Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Curiosity’s Motivating Spark


Curious Boys

Entrepreneur or not, embracing curiosity in your life can have a powerful impact.  Some folks are born naturally curious and remain intensely curious their entire life.   Others of us (myself included) need to learn and practice the art of constant curiosity and do well to surround ourselves with motivators to stay curious.

This idea hit me over the weekend. Sitting with my two boys in church at Peachtree Road UMC on Sunday, I noticed them making notes, drawings, and soaking in the architecture of the sanctuary.  Huh? Odd behavior for a 6 and 9 year old. Sitting still and calm isn’t normal.

At first, I started to be inspired by whatever deep spiritual movements inside them caused this wide-eyed curiosity… but then I realized it.

Boys are only motivated by one thing at a time.   The one thing consumes them.  It lasts for months or years and nothing else enters their field of view during this time of focus. Each one has grown up shifting from phase to phase.  Motorcycles, trucks, trains, boats.   Then things like dragons, pirates, Star Wars, Legos, Star Wars, Pokemon, more Star Wars, more pirates, SnapCircuits, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson…. and of course, the obsession of obsessions that is current:  MINECRAFT!

For those unfamiliar, Minecraft is like virtual Legos.  Our boys use the iMac and the iPads.   You enter virtual [pixelated] worlds, sometimes alone, sometimes together, and build things. Our kids have done some impressive construction in their Minecraft worlds.

What was happening in church this weekend?  They were making mental notes about the church sanctuary architecture so they could recreate it in Minecraft.   First gut reaction of a tired dad: “Oh, brother! Give it a rest!”

But then the “Big Picture Parenting” mindset prevailed (thanks to Tommy Newberry for that) and I realized the value of this curiosity.   Who cares why they are so curious… they are soaking it in!   They were so focused, that after the service, we sat on a side bench and they talked and stared for another 15 minutes after everyone else was long gone.   I even took time to snap the photo above to capture the moment. This was nothing but goodness.

The parallel adulthood lesson is a no brainer.

Entrepreneurs are just like those boys.   Intensely focused. The company. We sleep, dream, breathe it.   And because of it, we are curious. We are hunting for problems, curious about solutions, experimental with technology and value  propositions.  It’s how we move forward.  It’s the reason we have to remain curious.

For me personally, exploring the vast possibilities in startups is a motivator to stay curious and learn about industries, companies, and processes that I would otherwise have little interest in.       Being curious is good no matter what your motivator.

Editorial Comment- About Startup CEO References

In many of my posts when I talk about the energy it takes to build a startup, I specifically mention the “Startup CEO.”  I do this intentionally, because I work hard to only speak from experience.  My own experience is based on being the CEO, and I have little experience-based credibility in sharing advice and ideas otherwise.

However, as it has been pointed out to me several times (especially at the Atlanta Tech Village water cooler), many times my thoughts and ideas are valid for anyone building a startup. Whether you are employee #2 or employee #20, the work is still hard, the energy still needs to be positive, and the ideas are still valid. 

I will continue to speak from experience, because I believe this is the only credibility I have. If you do follow my writing, I hope that you will see yourself as “CEO of yourself” and have no issues with the reference to actual job titles in your startup.


Your Decisions – The Positive Energy Version of Persistence

When you decide to do something, it’s your decision. You are doing it because you “want to.”  Yet, many times, we feel pressure to continue and this can be negative energy.  We feel a weight on our shoulders as if continuing down a tough path has a lot of resistance.

Let’s go with exercising, waking up early, or writing regularly.   Working on developing new habits can be hard work.  If you miss a workout or a blog post the guilt can start, and if you miss another one, it even gets heavier.

All of this changes when you step back and realize that you decided to go after this habit because you want it. You don’t need to write blog posts regularly, you want to.   You don’t need to make your startup successful, you want to. A few things happens when you realize that you made your own decision:

1. You realize that you are free to make any decision you want. You can decide not to, you can decide to continue. The important realization is that you are in charge of your own destiny.

2. The weight becomes less when you use the word “want” instead of “need.”  Try it for your next workout. Think in your head that you want to go workout, and you will find it easier to hop out of bed and get after it. 

3. When you lighten the load with “want” and realize you are free to opt out of the previous decision, it becomes even easier and more obvious that you chose correctly to begin with and the best thing for your success and happiness is to stick with it, continue, and make it happen.

Some people call this persistence, but I believe you have a lot more energy when you constantly remind yourself that continuing down a path (especially when there is resistance) is reminding yourself that the path forward is still your decision. 


Pleasing Others will Hold You Back

I was recently in a meeting with a group of successful entrepreneurs and the topic came up:

“What is one of the biggest things holding you back?”

One person answered a surprising, unexpected answer:   the desire to please others is a limitation. 

As I thought about this, my first reaction was “Well, I used to be that way, but not any more.”  But when I peeled back the layers to think about decisions I make day in and day out, both big and small, I realize that whether I acknowledge it or not, the underlying tendency to take “pleasing others” into consideration as a factor in decisions is ever present. 

You may be the same as me. You think that you’re making logical and objective decisions for the good of your company and your family at all times. But you probably don’t realize how much you are really motivated by making others happy, making them like you. 

I think most entrepreneurs have this strong desire to please others.  It’s not a bad thing, but as with any other area of emotional intelligence, if you don’t acknowledge it and accept that the tendency is there, it can be a severe limiting factor on your success. 


Ridiculously Good Life

With three kids under 10 in our house, “domestic operations” is a pretty busy department.  The food service area is a big part of that. Getting the team fed, keeping the kitchen stocked, and doing it on a repeated basis day in and day out is no small job. 

Recently, our dishwasher went out for a week.   A circuit board went out and needed to be re-ordered and it would take a while. (Who knew that computers are even washing our dishes?!)

Let’s just say you don’t appreciate certain things in life until you live without them.  For us, it took about 36 hours to realize that some dramatic workflow changes needed to happen to live life sans automatic dishwasher.  It meant even the lowest level staff (3 years old), needed to join the party by grabbing a towel once in a while and pitching in.  We tried to use fewer dishes, more paper plates or paper towels, and generally were always aware that if we used it, we would be washing it by hand.

This week, we have our dishwasher back.  Just this morning as I went to grab a clean coffee cup from it, I realized how amazing our life is with a dishwasher.  Like, really amazing.  

It was a nice reminder that our life overall is ridiculously, amazing, almost disgustingly good. The automation and comfort surrounding us is awe inspiring. Human innovation is awesome.   

It’s healthy to remember this. It’s healthy to say it out loud.  

God Bless Dishwashers. 

So Very Nuanced, that Product Market Fit

One of the most talked about concepts among startups is product-market fit (PMF).  It comes up in daily conversations, monthly updates, investor conversations, and is a regular topic of startup blogs (like this, this, this, and this). 

Because entrepreneurs are so goal oriented, we crave a definition. We crave a SMART goal where we can see how much farther we have to go to get there.   We want a deadline, a date, and a hard stop on the current phase.

Yet PMF continues to be difficult to define. Some of the definitions you will hear, just for SaaS companies. 

  • when you close X non-friendly customers in X time frame
  • when X non-friendly customers are talking about the product, and giving tons of feedback
  • when 2 account execs and 1 BDR can consistently and predictably close deals
  • getting to $1mm ARR
  • getting to $1.5mm ARR
  • getting to $10mm ARR
  • you are growing MRR by 10% per month

So how in the world do you know what your goal is? What are you pursuing?

The truth of the matter is that setting a hard numeric goal as the “PMF finish line” is difficult.   Remembering that PMF is a spectrum is important. As Feld says: 

Every time you work on something new, whether it’s a new feature, a new product, or a new product line, recognize that you are searching for incremental product/market fit. The search is a continuous and never ending quest. Don’t confuse illusion with reality.

Start with One

Rev. Bill Britt at Peachtree Road had a great message this week about missions and how you can help the world be a better place. The bottom line was this: don’t let the size of any task be a factor in your decision to start. 

Whether you are trying to eradicate a disease from Africa, end hunger for children, provide clean water for areas of the world that have never had it, you always have to start somewhere. Start with one child. One water filter.   One small donation.  

The same applies to your startup.   You don’t have to close all of your customers in one day, build your entire product in one sprint, or find the answers to all your problems this year.   The best place to start is the biggest one thing you can do today.   Start with one customer. Focus on their problems, relentlessly work on solving them.  Build one feature.  Start somewhere.

The same applies to your life. Reading, writing, exercising. You don’t have to finish a book this week. But why not pick one up and read 10 pages today?   No person will criticize you for writing a single blog post on Medium. It can take less than 30 minutes. Who knows, you might write another one tomorrow.    How about getting healthy?  You don’t have to lose the weight or build the habit today. But start with 1 mile.   Start with 1 lunch where you have a salad instead of the burger.  

Just start with one. This is how you make change.

Practically Speaking, What does Giving Up Mean?

I was with another early stage entrepreneur recently, and we were comparing notes on how hard it is building startups.  He said to me “Some days, I think I’m getting ready to just give up.”

I encouraged him to explore that option. What if you do give up? What are you going to do? 

Get a j-o-b? 

Of course you will. And yes, you can get any job you want. You’re experienced, connected, smart, and talented. Any job you want. Do you believe that?

He said: Yes, I do.

Ok then, let’s say you go get this dream job.  How will you really feel about yourself every day when you go home and on the weekends?

Will you be satisfied? 

Will you see that big boat, hear about those big vacations, those super-cars that you love and feel that you are doing your best to get there for yourself?   

Or will you be satisfied knowing that you may be taking your big dreams off the table and working at your j-o-b?

Of course not!

Or let’s look at another option. Maybe you think you should have gone down a different startup path?   Do you really think it would be easier building any other company besides the one you’re building right now?

Remember how easy it looked when you set out to do this? You knew the idea was sound, the market was huge, and you had the skills and team to go after it? I bet any other idea you have looks about the same from the outside, but remember… they’re all hard once you get going.  So don’t fool yourself.

Remember that you chose your current path.  You can change your mind at any time.  But why would you? When you realize this, you take giving up off the table, and you have immense freedom to focus on moving forward. It’s the only option.


Expanding Out of Trouble

One of the most impressive things about Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial journey, as chronicled in his book, is how many times his company was in a near-death situations, and how most times he managed not only to get out of a tight spot, but also take the company to the next level.  

Growing a record label and chain of record stores takes a lot of capital, and a lot of good banking relationships (read: debt!).  On more than one occasion, Virgin Records was about to have their line called, or something with the bank was going sideways and it looked like the end could be near. 

However, the most impressive lesson from Branson is how he managed each crisis. Each time, rather than retreating, playing defense, or “cutting fat,” he found ways to expand to the next level.  Whether it was adding a store, buying a company, or making a big bet, he had a lot of offensive moves that got them out of hot water.

Don’t get me wrong, there was no small amount of good luck that accompanied those moves, and I’m sure many seasoned entrepreneurs and business school professors would say he made some terrible decisions that could have gone horribly wrong.  But they didn’t. He got lucky and kept at it.   

It’s inspiring to think about using a tight spot as an opportunity to go bigger, play offense, and expand into the next level.  

Helping Others for an Energy Boost

We all have energy swings. Highs and lows. It’s unavoidable, especially if you live in startup land.

Here’s a tip: In periods of low energy, pushing pause on your own issues, life, and focus to think about someone else is a powerful way to break the hold of low energy.

Two ways I’ve found to make this happen, than can be useful to you as well.

A Mastermind Group

For me, this is my EO Forum.  I have to admit that there are some months where I look at that 4-hour commitment and just think there is no way I can find 4-hours to make that meeting happen. I dread the meeting and worry about all the things that are going to unravel if I go off the grid for that long in the middle of a week day.   But inevitably what happens, every single time is that I go into that [very] structured meeting, turn on my brain to help 7 other entrepreneurs with equally heavy loads, and leave re-centered, re-focused, and energized about my own situation.

The strangest thing is: most of the time, my business isn’t the center of attention. Yet my business receives the benefit of me taking time to focus on others.   If entrepreneurs haven’t found a Mastermind group, I recommend making that a top priority in 2015.  

Mentoring Someone Else

Mentor-mentee relationships are great. In the same spirit as a mastermind group, you take time to focus on someone else’s situation. You think about how they can get from point A to point B. Not only will you find satisfaction in sitting down on a regular basis to think about another person, but when they grow and succeed, you get the parental-ish joy of having played a part. 

Startups are hard as hell. When you’re in the grind and need a boost, take some time to think about where you can go to give some energy to someone else. That usually ends up coming back in a big way. 


Travel Reviews are a Double Edged Sword

Do you remember what it was like to travel or try a new restaurant before there were reviews?

Do you remember having to pick vacation spots, hotels, or restaurants in a new city before there was TripAdvisor or Yelp?  

I have to admit, it’s difficult for me to think back.  I honestly can’t remember how we would pick hotels or fun things to do in cities. I guess we used those paper things from those places that keep them. (Libr… something?)

Now that we live in a world where we can read a review about anything we do before we do it, making decisions is much easier. 

However, there is a downside to the mentality of reviews.   If you pay attention, you will notice that you are inevitably guilty of this: Often, we notice negative aspects of our experiences only because we read about them in reviews.

When you read that a restaurant is great, but the music is too loud. You will probably be listening out for the music. 

When someone posts on TripAdvisor that a hotel is great, but the walk to the elevator is too long and the views are often partially blocked by trees, you will notice those problems.  

Most negative things we notice after reading a review aren’t negatives we would have noticed otherwise. 

Try to think about this the next time you research reviews then experience something and put those negative items in context. Ask yourself “Would I have noticed this on my own?”


Unstructured Data is Good for the Mind

While unstructured data may be bad for your company, there is a place where it can add unbelievable value to your life. 

When we read books, we expose our mind to new ideas, thoughts, and stories. These ideas more than likely aren’t able to always be structured in our head. There is no card-catalog of the mind where you visit when you encounter a real life opportunity to apply an idea you’ve read about, find the category, remember the book, and apply the idea.  It doesn’t work like that. 

Instead we are forming a complex view of the world where ideas collide with memories and experiences and we navigate forward based on those collisions. 

Reading books only adds to the ideas and experiences our mind uses.  

Maybe one day science will be able to show us the structured database of how the mind works, but today, I’m perfectly happy knowing that it is 100% unstructured.

You can’t tell how you will use the ideas you read about this morning, but you were exposed to them, and as you overlay them on what you experience today, what you hear about from others, and what you read about tomorrow, you will begin to form your own new ideas, opinions, and path forward. 

This is why consistent mental diet of reading books and blogs is so important. There isn’t a predetermined amount of content we need to consume to succeed. Instead, we need to make content consumption a regular part of our life.