Johnson Cook

Energized. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Johnson Cook - Energized. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Ordinary People Have No Imagination

Let’s start this post by defining who is included in the categorization of “ordinary people.”

If you are an entrepreneur, ordinary people includes: everybody.  

Yes, even other entrepreneurs.

In your universe, in your corner of industry, with your product, your market opportunity, and your vision— you have superpowers. You have the vision and you are the expert.  Everybody else is ordinary compared to you when it comes to your vision.

So here’s what you need to learn quickly about these other people… the ordinaries:   They have inferior imaginations compared to you.   I continue relearning this lesson daily.  

You spend your days telling people what you’re building, how you’re building it and why you’re building it. You draw it on whiteboards and bar napkins. You use multiple metaphors. You mix the metaphors. You layer the metaphors. You even tell personal stories to build up the vision. But still, people never imagine the vision as clear as it is in your head. 

That is, until you show them something.  Give them something to play with.  Or walk them through a demo of something in action.  Even if it is mocked up screen shots or a clickable prototype.   This is the only true way to describe a product to someone and make it “click.”    This is why we work so hard to win “Demos” with customers. We don’t win slide presentations or meetings, we win the opportunity to show off a product or results.

This week, I learned this truth yet again.   With Voxa Alerts invites going out  and users getting their hands on it, I see the lightbulbs going off.   I’m getting notes with compliments and praises about how brilliant our idea is.   Of course, I want to respond and say “Yeah duh. I’ve been telling you this idea for 6 months now.”  But instead, I’m getting more value out of the “Cool. Now that you’ve seen it, what else do you think it could do?”

And that’s how you help ordinary people work through their lack of imagination. 

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It is Not Okay to be Bad at Email

 

Cal Newport, a blogger/academic I enjoy following, wrote a post recently called “It’s Okay to be Bad at Email.”    Cal writes about finding deep study time and shares tips on not being distracted.   I love his stuff, but I have to disagree with the being bad at email post.

Here’s why.

1. Email is connective tissue of relationships.
Email isn’t a separate channel or category in life. There’s no wall separating it from everything else. Email is simply one of many ways we communicate with other people.  If I am haphazard about reading, scanning, and replying to emails, it’s not a problem that will just affect my Inbox: it affects the people on the other end of those emails.   Being someone who values relationships as a key driver to success, I don’t believe that being bad at a primary communication tool for those relationships is a sustainable approach.

2. Not all email is created equal. 
Not responding to group threads, customer service surveys, and other random junk is not the same as not responding to a customer, a prospect, a close friend, mentor, investor, or other VIP in your life.   You need tools and techniques to be sure that you filter up what is important to you.  Not making the effort to prioritize VIPs is inexcusable.

3. Sometimes you just need to respond faster.
What does “being good at email” really mean?  If you think about it hard, it will always boil down to the speed at which you respond (either by actually sending a reply, or taking appropriate action) to important messages.

Faster response to important messages = you are awesome at email.

Slower response, or no response = you suck at email.

4. Pro Tip: Being good can also include your outbound emails.
I’ve realized for my personal life that managing email successfully doesn’t just mean responding and reacting to incoming emails, but also tracking who I’ve sent emails to and if they responded or not.   Having open ended inquiries is usually a cascading problem.  In most cases, when I’ve asked someone a question, it’s because someone else down the line is waiting for me to make something happen.    See the final point, on how I manage this!

It’s not as hard as it sounds.
Yes, I’m going to plug Voxa Alerts here.  You saw it coming, right?    I believe email effectiveness, faster replies, and not missing anything is a key to success for individuals and for companies.  That’s why Voxa is building a messaging intelligence platform that will help you manage, prioritize, and not miss any emails. Ever.     We’re now sending out Beta Invites for our free tool. Get yours here.

Bet on Technical Insights

how-google-worksI’m reading and enjoying How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg right now.  I’m only a third in, but can say that I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. Highly recommended for anyone building a tech company… of any size or stage.

One of the early concepts discussed is how critical it is for a tech startup to be focused on adding value to the world with genuine technical insights

With all the talk about sales and marketing in Atlanta startup world, it is an important reminder that you must somewhere in your product have a true technical insight that has a spark of magic.  Here are some of my favorite ideas from the book:

Bet on technical insights, not market research.

In Google’s case, the products that succeeded were based on a technical insight (serving more relevant ads, searching faster, filtering images with difficult-to-do algorithms) where the products that failed “lacked that fundamental technical insight that would shift the cost-performance curve nonincrementally and provide significant differentiation. (iGoogle, Desktop, Knol, Notebook, and even the popular Reader).

We are in a period of combinatorial innovation.

There is so much opportunity right now to combine platforms, data, technologies to solve big problems or reimagine solutions to the current ways of doing things.  (Personally, I call this entrepreneurial alchemy…mixing all kinds of crazy stuff together trying to make gold.)

Don’t look for faster horses.

From the book: “When you base you product strategy on technical insights, you avoid me-too products that simply deliver what customers are asking for.”    For those who read Steve Jobs bio, you know that he was a master of knowing what the user wanted … before the user did.  The book continues: “That sort of incremental innovation can work very well for incumbents who are concerned with maintaining the status quo and quibbling over percentage points of market share. But if you are starting a new venture or trying to transform an existing enterprise, it’s not enough.

In short, if you’re in a crowded market, don’t try to find your way out just with your messaging, marketing, and sales strategy. Spend time in your product, with your engineers. Look for deep technical innovations.

When you do start to uncover these insights, the entrepreneur/CEO’s job is to package them up and figure out how to get that product in the hands of as many people as possible.   Granted, selling is just as important!! Looking for technical insights in your product… is a good reminder about what has to be at the core of what you’re all about. 

More to come from this book as I work my way through it.  Entrepreneurs won’t be disappointed in the read.

Finding a Big Vision – Voxa’s Announcement this Week

Voxa Raises $2.5mm

Last week we officially announced that Voxa has raised a total of $2.5mm to build a world class messaging intelligence platform. I described the vision of messaging intelligence in a post on the Voxa blog here, and it was also well documented in this Atlanta Business Chronicle article by Urvaksh and this Pando article by Michael Carney.

The feedback has been positive form Voxa clients and friends and many have complimented our big vision. It’s a true compliment to hear things like “Wow, you guys are dreaming big!” and “We love your vision, those are really big problems.”

I just finished Peter Theil’s book, Zero to One. In his book, Theil describes true monopolies and encourages startups to build dramatic, big, new inventions that change the world and not to continue the cycle of incremental improvements and optimization.   Every startup CEO building a tech product should read this book.    It is a blueprint for your big vision.

However, coming to a clear and big vision wasn’t easy.

Over the last 4 months of raising money for Voxa, the most common feedback we heard from investors was “We like what you’re doing. You guys are a guaranteed single, but we are looking for home runs and grand slams. We’re looking for a billion dollar vision of yourself.”    The delivery of the feedback usually came in the “build a product, not a feature of another product” jargon.

For us to hear this was difficult. It was painful because I think we knew it was true. We could tell you with great precision what we look like in 6-18 months, but we couldn’t see what value we add beyond the features we currently offer for Salesforce.com users.     We couldn’t see the 5 year vision because we hadn’t yet spent the time and effort to develop it.

At the end of the process though, we reframed our message, we uncovered and built out a grand vision, and we now truly believe in it.      Once we started truly believing in ourselves and have a confident vision, everything started accelerating. 

If you’ve followed the Voxa story since last November, I hope you appreciate how far we’ve come with the story we’re telling. Here are my top takeaways for any CEO hunting for a big vision.

It’s hard.   Taking where you are today and creating a picture of where you will be in 3-5 years is straight up hard work.   We met with exactly 97 different investors (and tracked them in a separate CRM). Each of these provided feedback and it was a full-time job getting meetings, taking feedback, and iterating on messaging and your story.

Yes, you can question as you go.  It felt strange to be asking for money, then walking out asking ourselves if we’re going in the right direction.  We knew that we had some amazing basic components (email server connectivity, CRM connectivity, natural language processing, ranking algorithms), so for us it was just trying the different sequences and variations until we discovered a big opportunity.

Iterate, question, iterate, question. I’ve learned this from David Cummings. Constantly reevaluate your position and the next step forward.  You can’t obsess too much over big ideas.

It’s ok to be frustrated. Yes, it was frustrating.  We wore out some whiteboard markers with diagrams, markets, ideas, charts, and positioning statements.

Buffer your team. If you have an operational business like we do at Voxa, you need to keep the sales, marketing, and engineering teams protected from wild swings in vision statements that can change every 24 hours.  It wasn’t until we felt the vision was tested and true that we started preaching it over and over to the team.

Investor feedback is valuable. Even if you’re not raising money, I encourage you to spend as much time as you can land with investors. Their view of the future is more valuable than others’ view. Current clients, for example, usually only ask for the next obvious feature of your current offering and aren’t on the same wavelength with helping you change the world.

Last thing: When you find it you will know it.

Having a big vision that you can articulate over and over is a powerful tool for a startup CEO.     Dream big, but remember it takes a lot of work to turn that dream into a future that you are willing to bet big on.

Advice Isn’t What You Need – Don’t Miss the Value in an Intro

Bad Advice Cartoon

When you meet someone new, how often do you have a clear expectation of what they can do for you?    Particularly when you reach out to someone and ask for a meeting, advice, or assistance: do you have a clear picture in mind of what “yes” looks like?   What is success?

I bring this up because I take many meetings with young entrepreneurs who ask for help, but after digging in, they don’t actually know what they need or what they’re asking.

Advice is cheap. Advice is readily available from every dude sitting at a bar or eavesdropping in Starbucks.     Reaching out to an individual to ask advice is nice, but plain ol’ advice probably not real value that moves the needle for you.

In my case, if you come asking my advice, you should know that I don’t know your situation any better than you. My so-called advice for you will only be as good as my own experiences, which may or may not be relevant to your situation, and in most cases may have only a single common thread with where you are.  I wouldn’t take advice from me, if I were you.

So here’s a tip: I only have one humble value-add for your trajectory. My network.

What does it look like when I offer this value to you? It looks like this:

“Mike meet Joe – you guys should get together.”

Of course there is more to my introduction than a one-liner. Usually I follow a double-opt-in process where I clear the introduction with both sides before actually making the connection.

The point is that too often we miss the value in an introduction.   We may think that we are being pawned off or we are just running in circles going from one introduction to another.

The secret is to realize that each meeting is a new relationship. Each introduction is a win. Each introduction is an entirely new network of potential introductions. And if you believe that meaningful relationships are the most important thing for your success, then pay attention to the measurement for wins.

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Danger of Over Industrialized Sales in Your Early Stage Startup

 

wolf cold callingIn Atlanta, and specifically around the Atlanta Tech Village, you will hear a lot of talk about startups building a customer acquisition machine. Let’s face it, we’re a sales focused community.    While the Silicon Valley approach and mainstream sexy startup image is of hackers sitting around building product, product, product, (with a little growth hacking thrown in), I personally believe the “sales first” approach is the best way to tackle my current startup, Voxa.

Of course we’re building an amazing product. That goes without saying. And as we do that, I would rather err on the side of customers-wanting-what-we’re-building-before-we’ve-built-it over building-something-that-people-may-not-find-out-about.  For me, this is simply to correct the missed opportunities of my youth.  I was in the “build it and they will come” camp for the first decade of my entrepreneurial journey and I wake up every morning focused on learning from and correcting past experiences.

Our focus at Voxa in the early days of selling was to get as quickly as possible to a fiercely documented, detailed sales process. We spent our time pursing solid phone scripts, data driven processes, DRIP campaigns, synchronized cadences between emails, calls, and events,  and getting our sales process so finely tuned that we know exactly which dials to turn to affect different areas of the funnel.   Our internal Voxa Sales Playbook is 51 pages and growing.

We were getting there. However, after about 4 months of this ramping up, we started to notice a downside.  The downside was that our sales team was so focused on the processes that they were forgetting to just do the old fashioned scrappy selling. They weren’t fighting for their life.  
Some examples:

  • When I’d walk into the office on a weekday afternoon and it was quiet like a library, I would ask why is nobody on the phone.  The answers I received were usually like this: “The process says I don’t call my next batch until tomorrow, when they hit day 7 of the DRIP campaign.” Yikes.
  • When a batch of leads were processed (since we have a clearly defined process for collecting, loading, and batching leads), young reps would think that they’ve done enough prospecting for the day and can relax until the next batch comes in.  Uh-oh.
  • Reps were sometimes only following-up with open opportunities when they had downtime, rather than making getting to a close the top priority of their job.  Yeesh.

This didn’t look or sound like a selling machine at all!

Let me be clear: I did not fault our team for this. First, they’re a young team without decades of sales experience. Second, and more importantly: they were just doing what we were preaching. We were preaching follow the process, follow the process, follow the process!

We preached the process so passionately that we dampened that competitive whatever-it-takes energy that successful sales teams exude.  

Now we work on finding balance. We still need the processes so we can scale the team, train new reps, and work with predictability in new business. Aka Predictable Revenue!
Here are some tips we gave the team:

  1. Call whenever you want to call. You can’t call a qualified prospect too often. Call them until you get to “yes” or they use profanity at you about calling them.  Then call them again anyway!
  2. The process is being built based on scrappy selling. We want following the process to have the same energy as a wild and crazy successful sales rockstar. If the process leaves holes in your day, find something to fill the hole, and if that helps you close more deals, tell us about it so we can bake it into the process.
  3. Lack of leads is never an excuse. We have plenty of leads and we’ve spent a lot of money and energy to get them. You should be working them to the bone before you move on. Every single lead needs to give you a hard “no” before you move on. And even then, come back to them regularly.
  4. Phone trumps email. Always. Period.
  5. Lean into cold calling. Make it fun. Embrace it.   Be a team, and get after it, hard.
  6. Crave chaos. Be hungry, drink Red Bull, when you’re in the office expect chaos. Anything less than chaos means something is wrong.
  7. Be different. Be creative.  Send me (the CEO) your list of open opportunities and ask me to call every single one of them to see if I can move them forward. Great idea, I’m in.
  8. On that note, ask for help getting buyers to move.  Ask for help inside the prospect company. Ask for help from other clients, ask for help from your team, your manager, your CEO.  You cannot do this alone.

To some, this may sound like a high-stress place to work.  If that’s you, then you wouldn’t be a fit for Voxa. We’re after something big and if we don’t get on it, somebody will beat us to it.

Bottom line: As a startup, remember to balance the goal of creating defined processes with the old fashioned gumption to figure it out.   Your job and your sales team’s job, as Nance tweeted recently, is to make rain without clouds.  

Screenshot 2014-09-11 08.49.40

The Unhurried Startup CEO

 

Professional Startup CEOHave you ever watched a professional house painter work?

I’m always amazed at how fast they get things done.   Painting detailed trim, rolling, cleaning brushes… those pros can do an entire house in the amount of time it takes me personally to do a half a wall. Oh, and their quality is 50x better than mine.

But, somehow they never look hurried.  They don’t act hurried. They aren’t in a hurry. They just do their job and they are professional about it. Just so happens things move much faster.

I think Startup Entrepreneurs can be more professional about how we go about building companies. It’s a striking difference between successful serial entrepreneurs and first time startup entrepreneurs.

I’m not talking about the actual speed you move or how fast you build your company.   Speed is important. You can only be in startup mode for a certain period of time, then it’s game over.   But how fast you go and whether you feel/act rushed are two separate topics.

When you feel hurried:

- You rush through big decisions

- Your emotions are frantic… which affects your team… and your family… and your health

- Customers and investors will not be impressed with your professionalism

- You’ll lose perspective on the big picture

- You’ll exhaust yourself before the hard part of the race has begun

Unhurried is a mindset.  It is being confident that you know the plan ahead. You know the steps to take. You know how long they will take, and you know what levers and dials to push to adjust the speed of your company.

Some practical tips that help me slow down when I realize that I feel hurried:

  • Don’t check email first thing in the morning. Start with a cup of water. Then a cup of coffee if you’re so inclined. Then read a book… one that is paper and not connected to a device that will cause you to get ADD early in the morning to check email and deal with fires.  Start the day slow.
  • Miss a weekday in the office, just because. Whether it’s working from home or just putting the phone away and playing with the kids. It’s a nice rhythm breaker to step back and grab some perspective at a time when a hurried person would say “It’s impossible to break away on a day like this!”
  • Read as much as possible, and not industry specific books.   I’ve found so much calming joy in reading big picture books and stories of successful people.
  • Tell yourself often that you are lucky to have the problems that you have. You’ve already gotten farther than most people, just by starting a company. If you happen to have a team, even a product, and maybe a little bit of money… you’re in the top 1%, so you don’t have to injure yourself trying to get ahead.  Focus and be intentional.
  • If your calendar is as crazy as mine. Don’t hesitate or feel guilty about canceling meetings that have no purpose related to your primary mission.
  • One big thing per week.   A coach of mine several years ago helped me understand the value in having one main thing to accomplish each week. Not a 50 item todo list.

One more tip: I write this blog as therapy for the very reason discussed above. It’s less expensive than a shrink :) and is effective at keeping my head clear and energy focused.  This is a great way to keep perspective and start my day unhurried. Consider writing on your own if you are so inclined.

Do whatever it takes. Just don’t be in a hurry.

 

Your One Thing that Closes Deals

 

This may be simplistic, but hang with me.  There is only one thing that closes deals for your team: Activities.   Duh, right? But wait…

No matter what you sell, how you sell it, or who you are: there are activities that lead to closed deals.  How you measure and track these activities is up to you. But the companies that have the most predictable, controlled, and successful sales processes track activities with aggressive precision.  If you are great at inbound marketing, activities might be web site visits, trial sign-ups, engagement, usage, or shares.   If you are dialing-for-dollars and working deals to the close, activities are calls, emails, Tweets, demos, meetings, follow-ups, and check-ins.   If you’re selling enterprise deals that are giant and slow, you have meetings, proposals, meetings, contracts, meetings, and meetings.

No matter what you sell, there is some fundamental building block of a deal that you can measure. Are you measuring it?

I didn’t mean this to become a sales pitch post, but I can’t help myself. We believe Voxa is built to help any size organization collect and track the activities that lead to success.

 

Startup Problems

I’m not different from most entrepreneurs in that I have the patience equivalent to that of gravity.   (E.g. If something has to come down, it may as well come down right now.)   We see where we want to be and when we decide we want to be there, we are immediately uncomfortable not being there.

In Startup Life, you set out to build a company. Maybe for the first 2 weeks you are excited to “do” a startup. But for those who have been down the path before, you know what the company looks like and it does not look like a startup.

As our Team at Voxa is starting to find our groove— deals are closing, issues are happening and being fixed, recruiting is going— all of these things are making it start to look more like a company and less like a startup.

But with all that patience we talked about before, we start to immediately think about ourselves as a company… and when we do that, a funny thing happens.    All of the things that are normal checklist items for a startup to get done to become a company, all of a sudden can feel like problems.

Problems everywhere!  Our offer letter sucks, that’s a problem.   We don’t have enough MRR to do X: problem.   Our product only has 20% of the capabilities that we want it to have: problem.    Our engineering team is too small: problem.

But in reality, these aren’t problems, they are just things to do.   At the end of the day sometimes, I walk out of the Village thinking “Oh crap, we have a company with tons of problems.”  But honestly, every thing that we see is a problem, isn’t something that fell apart because we haven’t been paying attention, it’s just something that we haven’t gotten to… yet.

It is excruciatingly difficult to step back, remember the big picture, and slow down the analysis. But when you do, you’ll remember who you really are, how impressive it is what you’ve accomplished already, and how to enjoy the fact that you have so many opportunities every day to shape what will become a great organization.   Just keep moving. Each day, get something important done.

Rogue Sales Reps

 

Going Rogue. Get it?

Going Rogue. Get it?

In Voxa sales pitches with large companies, there is a common feedback that we hear at almost every meeting. It goes something like this:

“…Getting all of our customer conversations in Salesforce.com would be great… but there are some reps who just don’t like using Salesforce and they just never will….    They are doing great and they have their own way of doing things and nobody will ever tell them otherwise.”

We chuckle at this feedback.  I often wonder if the sales leaders can hear what they are saying as they say it. Maybe I’m missing something.   I agree that a rockstar producer should be given more flexibility perhaps, but making excuses about why they don’t share information about customer conversations in your CRM seems like a stretch.

In sales, (yes, even large, complex enterprise deals that take years to nurture and caress to a close) companies benefit from predictability. Process leads to predictability.   Data is needed for a process to work.  You can’t know if you’re in step 3 or step 13 without data.  And yes, everything is a process. Even the softer side of caressing C-suite executives on the golf course, over cigars, or on a private jet to shoot birds in South America (you know who you are! #jealous)… it’s all a process that is leading to the same thing. A signature that means money will find it’s way to your company and your services will add value to a customer.

Even the big deals should be tracked. Everything should be tracked! What happens if your top producer is taken out by Dick Cheney on one of these hunting trips?   Where will you find the status of the conversation with the countless contacts at the organizations they are working? Are you going to power through their years of emails and decipher who goes what and what goes where?

With the growth and expanding importance of CRM software to companies, I stand by Voxa’s position that

every 

single

tiny

piece of information about customers that you can track 

should live forever in the CRM!!

Forever and ever, amen!

 

 

 

 

CRM is so Much More than an Acronym… and Software

 

salesforce-logo-635As we grow Voxa and complete customer, recruiting, and investor pitches, one of the points we like to include is the massive size of the CRM market.   At around $20B in 2013, and expected to be at $36B by 2017  the coolest part is that it is expected to surpass the size of the ERP market.   15 years ago, when I was earning my undergrad degree in Management at Georgia Tech, we were taught that ERP platforms (specifically SAP at the time) was the end of the world in software. It is everything a company will ever need today, tomorrow, and forever. It can do anything and everything.

It’s fascinating to think about the paradigm shift that comes with just thinking about the most important software in a business with a different three letters. Instead of our most important software being “Enterprise Resource Planning” it is now “Customer Relationship Management.”

In the age of agilecustomer discoverybusiness model canvases, lean startup, and lean enterprise  businesses now see the customer as the center of attention. Not our own resources. Not our own planning. The customer needs are most important. Centralizing the information about interactions and data about our customers now trumps what we think we need to do for ourselves.

I think we are just at the beginning of what CRM can do for businesses.

I heard one entrepreneur propose recently that CRM is now where email was in 1990 as far as the impact it will have on how we do business.   I’m excited to be a part of it with Team Voxa, and we are powering through the forefront of getting all the juicy data into the CRM so it can reach the potential companies expect!

 

Relocating and Re-Centering

 

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, so it’s time to get back on the wagon!   No, I didn’t make an intentional decision to stop blogging. It started with some travel, then being down with a cold (or something), then more travel, then some more travel, and then life just accelerated over my rhythm and cadence. No good, and it’s time to get re-centered.

The first big change in life that I feel obligated to share is that the downtown connector will soon have one less vehicle on it. The Cook family is moving ITP!    It was a difficult decision for us, because as I’ve bragged about many times, life in The Bubble of Peachtree City is a magical place to raise a family.  But as one of my long time mentors says: “Time is not a limiting factor. You are the limiting factor.”

The bottom line is that investing the 2+ hours/day in the car to transition between my Voxa Family and my Life Family was more than I can continue to support.   My family will now be a mere 4 miles from the Village and lots of exciting new opportunities will come with that geographically aligned life.

In addition to that big change, I’ve noticed that with Voxa’s growth accelerating, so has my attention and focus followed. I’ve gone against the advice I’ve given to so many startup entrepreneurs.   Keep your balance.  Don’t be consumed so deeply that you stop reading, writing, and exercising.

Effective growth and success comes from perspective, creativity, and positive energy.  Focusing from the time you wake up until you hit your pillow only on one thing without taking a breath once in a while will work against your intended motion.  Eventually you will run out of steam.

I’m looking forward to the next chapter of our lives and will work hard to keep the rhythm of reading, writing, and exercising as I locate the new center.  Time for JC to slow down to go faster.