iterate (change) your idea and try the while loop until you find traction.

Now for 2 interesting aspects of the MVP function.

Idea vs. Market:

The reason why you need to iterate your idea and not the market is because it’s really hard to change the market conditions during a short time period. It’s much easier to change your idea and try the process again.

But if the market you’re in is rising rapidly in your favor, your idea doesn’t need to be that good and it can still pick up traction quickly. These conditions probably lead to the “Powder Keg” startups Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, was referring to in his recent blog post. This is also probably why you see a lot of variation of startups around fast-growing markets all during a short time period e.g. all of the Groupon clones, social gaming startups, and startups in the social/local/mobile space.

All this variation, a concept from Biology, is probably a key factor in producing companies that survive in the long term (also related to survival of the fittest). This could be a whole post in itself, which I might come back to on a later day.

The Initial Idea:

I suspect the idea which gets traction and the entrepreneur decides to go forward with would follow the Physics principal of Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory is a theory in which the initial state of a system drastically affects the result in a chaotic system. You might have heard the phrase “A butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause hurricanes in Asia”, this is a hypothetical example from Chaos Theory.

Just like weather systems, the market is a chaotic system and your initial idea will matter a lot in determining the final outcome. This is why I believe an idea matters a lot but only in the initial state of your company. Right after the initial state other things like building product and execution matter much more than the idea itself.


Whenever I talk about MVP’s I always the same question asked repeatedly so I will answer it now rather than later.

An MVP is NOT a startup; it is Step 0 on your path to creating a startup. There are many more aspects to starting a company that I could not possibly cover in one post nor do I know them all myself. An MVP is only a tool to test the need in the marketplace before you do the hard work of building a product behind your idea.

*Also for any engineers reading this my while loop probably has some syntax errors in it. It’s not like you could ever run this function so I use the while loop mostly for conceptual purposes. 

Written by Chris McCann

October 3, 2011 at 4:41 am


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It was 5am. I don’t remember the last time I ate and I can’t seem to think about anything other than market numbers, financial projections, and executive summaries… it’s time for bed.

That was two days ago when I had the great idea to get loaded on caffeine and work throughout the night. Between IQueue the incubator program I started at Cal Poly, my full time job, JobShoots my company that I’m incubating through Innovation Quest, and all my volunteering activities for Angel Groups and other non-profits, I haven’t had much time to sleep or much else.

It literally feels like my life has been moving at 10,000 miles an hour while I have been moving 10 miles an hour trying to pick up the pieces and keep the whole thing from crashing down. This all became very real and apparent to me yesterday morning.

After my second day of working throughout the night and a collection of 20+ days of working a full time job plus a full time startup I finally crashed. I woke up in some sort of weird haze with the worst stomach pain imaginable and I realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch 20 hours ago after sleeping for only a couple hours. I hopped into my car and I was driving down El Camino road in Palo Alto when I started to get these weird flashbacks of graduation, moving out of my previous house, and other memories.

I started to feel that my life hasn’t slowed down since graduation a little over a month ago and I haven’t even gotten a full day to sit back and digest what the hell I have been up to since then. Then I remembered I was driving again and swerved back over to my lane and ending up at In-an-Out. I love In-an-Out and I could eat their burgers everyday of the week but for some reason my body was outright rejecting food and I couldn’t hold anything down to save my life.

It was the weirdest experience. I kept slipping in and out of dream mode and I couldn’t even tell if I was awake or sleeping, it was all one big blur. After managing to eat a couple pieces of my burger, what did I decide to do? Go back to work again of course. I grabbed a cup of coffee and off I was to finishing up my business plan.

Without diving into too much detail my state of mind deteriorated further until the point of today when I decided to come home from work early and not do anything work related for the rest of the day: I got home, I took a nap, I went for a bike ride, I meditated to clear my head, and I am going to go to sleep early today. I didn’t check any of my emails and other than this post I haven’t touched the computer.

Most importantly I realize I need to take a break from work at least once a week and I need to pick one job not two. I have to make a choice about where I want my life to go and what path I want to go down. More about this in the next coming week.

[Inspired by Steve Blank's post]

Written by Chris McCann

July 28, 2009 at 4:50 am

Posted in entrepreneurship

Tagged with ,

The Entrepreneurial Thought Process in Action – ProjectJobs_

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will work for tuition

Photo by EducatedNation

In my last two posts here and here I laid out what entrepreneurial (effectual) reasoning is, the process it involves, and the underlying logic & 3 principles behind the entrepreneurial reasoning.

Now I want to show you a real life example of how this thought process works in action, because remember the entrepreneurial thought process is all about action, action, action, without any elaborate planning.

I recently have begun a new project which I’m calling JobShoots for now. As my personal bank account was nearing $0 I started frantically looking for a part time job, contract job, or anything I could find on sites like Monster, Yahoo Jobs, Jobster, etc and I kept running into a major problem. Every time I applied or called in about a job offer someone else had already beat me to it and the position was filled. I couldn’t get the job postings fast enough by going to the individual pages and I didn’t want all that job information to clutter up my RSS reader of Email Inbox.

I had an idea about a month ago that there should be Twitter accounts that inform job seekers about opportunities that come up in their geographic location. Instead of having to check a job site everyday, the available job opportunities would be “pushed” to them in their twitter account, which someone can subscribe to in their specific city. The main benefit to job seekers is they can be better informed about job opening and find a job quicker and easier.

In line with the entrepreneurial process I created the twitter account Jobs_SLO and pulled several RSS feeds from job listing websites into my Twitter stream (If your confused with all the twitter lingo check out the Jobs_SLO page and you can get a better understanding of what I am talking about). I threw up the page really quickly just to test out the concept and to see if this is something people demand and if people would actually use it. There was no cost to me besides my time and a little Yerba Mate Tea.

Good thing was people actually used it. I gained 100+ subscribers in less than two weeks but the bad news was the RSS syndicator I was using was crap. Since Twitter only allows 140 characters in the posts, job descriptions would be cut off, the links would be wrong, and overall the postings were in horrible quality. But despite all this people still came and demanded my content.

I let the project just sit for about a month and I didn’t do anything with it until I came across the SSE Ventures program yesterday. My friend happened to tell me about it since he knew I ran Innovation Quest and the Cal Poly Business Plan Competition, and told me I should check it out. I did and its pretty amazing that Stanford has pulled together student government money to fund entrepreneurial projects started by Stanford students (Wow I wish Cal Poly could do something similar!) and I decided to check out the company’s website that recently got funding from SSE Ventures which is the company DiffBot.

DiffBot makes a product called FeedBeater which specializes in taking dynamic html pages and turning the updates into an RSS feed, exactly what I needed for Jobs_SLO. So I thought to myself what the hell and gave FeedBeater a chance. It took a day for the feed to become functional but to my amazement it creates a very clean 140 character summary of the Job Description, the Industry, and a Link to the job postings I wanted to communicate to my twitter followers.

Now that I am slowly figuring out how to make the content good for job seekers, I thought to myself if this kind of content is demanded in San Luis Obispo County (which is only 200,000+ people strong) why wouldn’t this work in other cities and county’s? With this in mind I created:

To test out if this is really going to work in these other larger cities.

Bit by bit I am just trying stuff out and throwing stuff out there and seeing what happens. I have no idea what is in store for ProjectJobs_ but I am keeping my senses open to unexpected randomness and taking advantage of any opportunities that come my way.

If you have any ideas of what I should do with ProjectJobs_ or who I should talk to please leave it in the comments below or email me directly at

What Makes Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurial? Part 2

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dreaming imagination creativityPhoto by JamesWatkins

This is Part 2 of the series What Makes Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurial? If you missed Part 1 check it out here as this will be a continuation of the last articles ideas.

To sum up Part 1 there are two main types of logical reasoning when solving complex problems: Casual Reasoning and Effectual Reasoning. Casual Reasoning deals with knowing the set of means or inputs and planning effects given these inputs. This is the prevailing thought process taught by universities and management training programs around the world

Effectual Reasoning on the other hands starts with who you are, what you know, and who you know then imagines the possibilities and combinations, then jumps directly into execution without much regards to planning at all. This is the thought process favored by entrepreneurs.


In Part 1 we laid out the two forms of reasoning and began to explain the processes behind effectual reasoning. In Part 2 I will explain some principles of effectual reasoning and explore the logic behind the two reasoning methods.

Principles of Effectual Reasoning vs. Casual Reasoning

Effectual Reasoning Casual Reasoning
Focuses on affordable loss Focuses on expected return
Built upon strategic partnerships, teams, and customers Depends upon competitive analysis
Stresses the leveraging of contingencies Emphasizes pre-existing knowledge and prediction (Eliminating contingencies)

The three principals we will delve into are:

  1. Affordable loss principle
  2. Strategic partnership principle
  3. Leveraging contingencies principle

1. Affordable Loss Principle

While managers are taught to analyze market and choose segments with the highest returns, entrepreneurs tend to find ways to reach the market with the minimum expenditure of resources such as time, effort, and money. Experienced entrepreneurs tend to not believe in market research and would rather take the product to the nearest possible potential customer even before the product was built.

This falls right in line with the entrepreneurs’ tendency of action and just going for it, instead of sitting down and planning and asking themselves questions. This leaves the entrepreneur open to positive randomness and allows the entrepreneur to maximize flexibility of what ultimate direction to take since the product/service has not been designed and built yet.

2. The Strategic Partnership Principle

Effectual reasoning leads the entrepreneur to look for strategic partnerships instead of doing a detailed competitive analysis and broad based market information gathering. Since the entrepreneur wants to limit to expenditure of resources (affordable loss principle) and launch their company with the lowest levels of capital outlay, entrepreneurs will look to key partnerships and customers very early on even before the product is built.

An example of this is obtaining pre-commitments from key stakeholders to help reduce the uncertainty in the early stages of creating a venture. I experienced this firsthand during an entrepreneurs pitch to a group of top decision makers at our University where the entrepreneur asked for a non-binding commitment at the end of his presentation. If the entrepreneur receives a positive response and a good number of pre-commitments then he will launch his venture and if not than he hasn’t expended any capital in designing his product, only his time.

3. Leveraging Contingencies Principle (or as I like to call it the Lucky Break Principle)

This principle is the heart of the entrepreneurial thought process in turning the unexpected into opportunity. Great entrepreneurial firms are products of contingencies (unexpected randomness that occurs) and the entrepreneurs inside the firm taking advantage of these particular events.

Although it is not the specific contingencies themselves that shape the ventures but it is how the entrepreneur leverages these contingencies that forms of the core of effectual reasoning. The main takeaway is that all surprises are not bad, and surprises whether good or bad, can be used as inputs into the new venture creation process. Casual reasoning tends to focus on the avoidance of contingencies as much as possible. 


The Underlying Logic Between Effectual and Casual Reasoning

  • Casual reasoning is built upon the logic of “To the extent that we can control the future, we can control it.”
  • Versus effectual reasoning is built upon the logic of “To the extent that we can control the future, we do not need to predict it”

This difference in belief opens up the questions: Is the future largely a continuation of the past? To what extent can human action actually change its course?

Casual reasoning favors the belief that the distribution of events can be discovered over time, and the learnable future becomes predictable over time. This is why academics and practitioners spend an enormous amount of time and resources creating predictable models.

On the other hand effectual reasoning favors the belief that the future is not “out there” to be discovered but it is created through the strategies of the players within the system. This might be just a hopeful belief rather than the reality, and many entrepreneurs in the real world fail.

But on the whole entrepreneurs are in the business of creating the future, which entails having to work together with a wide variety of people over a long period of time. Which is why effectual logic is people dependent since the people the entrepreneur brings together to transform the inputs of human imagination into the fulfillment of human aspirations through economic means.

This is why people in the business of venture creation (venture capitalists, lawyers, angels, etc) have always agreed that finding and leading the right people is the key to successful venture creation. And these “right people” need emotional ownership in the goals of the venture and can only be incentivized by the belief that their effects they create will embody their deepest passions and aspirations while enabling them to achieve their best potential.

Have you ever wondered why people would take deep pay cuts, stressful work environments, and social work life imbalance? The paragraph above is the reason why. No amount of money can satisfy the soul of an entrepreneur working in a meaningless job, the entrepreneur craves to be in a place where they can make a large impact and feel deeply connected to the greater mission of the company.

To end Part 1 and Part 2 of this series lets revisit the question what makes entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial? Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial because they think effectually, the believe in a yet-to-be made future that is shaped by human action thus have no need to predict the future, and since there is no point of trying to predict the future they strive to work and understand with the people who are engaged in the decisions and action that bring our future into existence.


What do you think shapes our future? Please share any thoughts or stories in the comment section below!

Learning From Others – My Conversations With a Serial-CEO, Entrepreneur, Inventor, and Venture Advisor to Kleiner Perkins

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redwood california national park Photo by JennyHuang

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

I’m not perfect, and sometimes I think I know more than others. This is a highly fallible position to be in, even with all the experiences I have been through it is still limited and I can always learn something for everyone. Depending on what school of philosophy you look to “true knowledge” is never attainable (or at least a very difficult thing to obtain) and given this viewpoint it is an individuals goal to be open to all experiences with no prejudices and biases.

Given this, one of the toughest personal traits to develop is humility and the ability to put one’s ego aside and learn from other individuals. It’s a very easy thing to say out loud that you are humble but its a very hard thing to internally convince yourself you are truly equal to everyone and to take the time to actually learn from all people.

Without getting to philosophical I had a very humbling experience this week after having lunch with Russell Bik who has by far one of the most impressive and experienced backgrounds of anyone I’ve met before. Russell Bik, is a Cal Poly grad, serial entrepreneurial (was on the early teams of Intel and Sun Microsystems), CEO of multiple Kleiner Perkin’s portfolio companies, and a venture adviser to the Kleiner Perkin’s fund.

During lunch I forced myself to put all preconceived biases aside and attempted to suck in every bit of knowledge he shared with me. We talked about a whole range of topics such as the startup vs. corporate lifestyle, best practices of teams, advisors, negotiation, and courage.

Here are a few of the lessons I took away that I want to share with everyone:

Startup vs. Corporate Life and Career Decisions (Which I’ve wrote about before here)

  • You don’t want your only work experience to be a string of failed startups
  • It’s good to have corporate experience with a growing company
  • Of course there are always exceptions to the rule (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, etc)
  • The reality is most startups fail
  • You don’t want to have just corporate experience though, you need a blending of entrepreneurship and corporate
  • The downside to corporate experience is you feel like you need to play in the proper channels/bureaucracy vs. in a startup culture you get things done no matter what

Working in Teams

  • Companies are all about the right mix of team members
  • Each discipline of the team (engineering, production, business) is all equal in taking the company to realization and need to be compensated as such.

Value of MBA’s

  • There are 2 main benefits to a MBA
  • You experience what is possible and you become not afraid to attain that reality
  • Develop relationships with other Alums from that school

Grades and School

  • Grades tend to fall once you experience the real world and understand the skills needed to compete in this environment


  • Listen to people who have been there and done it before, only the ones who have actually experienced that particular situation


Comparing Life Paths – The Corporate Life vs. The Entrepreneurial & Startup Life

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what path direction do I take? Corporation vs. startup enrepreneurship

Photo by HaMeD!caL

With June around the corner students around the globe will be graduating from college and making a major decision in their lives: Do I get a corporate job? Or do I choose the path of entrepreneurship and create my own career path?

With my graduation date set for June 14th I have been contemplating the same questions over and over again, and I’ve heard a ton of advice from a ton of different people. I wanted to share some of the best I’ve heard and share the story of what I am planning on doing.

Perspective #1

Ben Casnocha who I’ve written about previously paints the two major life philosophies in a very to understand concept. There are 2 life paths one can take:

  1. The textbook path to life
  2. The throw out and write your own textbook path to life

Path #1 - The textbook path to life is a very familiar path, this is the path where you go to college, strive to get good grades, work a few internships, interview with a lot of companies, pick a good stable corporation, continue working the corporate ladder, have a successful life, and be happy.

This is definitely the path of least resistance. The positives are you can work your 9-5 and then after work completely forget about everything related to work and peruse your own interests whether they are partying with friends, traveling to cool places, a hobby, keeping up to date with sports, etc. You work hard during “work time” but your work and life outside of work are kept separate. Life is somewhat predictable, your emotions are easily controllable, and your mind is clear and free of all the worries of work and its much easier to enjoy.

Path #2 - The throw out and write your own textbook path to life is the scary path to life. This is the path where your family and close friends ask what are you doing with your life?! This is the path that has no set rules, no set boundaries, and it is very unique to each person.

This is definitely the path of most resistance. The positives are you can do what you love and express your values & beliefs through the career path you choose. You have the opportunity to make a huge difference and impact to the world but this potential comes at a cost. In this path life unpredictable, your emotions become much harder to control and much more volatile, and the line between work and life can easily become blurry if not cross over completely.


Perspective #2

Jun Loayza, a new friend of mine, who I met at UCLA wrote this very intriguing post on the subject:

In it he shares his personal experience of corporate life and his transition to the entrepreneurial life. Here are a few things I took away from his post:

  • The corporate life has lower responsibility (there whole team of people who can pick up the slack)
  • The corporate life was comfortable and relaxing
  • The corporate life did not use his talents to the maximum capacity
  • The startup life is a much more riskier proposition
  • The startup life is much more time intensive (Jun works 100+ hours a week)
  • The startup life forces you to push yourself to your limit and take on much more personal responsibility (there is no safety net)
  • The startup life is not better than the corporate life and vice versa, it all depends on what type of person you are and the situation you are in.


Perspective #3

The last perspective I want to share comes from Sramana Mitra, who I was recently introduced to through one of my professors Mitch Wolf.

She wrote an interesting post touching on the corporate life vs. entrepreneurial life with the focus group of the top engineering students from one of the worlds top Universities, Stanford.

Here are some interesting points I got from the article:

  • Working for a big corporation leads to a narrow skill-set
  • The skills required for entrepreneurship are “frighteningly” wide
  • Working for a startup might be a better preparatory step to working in a corporation
  • Consulting and corporate experience is valuable for a short period of time            


My Story

I definitely subscribe the lifestyle of entrepreneurship (hence the name of my blog) much of which has been installed in me though my experiences growing up and especially during college at Cal Poly, check out my About Page for more about these experiences. With graduation coming up in June though I am now finally starting to realize the huge risk I am taking and the amount of work I am going to need to do.

However I think I have finally decided what I want to do (at least after I graduate!) but I can’t release all the info about it now. More details to come soon…


What path did you take? How did you make your decision? Share your story in the comment section! 

The Secret to Success = Follow Up & 7 Tips for Effective Follow Up

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follow-up-san-francisco-bay-areaPhoto by Thomas Hawk

I just came home from an amazing weekend in the Bay Area. I started off by having dinner with Carson one of the founders of Innovation Quest and very successful serial entrepreneur, Eugene Lee one of the key employees of Tube Mogul, Ben Casnocha author of My Startup Life who I’ve wrote about previously, and Saket & Amit from BASES the leading entrepreneurial organization at Stanford.

Many people have asked me before how do you meet and stay connected with all of these incredible people? And today I want to share my #1 secret to life:

Secret to Life = Follow Up

Following up with people is such an easy concept to understand but is a very hard thing to do on a consistent basis. Just the simple act of following up separates you from 90% of everyone else out there and shows that you are committed and dedicated to what you are doing.

A great recent example of incredible follow up was from my new friend Saket Vora from the Stanford BASES program. I met him through my good friend Brian Riley yesterday in Palo Alto and we had great conversations about whether or not entrepreneurship was innate or learned, how universities can implement entrepreneurship programs, and about how BASES and Cal Poly could mutually benefit either.

I got back home this morning and within 12 hours of meeting him, Saket had already introduced me by email to Ricky Yean the new president of BASES and Ricky had sent a follow up email to set up call between us. Just that simple act of following up has given me 100x more respect for Saket and Ricky and makes me even more excited to work with them in the near future!

Here are my 7 tips on effective follow up:

  1. Make sure you take down the contact info of all interesting people you meet! It’s obvious, but on multiple occasions I’ve completely forgotten to ask for someone’s contact info, so don’t let this simple mistake hurt your follow up chances. Also don’t be afraid of asking for someone’s contact info even if they are famous/respected/seem busy/etc. People are just people, we all put our pants on in the morning, so never be afraid of meeting anyone no matter your background.
  2. After you have the interesting person’s contact info send a prompt follow up preferably that day or the next day. Follow up works best when its fresh in their memory and they remember who you are.
  3. DO NOT send a template follow up email. Take the time to craft a unique response to each person, a little bit of personalization will go a long way.
  4. In the follow up email refer to something you two talked about or had in common. This goes back to #3 and don’t have a generic emotionless follow up email, instead take the time to connect with the other person and refer back to your conversation in the follow up email.
  5. DO NOT PITCH IN YOUR FOLLOW UP EMAIL. I’ve made this mistake multiple times before and each time led to a disaster or lost connection. Don’t immediately pitch the other person in your follow up email about your business/product/program/etc. The goal should be to create a relationship with the other person not just sell them on what your working on.
  6. If you can follow up with an action item. I like to follow up with a question which greatly increases my chances of getting a response from my follow up.
  7. Write a boring but informative subject title. You don’t need to write the worlds most unique title but do make sure it is informative. I like to reference where we met and about the content in the email. For example here is a recent email subject I used:Cal Poly – DFJ Venture Challenge – Pitching Critique

In this subject I used where we met (Cal Poly), what I am following up about (DFJ Venture Challenge), and I reference what the email is about (Pitching Critique).

What are your best follow up practices? If you have tips or tricks to share leave a comment!


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