Johnson Cook

CEO @ Voxa. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Johnson Cook - CEO @ Voxa. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

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 for Voxa’s technology 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.

Fear or Greed? The Carrot or the Stick?

Here in my startup land, pitching Voxa is getting more fun lately.   We are in aggressive learning mode and are soaking up feedback, ideas, and opportunities.   An intelligence layer that sits on top of your email and alerts you to important or missed email is a new product to folks. Because of the way we are doing it, we’re in a new category of product too.

That’s cool, but tricky.    

Most companies don’t know the answers to the questions we are asking. They have no idea. That makes for interesting product pitch dynamics.

Q&A usually goes something like this:

1. What’s your response time to customers who send you an email?
We don’t know.

2. How many customer emails in either service or support take longer than 24 hours to respond to?
We don’t know.

3. How often does your team use slang in emails?
We don’t know. 

4. How many emails back and forth does it take to schedule a meeting?
We don’t know.

5. How many emails do your customers send you before they sign the proposal you sent them?
We don’t know.

6. Is your team ever sending credit card numbers or other personal identifiable info over email?
We don’t know.

7. How many emails have you sent requesting answers or feedback that you’re waiting on answers to right now?
We don’t know.

8. How many current customers are waiting on a response from you right now?
We don’t know.

9. What process does each of your customer facing reps have for guaranteeing a customer email is never missed?
We don’t know…or “Everyone has their own process.”

And on and on…

As I’ve learned from hearing Kyle Porter preach when he discusses sales:  your first goal is to convince the prospect to buy anything at all.   So we have a decision to make in every pitch once we’ve exposed these critical blind spots.   We need to convince the company to address them and the two motivators we have to choose from: fear and greed.      

It is said that humans are only motivated by 3 things: fear, greed, and sex.  Unfortunately, we haven’t yet figured out how to get sex motivator worked into the Voxa pitch, we have plenty of fear and greed to work with!   

Fear: We can show companies that if they don’t get control of their email, they will lose deals, die, be sued, all their employees will quit or be fired, there competitors will crush them, and the government will raid their offices due to terrible email management. 


Greed:  You can uncover a deal that can close today. You can beat your competitors in responsiveness by showing 10x faster response times. Your quality of service can go from a 7 to a 10 if you promise everyone you work with a <2 hour email response.  You will get more deals to yes, faster, with less effort, and no stress.

Everyone responds to different motivators for different reasons.  We experiment with a little of both in some pitches while sometimes we put 80% into one bucket or the other. 

Balancing fear and greed, or the carrot and the stick as our investor Tom Noonan likes to call it, is a fascinating dynamic in human behavior and sales. It will be fun to continue exploring which works better.  

Personally, I’m more of a carrot guy, but Mr. Somoza, our CSO likes to say “I’m an ‘AND’ guy.” So maybe it will remain that a little of both is always the formula.  Stay tuned as we continue exploring. 


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. 


Seth’s Productivity Pyramid – The Email Version

Seth Godin recently had a fantastic daily post about productivity. As I read the post, I realized quickly that he is describing the Voxa vision for productivity. I’ve shared his post below along with commentary about how we are changing the world.

Seth: Productivity is a measure of output over time. All other things being equal, the more you produce per minute, the more productive you are. And economists understand that wealth (for a company or a community) is based on increasing productivity.

Did you know that the average person in American today spent 35-50% of their time doing email?   I am a big believer in making change by starting with the area where the most impact can happen. That’s why we start with email.

Seth: The simplest way to boost productivity is to get better at the task that has been assigned to you. To work harder, and with more skill.

For your email, this means working with Inbox Zero approach.   Either respond, archive, delete, or act on every email the first time you read it. Only touch it once. This helps you improve your responsiveness and keep the noise down.

Seth: The next step up is to find people who are cheaper than you to do those assigned tasks. The theory of the firm is that people working together can get more done, faster.

As we continue to do exhaustive customer discovery and research into corporate email habits, we find that those with resources and the highest volume of important email are usually CEOs, and do you know what they do for this?   They have personal assistants that monitor their email, flag important ones, and even will go as far as to call or text the CEO to let them know they have an important email that needs a response.   For those of us without human assistants, this level of the pyramid is more about delegating things assigned to us in email. It helps, but doesn’t really make an impact on the 20 hours/week we’re spending doing email. 

Seth: The next step up is to invest in existing technology that can boost your team’s output. Buying a copier will significantly increase your output if you’re used to handwriting each copy of the memo you’ve been assigned.

This is where Voxa comes in. Voxa Alerts are intended to replace the assistant reading your email and will tell you when you have something important.  It’s not just based on who the person is, it’s based on if they asked a question, who they sent it to, and other factors.  Automagically determining what’s important is no small feat.    With Voxa lists, you can even segment your Alerts between VIPs (your strongest relationships), Customers (with lists kept automatically up-to-date with third party systems like, Vendors, Investors, Family, Friends, etc. 

Seth: The step after that? Invent a new technology. Huge leaps in value creation come to those that find the next innovation.

Voxa’s email solution is built on a tagging approach that will ultimately put control into the hands of the business users. Our infrastructure allows companies to tag email message headers with any type of information important to run their business.  We give your business the opportunity to put customized structure to your messages.   Some fun examples of advanced tagging that we hear regularly:

  • Tag emails to ObjectIDs (accounts, contacts, opportunities)
  • Tag emails to support ticket or case numbers based on the recipient, third party logic, and content of the message
  • Tag emails to flag any message with a resume attached and automatically drop that resume attachment into a repository
  • Tag emails for compliance alerts (key phrases that may deem a teaching moment for an employee around HR or anti-trust)
  • Tag emails for sentiment (real-time analytics of customer feelings and emotions)
  • Tag emails for workflow rules (trigger actions in third-party systems based on information in and about email messages)

The final step, the one that that eludes so many of us: Figure out better things to work on. Make your own list, don’t merely react to someone else’s.

Now, this is where you take over for Voxa. Once we get you back those hours where you’re distracted and trying to keep up with Voxa. It’s up to you to change the world.

Thanks for allowing me to share Seth’s post in a sales pitch.  If you want to see for yourself, how Voxa can start acting as your personal assistant, telling you about important emails, go use the product for free, starting now.