Johnson Cook

Energized. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

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

Predicting Your Crazy: Profile Your Team. DISC Profiles are Mandatory for Startup CEOs

 

“God is great. Beer is good, and people are crazy.” – Billy Currington

This is one of the best country song lyrics of all time.
As it turns out though, that people are crazy in entirely predictable ways.

A Pretty Typical Entrepreneur's DISC Profile

A Pretty Typical Entrepreneur’s DISC Profile

Early as an entrepreneur, I had a lot of exposure to personality profile systems and tools, but I never dove in.   I had an exec on my team who convinced me not to use them because he “can make the test say whatever he wants me to think is his personality style.”    That was pretty logical so I caved and we never implemented it. The part I missed is that if you want to skew the test, then the team learns about your results is helpful too! (Faked results can be even more helpful depending on some of the controls in the profiling system you use.)

My personal favorite profiles are DISC and HBDI. I’ve found DISC the most helpful in day-to-day thinking.   My own DISC profile is above, which anyone who knows me, won’t be surprised to see. I am a high “D” and high “I.” Until the last couple of years, I was a higher “I,” but lately my “D” has been coming up, so watch out, because I’m now pegged at 99, the highest possible score. :)   Also notice that extremely low “S” … meaning my preferences toward stability are pretty darn low. I love change, obviously.

DISC is helpful as an entrepreneur because you learn how people are wired to communicate. This isn’t pigeonholing anyone and you don’t make any important decisions based solely on a personality profile.  However, with a good DISC profile for your team, you will learn generally how each team member…

  • … prefers to communicate with you.
  • … prefers to communicate with each other.
  • … handles conflict.
  • … manages stress.
  • … likes to work (heads down vs. collaborative).
  • … learns the best (reading, writing, doing, talking, etc.).
  • … is best motivated.
  • … will behave in social settings.
  • … makes decisions and evaluates options.
  • … evaluates risk in their own life.

So many problems can be avoided and strengths can be leveraged when you have a solid understanding of personality profiles and each team member.

If this is new to you, here is a quick DISC 101:

  • High D’s. Decisive.  Think Donald Trump.      Characteristics:   Forceful, dariing, determined, competitive, driving.
  • High I’s. Interactive. Think Jim Carrey.  Characteristics: Persuasive, inspiring, enthusiastic, sociable.
  • High S’s. Stabilizing. Think Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers.   Characteristics: Predictable, passive, complacent, stable.
  • High C’s. Cautious.  Think Joe Friday (“Just the Facts, Ma’am”).   Characteristics:  Perfectionist, systematic, careful, analytical.

As a CEO, I want my team to know my profile as well.  It helps them be prepared for my strong opinions and high-energy communication styles.

For core startup teams, it is imperative to have some of each style on your team. It is healthy and gives your team a higher likelihood of surviving the long haul when scaling changes the dynamics of growing your company.

  • D’s – generally the D’s will be the CEO and occasionally will be in a sales role. Make decisions quickly and act with “no fear” in more settings than the other profiles.
  • I’s – lots of I’s go into sales, but also do great in marketing. Great story tellers, actors, and persuaders.
  • S’s – this is your GM or COO. The checklist oriented glue that keeps the rest of the knuckleheads together. The chief rhythm officer to keep the cadence. The guy or gal who takes the plan seriously and has to be convinced if the CEO get’s a crazy idea to go “off plan.” (Ahem, ahem, which is hourly on most teams.)  My saying is this: “To an S, EVERYTHING is a big deal!”
  • C’s – You want the C’s managing the books and writing the code!  These are two things that need to be done with a perfectionist at the helm.
DISC Profiles on every desk in Dave Ramsey's building.

DISC Profiles on every desk in Dave Ramsey’s building.

Last fall I toured Dave Ramsey’s building in Nashville with my EO Forum. They have 300+ employees in the building and run an impressive operation. I was blown away to see that each team member (executive to admin) posts their DISC profile on their door or their desk as a reminder to anyone communicating with them “here is how I like to communicate.”  See pic here.  It was awesome to see that the HR folks were all high S’s and C’s while sales and marketing were the D’s and I’s.

Once you learn the DISC profiles, you will find that this knowledge finds it’s way into your day multiple times, every single day.   You will learn how to plan your communication strategies better and people all of a sudden start to make a whole lot more sense.

 

Resource Note: The free DISC Profile available on Tony Robbins site is, hands down the best free tool out there.

Bonus note:  If you lead a sales team, I highly recommend finding a trainer such as Jim Ryerson with Sales Octane to come in and help your front-line reps learn how to use DISC to communicate with their prospects and customers.   Communicating with the right style to the right person at the right time is a skill that can be learned and DISC provides the fundamentals of what they need to know.

Exciting News – Voxa is Joining ATDC Select – Here’s Why

 

Voxa joins ATDC SelectOver the past month, Team Voxa has been working to apply, pitch, and be reviewed for admission into the ATDC Select program.   Yesterday, we received news that we have been accepted and we are now members of ATDC Select. Score!

As I’ve told folks about our desire to be in ATDC Select, I’m not surprised but a little disappointed that this is the common response:

“Why would you join ATDC? Aren’t you in the Village?”

This tells me that there are lot of things about startup ecosystems that aren’t clicking for folks in Atlanta. Hopefully the story of Voxa and the other Village startups that are ATDC Select members will influence a refactoring of our paradigm around startup incubators. (Damn that sounded fancy… I’ve been hanging around Dr. Halaschek too much!)

First, here are the reasons specially Voxa is joining ATDC Select.

  • Reason #1: Connectivity to university research.   As we build out the Voxa product to connect Email to Salesforce.com, we will be incorporating a ton of cool technologies related to Natural Language Processing. This is a really cool field, and a good bit of research is happening at Georgia Tech.
  • Reason #2: Connectivity to the student body for special recruiting opportunities. While the Village has great Startup Student Connections, nothing can beat having on-campus events specifically for CS and CompE students at Georgia Tech.   Craig Hyde at Rigor was the first to tell me that these events are tremendously valuable for recruiting smart engineers who can talk and are excited about joining a startup.
  • Reason #3: Having a rockstar Entrepreneur in Residence on our team.   I know a lot of the EIR’s at ATDC and they are all fantastic, but when you meet Tim Sheehan, you will agree that he is an amazing asset for any company.  His resume is pack full of big names, west coast startups (both B2B and B2C), and all the right connections.  Having Tim on our team is worth 20x the price of admission to ATDC Select program. (KP, don’t get any ideas on us!)

Some more thoughts about ecosystem and hubs like the Village and ATDC.

  1. Success is often about surface area for a startup.   Connections make things happen faster. Connections to investors, customers, talent. Connected entrepreneurs have easier times building companies than entrepreneurs who live on islands.  Joining multiple organizations, each with their own networks, increases a startups connections and increases the chance of serendipitous interactions that change your trajectory.
  2. The two hardest parts for us are product and sales.    It just so happens that we get a ton of great sales ideas, strategies, tips, and tools from our fellow Villagers.   ATDC on the other hand will likely be more valuable to our CTO and team of engineers as we grow.
  3. It’s NOT about coworking / office space!   KP Reddy used this quote when we first started talking about collaboration between the Village at ATDC: “The only metric that I’m not measured on for success is: Amount of office space rented.”
    Exactly right!  Despite our local business media’s obsession with commercial real-estate, (especially related to tech incubators for some strange reason)… none of the folks doing coworking and incubators with the right intentions give a rip about the square feet as a measure of ultimate success. The square feet need to be paid for to be sustainable, and it’s great to have folks close to each other doing similar things, but that’s as far as it goes.

I’m looking forward to Team Voxa participating in the ATDC Select community.

Nail Your Business Model or Nothing Else Matters

 

EndOfRunway

 

 

One of my biggest hard lessons learned over my entrepreneurial journey has been the importance of having a clear, focused, and simple business model.  We’ve all been impressed with the successes coming out of Flashpoint at Georgia Tech, and I believe this is exactly why. Flashpoint puts startups through the “pressure cooker of customer discovery” and forces them to power through hundreds of customer interviews in order to build out the Business Model Canvas.

In my first company, we chased our business model for years.  We had some good proprietary technology, so we had some product components. But we also offered services. We integrated the pricing and billing because we wanted to win the deals. We won some customers on variable pricing and some on fixed pricing. We did win the deals because of this, and we did make some money, but it was always hard to see the path to greatness and giant success because we had so many different options ahead of us. We could double down on services, hourly billing, fixed margins and really add bodies and billable hours. Or we could ramp up R&D and accelerate the product side, hire a ton of sales and go down the SaaS path. Choices, choices.

Having too many options can be a bad thing for startups. When I meet with early-stage entrepreneurs, often doing their first startup, I start to see problems immediately when they have to describe (or worse, draw a chart) showing “How We Make Money.

When you’re starting up, you have the world against you. You have a boulder the size of a dump truck that you and you alone have to push up Stone Mountain.  You have so many things to figure out, you can’t afford to be be figuring out a new business model for long.

Be innovative on your product or your service. Be cutting edge and invent a new widget that the world has never seen, but don’t try to do it on a business model. Either sell a product, sell an ad, or sell a service.  Ripoff and duplicate a success story in your space.  Copy a business model exactly.  (Side note: unless you are a black-belt entrepreneur with good funding or know a specific space really well, I’d advise against any business model that is two-sided.)

When the airplane starts accelerating down the runway headed for trees is no time to figure out which direction you want to go. You pick the direction and accelerate, and get your ass airborne fast, or it will be a short trip.

 

 

 

Startup Steak and Startup Sizzle

 

Tell me your mouth Isn't watering right now.

Tell me your mouth Isn’t watering right now.

Let’s talk about Ruth’s Chris steaks.

When I think about RC, the first thing I think of is that awesome smell of butter melting on steaks when you walk into the room. It hits you in the face and is so deliciously intoxicating.

Then when the server describes to you all the features of the steak you’re about to order: where it’s from, how it’s prepared, etc, they tell you that it will arrive at your table sizzling on a 4000 degree hot plate (or whatever) covered in garlic butter.

Then when you finally get to cut into that first bite, it’s pretty much, absolutely, spot on perfect.

Every time.

I’ve never had an RC steak less than perfect.

At Voxa right now, all day long we are talking about, debating, and wrestling with our product’s steak vs. its sizzle.  No, it’s not because we have Ruth’s Chris every day for lunch… although, if any investors out there want to offer, perhaps it could become a company benefit.

It’s because every startup product has some steak and some sizzle.

Our steak is what people really buy. This is what they need. This is the point. It’s why they come to our restaurant.  If the actual steak at RC didn’t taste perfect every time then the sizzle would be a sham. It would be wasted effort, and probably would eventually cause folks to associate that smell with a bad steak. Pavlov Steak.  (Maybe I only like the sizzle because I’ve been trained Pavlov style to know that a good steak is coming.)

Startups and high-energy entrepreneurs love to talk about the sizzle. We love to promote it. Demos are best with sizzle.  Sales guys especially love to talk about features that cause the buyer to have a “Wow” reaction.

The steak at Voxa is pretty unsexy. We simply make Email to Salesforce.com work. Really work. Like bulletproof, brilliant, and automagic.  We take a really simple, annoying task and make it go away. That’s the steak. It’s a darn good steak (near perfect, I dare say), and our prospects are talking to us and buying from us because of this steak.

But….! We also have this delicious sizzle. Ahhh, the buttery delight of Natural Language Processing (NLP) for emails. The spice of automatically reading email and magically interpreting actions to do even more than just log the email in Salesforce, we will do everything else that needs to happen in Salesforce.

(Example: If today I say these words in an email to you “Voxa could be a fit” … my Voxa App has been told to interpret that to mean you are a lead for our sales team, and you will be automatically added as a Lead in my Salesforce.com account and assigned to a sales rep and probably called very soon. :)  I never had to even login to Salesforce for all this to happen, I just sent you the email and said the words.)

We are building this sizzle now, and it’s the most fun to build, admittedly. But when we sit down each week at our sprint review and evaluate priorities and the time allocation for the week, we (so far) have landed on the decision to keep the steak first priority and keep making it a better steak. Since we are so young we spend only a fraction of our limited engineering resources on the sizzle features.  Hopefully, this percentage of time will go up as we add engineering resources.

For my startup friends dealing with this: One day you will have it all, and it will all work together in clean harmony. Sizzle adding value to your steak.  You’ll get there, but having the discipline to prioritize the steak first is an important lesson that doesn’t come easy.

 

 

Are You Having Fun?

 

Last week I was talking to one of our Voxa team members about how we’re doing as a team.   We now have 7 full-time and with some extra hands helping out part time, it’s a very early-stage team of 9 high-energy Voxans.  It was a good dialog around finding the best role for everyone on the team and how and where each person adds value specifically. He wanted to be sure he was performing up to par.  Knowing how you’re doing can be tricky when the roles are so early and not yet clearly defined.  Of course I assured him that he’s doing a fantastic job and then it occurred to me to ask him a very important question:

“Are you having fun?”

At the time, that question even caught me a little off guard. In all my years leading small teams, I have asked many questions. Questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling this week about the company?
  • Are you satisfied with your job here?
  • Would you recommend to your best friend get a job here?

But for some reason, I have never thought to ask “Are you having fun?”

I’m not sure why I’ve never asked that question. Perhaps because work isn’t about having fun, it’s about making money, getting s**t done, making a mark. But isn’t doing something meaningful supposed to be fun? Isn’t pushing yourself to be better and to make a mark supposed to be FUN? If it’s not fun, then isn’t there something else you can be doing?

This question has been hanging in my mind since last week and I will continue to think about it. Even when it’s hard as hell, when we lose deals, when people quit, when competitors win… looking back, it should still be fun… I think. Don’t you?

Our parents never came home from work and answered the “How was your day at the office” question with “It was FUN!”   And looking at my own routine, I probably don’t say that enough either.  But as I sit here writing in the clear-thought and positivity of the morning with an objective outlook on the day, I’m wondering if I should start focusing more on the fact that what I do is a ton of fun.   What if my kids can grow up hearing me say repeatedly that when I was away from them, I was having fun.

Why not? What’s the downside?   If you look at the construction of success, I hardly think you would find that fun is a detractor.  Winning customers is fun. A productive team is fun. A hard day of meetings is even fun.    The challenge of a hard competitive battle over a big deal is fun… even when you lose (sometimes).

This is an energy boosting topic for me and I hope it will be for you as well. Ask your team if they are having fun and try to evaluate your day and verbalize to others that you’re having fun.   Who knows— maybe if you say it often enough, the next hard day that comes along won’t feel quite as hard and you might even squeeze out a grin.

 

Inside the Mind of B2C VCs – What B2B Startups can Learn from B2C Investors

 

b2b_b2cThere is an interesting dialog in Atlanta right now around the lack of B2C startups and successful tech companies. My only comment on the dialog itself is that I wish it could stay positive and not come across so negative from a few folks. It’s really great topic with powerful ideas around how to make change.

In parallel to those Atlanta conversations, as follow-up to the Bay Area trip with Kasim Reed, I’ve had the opportunity to chat at length with VCs who do very well investing in consumer startups. Also, I’ve learned a great deal by helping our Atlanta Ventures Accelerator company, YikYak negotiate investments from B2C focused VC’s from Silicon Valley.  I’ve learned that the way the B2C crowd thinks about growing startups is completely foreign to me, and learning how they think has opened my eyes to some valuable points for my own B2B startup, Voxa, and can help others as well.

It’s easy to sit atop the imagined ivory tour of Enterprise SaaS startups that can generate substantial revenue very early and proclaim that businesses without revenue models don’t make any logical sense and aren’t sustainable… but… B2C startups benefit from a clear, undeniable, singular focus that often times it is hard for B2B folks to achieve. B2C startups must be 10000% completely focused on building the best product, period.

Build the best product, or die.

One of the investors in SnapChat, Facebook, and Twitter told me that they tell their portfolio entrepreneurs over and over to stop thinking about monetization. They tell them that monetization will be figured out in 3-5 years at the earliest. Instead, focus on the user experience. Focus on building a product that has tremendous value. Live inside the head of your users. Be a user!  Use the app yourself constantly. Always be thinking what you can do to make it more useful for yourself.  It’s very simple what to do.

In the B2B world (and I can already see this happening in Voxa), it can be easy to get distracted with the other challenges of building a sales oriented business.   You have to put a ton of effort and energy into your customer acquisition machine. If you do this before the product is fully ready, you will have issues.   If you have success with your sales efforts, but have a product that hasn’t been fully proven to add sustainable value, you can be falling into traps you set for yourself. While it’s important to find the balance between sales and product, remember that when you put your “product hat” on to think like a B2C startup.

Think about what features and improvements make the product the best to *use*. 

In any startup, you will always be prioritizing your product roadmap. As you get users, you will add more desired features. Some of these features make the product easier to use, while others may be growth hack features. Features that are intended to make the product more far reaching perhaps shouldn’t be prioritized over features that make the product 10x more valuable to the current user base.

It’s all a balancing act. Everything is a compromise.  Remember to give both sides of the equation intense and intentional attention.

I look forward to learning more from B2C startups as Michael Tavani becomes successful in bringing a boat load of energy towards more B2C in Atlanta. Way to go Michael!

 

 

Takeaways and Trends from Silicon Valley – Trip with Mayor Kasim Reed

 

Johnson Cook and Kasim Reed

Mayor Kasim Reed

Last week was awesome. I had the honor of traveling with a delegation of community leaders, including Mayor Kasim Reed, John Yates of Morris Manning & Martin, Bernie Dixon of Atlanta Tech Angels, and the Invest Atlanta executives to Silicon Valley to meet with the top investors (both venture and private equity) about Atlanta.

The purpose of the trip was information gathering, first and foremost. We went to hear their impressions of Atlanta. What do they think of Atlanta from a deal perspective? What do they know about Atlanta? What deals have they done here and what deals have they missed here?

Ted Schlein, Kliener Perkins Caufield & Byers

Ted Schlein, Kliener Perkins Caufield & Byers

Overall, the feedback was very positive about Atlanta. West Coast investors love the town. Georgia Tech was always mentioned in the first breath.   The talent wars for engineers is a major challenge for West Coast companies and the fact that we have GT right here is a huge asset, and they know it.

What I was most excited about was the consistency of feedback. There was little variation in the opinions and even less variation in the advice and recommendations.   When asked “How do we engage your firm to invest in more Atlanta companies?”  The responses were consistent.  I will share the top six areas of advice here.

Mayor Kasim Reed, Bernie Dixon, Johnson Cook, Bruce Cleveland

Mayor Kasim Reed, Bernie Dixon, Johnson Cook, Bruce Cleveland

1. Focussing on connecting Atlanta investor community to the SV investor community is a more scalable bridge than connecting individual deals.   When investors have close relationships with other investors, things move faster. When a VC receives a call from another VC saying “this is a good one, you need to see this” — it is so much more efficient than the typical ratio of seeing 200 deals to make on investment.

Bernie Dixon, Brook Byers,  Johnson Cook

Bernie Dixon, Brook Byers, Johnson Cook

2. Facilitation of visits really does help.    12 to 20. That’s the number of companies that an investor needs to see (in their specific area of investment) to justify getting on an airplane.  If the community can help facilitate these pitch days and tours, it is a meaningful needle mover.

3. When investors look at startups, having Fortune 500 customers matters a lot.  Investors said it in every single meeting. If Atlanta can connect our large corporations to our startups for the purpose of making the customers, investors will get really excited.  Having Home Depot, Coke, Cox, Georgia Pacific, UPS, Turner, NCR, Delta, and their peers on your “current customer” slide deck is a giant deal.

Interwest Partners Visit

Interwest Partners Visit

4. Focus on supporting entrepreneurs.  This was one of those that is almost so simple it’s obvious.   Creating an environment that is super entrepreneur friendly, really does matter. Help the entrepreneur. Make things easy. Help them avoid distractions, help them find each other, help them find money. Make the focus on helping the entrepreneur build great companies and the investors will find them.    Venture Capital is a very efficient industry. Money travels with ease.

5. Infrastructure for growing startups matters.  I was delighted to hear this direct feedback from Brook Byers and Ted Schlein at Kleiner Perkins.   Building community centers like Atlanta Tech Village and ATDC is far from trivial. When they put money into a company they just want to say “GO and GROW LIKE HELL” … they don’t want their portfolio entrepreneurs having to go out and shop for furniture, look at office space, negotiate with internet providers… they just want them to get their ass in gear and go.   Incubators and community centers with flexible growth oriented work spaces make a huge difference.

6. Our engineering talent pool, mainly Georgia Tech, is our top advantage. Given that the biggest challenge of Valley startups is finding and retaining solid engineering talent, it is no surprise that the big VC’s see Georgia Tech as a key advantage of Atlanta startups.   Bruce Cleveland at Interwest Partners, for example, shared with us his model for offering engineering students who intern with a portfolio company then join full-time after graduation a major signing bonus. It’s the same money you would pay to a recruiter, so just give it to the student instead.

This trip energized me and everyone else on the trip. It was an awesome confidence builder and the great start to many new relationships between the West Coast and Atlanta.

My last takeaway is that we need more trips like this. Startups should get on the plane as often as they can afford and get out there to soak it in, shake hands, get business cards and start to build the bridges.   The more surface area that touches the West Coast ecosystem, the stronger our own ecosystem will be.   Plus, it’s beautiful out there.

SandHill Road

Making the Upside Down Org Chart Your Reality

 

Upside Down Org ChartWhen I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech, I had the opportunity to hear the legendary Jack Welch give a talk.  There are some talks like this one where a few bullet points stand out and stick with you. One that stuck with me was about the mentality headquarters.

Jack told his people: “If you are in GE headquarters, then you are here to support everyone else on the front lines.  You should receive more phone calls than you initiate. You shouldn’t be creating work for the front lines, you should be making their jobs easier.”

Other organizations call it an Upside Down Org chart.   Put the customer at the very top, then you have sales and front-line representatives, followed by team managers, and then at the very bottom, you have the executive team. Right there at the foundation, supporting the rest of the team.

In a growing startup, the CEO has to think about the shape of this chart every day. I’ve written before about the jobs of a startup CEO.   A CEO’s main duty on a daily basis is to support the team.  When you’ve handled job #1, and made sure that the company has the financial resources to pay the right people for the right roles, then it’s time to support them.  Here are some tactical ways that I am trying to be better at supporting Team Voxa.

1. Have more unscheduled time than scheduled time.  My friend Dan Kurzius over at Mailchimp taught me this. His calendar remains largely open so that he is there to bounce around and help team members all day.  This is the one I struggle with the most and have written about it before.

2. Don’t take on tasks for yourself.   Also something I’ve written about, but still it’s hard.  When you love creating, it’s so easy to say “I’ll handle that one.”  I’ll write that marketing copy, spec that product, make that proposal, etc… but what I’m finding is that for each task I put on my plate I am hurting the company more than I’m helping the company.

3. Prioritize your team over others.    CEOs have a ton of inbound pings and requests for attention. Vendors, investors, other entrepreneurs, other commitments. It’s important to be intentional about showing the team that they come first, that they are your first priority. It will sting to turn down some of those distractions, but being there for the team is important.

4. Avoid the urge to be the one creating all the processes.   There are a ton of processes to be created in a startup. From sales processes to onboarding, to engineering/spring planning, dev ops, daily stand ups, employee onboarding… In my experience, while helping the team understand that intentional, well-designed processes for every single thing we do are extremely important, it’s not necessary that the CEO actually create them. Just that the CEO help reinforce their importance.

5. Let go. Allow failure.   If you want your team to become resilient, antifragile, and committed. It’s important that you allow them to find their own way. Let experiments happen. Let them lose deals.  By letting go, you create an entrepreneurial culture where everyone has true ownership of their role on the team.  It’s hard to watch, when it’s so easy to jump in and handle it yourself. But jumping in does nothing for helping the team member grow.

6. Understand the personality/DISC profiles of your team.   Put this in the category of “Things I wish I knew 15 years ago.”    You can learn so much about people when you have a firm grasp on DISC and the primary personality types. This will help you predict with great precision when someone is going to handle a task/project well, how it’s going to go for them, and how you can help.   We have leaned on DISC and HBDI for the teams at the Atlanta Tech Village and Team Voxa and I can honestly say I don’t know how I ever built teams without these tools before. If you aren’t doing DISC, here is the best one I’ve ever seen, and it’s free.

7. Have a core team.  As a CEO, you need an inner circle. Whether you call it  a Management Team, or Executive Team, Partners, Founders, whatever… it doesn’t matter. You need a core circle, even from the very beginning where you have added meeting cadences to be together, to evaluate your progress, to ask hard questions, to consider dramatic changes, and to keep the oxygen of ideas flowing into the company.    Be sure that each major functional area of the company is represented in your core circle — Sales, Product, Marketing, and Customer Support.

An upside down org chart is more than a cute talking point for culture. It is a leadership mindset.

Day 1 in the smallest of startups isn’t too early to start building these habits that will make your team and your company more successful… and tons more enjoyable for everyone, by the way.

 

Timing Your Upshift and How I’m Managing Mine

 

stick_shiftIn your entrepreneurial journey, you will find that everything comes in cycles. I’ve written previously about cycles of low and high energy and how being aware of them can make you more resilient  (Inspiration is for Amateurs) . Another cycle that has run it’s course is the period of high-RPM’s and low torque.  It’s time to shift up a gear.

Starting a new chapter usually requires you to downshift at first. You have to be willing to slow down forward progress, run at higher RPM’s to see more ideas, meet more people, and broaden your field of view.   This is common for entrepreneurs who are between companies.  It’s really hard to find the next big thing. It requires a lot of cycles. As bad as you want to go deep instead of spreading yourself thin, you find that picking the right big bet takes longer than you expect.  As VC’s put it: you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.

But when you do finally slow down the idea review process and find the bet you’re ready to make, it’s important to know how to shift up a gear.

With 2014, my goal is to shift up. Here are three big ways I’m doing it.

1. Tighter Meeting Filter.
I need to accept many fewer meetings around advice giving or general connecting. The last two years, I’ve done a ton of meetings just for the sake of relationship building. I believe I successfully accomplished by 2013 goal of adding value for every person I met with through the year. In 2014, I need to increase the bar for these “just want to get to know you” meetings. My calendar is already too full.

2. Slower Cadence.
New Rhythms… mainly with the blog.   I’ve decided that 3-5 posts/week is at the present time, an unrealistic goal. For the past few weeks, I have established a new rhythm of 1 slightly longer post each week. This is a really healthy change for me. It has allowed my quiet time and my running time to think deeper about the challenges ahead for Voxa, our growing team, and how I can be the best CEO possible.   Those cycles were previously spent on new blog post topics.

3. More Off-Village time.
Whether I work from home, a Starbucks, a beach, or a cabin, I need to find more time in 2014 out of the high energy and extremely-high-RPM environment of the Village. The problem with the awesomeness of the Village is that it’s too awesome.  I want to be there 8 days a week! I love the density of people, ideas, of work hard play hard. But like many entrepreneurs, I am afflicted with extreme ADD.  It’s really hard for me to slow down when I’m in the Village.   I’m setting the goal to spend at least 1 half-day per week out of the Village, working from home, etc… and I’m setting the goal to take 2-4 weeks completely out of the hustle of the building. (Note, this doesn’t mean losing the daily touch rhythm with Team Voxa, it means physically forcing limits of my focus Priority 1: Family and Priority 2: Team Voxa.)

As with an upshift in a car, forward velocity will increase as RPM’s decrease. You have to already have the momentum to sustain the added force, but when you time it just right, I’ve seen the slow down to go faster do magical transformations in entrepreneurs’ lives.

When it’s time for your upshift, I hope you’ll consider what it really means to slow down to go faster.

 

Hire Competitors – Four Reasons Why

 

Hiring RunnersSince the launch of Voxa, we have been in heavy recruiting mode. It has been a ton of fun and we’ve met many fantastic people.   I can now say with certainty that the Village as a recruiting tool is more real than I expected. People really want to work in the high energy atmosphere that is the Atlanta Tech Village.

Given this great environment for us as a company, with lots of great people to choose from for each area of the business, we have the luxury of choosing the best of the best.

One trait that I believe comes with the best recruits for any startup is their proven competitiveness.   Runners, athletes, even fine arts: startups should look for competitors.

Of our first two full-time sales hires for Voxa: one has a couple of state championships in a very competitive sport under his belt, and one is an aspiring Olympic athlete… yes, THOSE Olympics!

I’ve heard other entrepreneurs who say they will give strong preference to athletes or runners for certain positions – mainly sales – and I think it’s a great idea.

Here are the top benefits and reasons why demonstrated competitiveness in a sport is a huge plus for candidates.

Discipline. This is the biggest reason.   To get to the top of a sport is never a quick hit. It’s months and years of training. It’s a commitment to the training… to the process of getting better.  Competitors understand that consistent energy applied towards a direction will eventually move the needle in big ways. Competitors are willing to make this investment.

Reward. Competitors understand that what happens after this disciplined training is completed is a reward. Focus on the prize. Focus on the W or the PR, or whatever it is… there’s something at the end of the process and it’s worth busting your ass for.

Focus.  There are lots of high energy people who don’t have the focused energy necessary to move the needle. Competitors know that all energy must be applied in a single sport, single muscle, single skill.   Hard core weight-lifting improves a marathon runners time as much as learning to write code helps a sales person close more deals.

Mentally and Physically Healthy.  My personal favorite reason — competitors generally remain healthy in body and mind. They continue to run, swim, workout and this makes them a delight to be around during the day. They don’t have wild unfocused energy. They are positive and upbeat. They stay on schedule and on task, aren’t relying on caffeine or alcohol to function throughout the week and can kick ass in their natural state.

This is why I prefer to hire competitors. If there are any EEOC complaints from this post, I’ll take the heat.

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Quick, important last comment: ALL of the above can be applied to anyone who has served in any branch of the military.   Give me a Veteran of the US Armed Forces all day long!  Those people know what it takes to literally go to war, and that’s the kind of person I want to be beside.

 

 

Introducing Voxa

Gmail to SalesforceOver the past year, I’ve made it no secret around the Atlanta Tech Village that I’ve had the itch to build another company. One can only be a maker of delicious dog food around for so long before one wants to eat some of it! So now it’s time to eat some dog food, finally!

After evaluating several hundred startup ideas over 14 months, David Cummings and I finally landed on something that we felt was right there in the sweet spot for us personally, for the market, for where painkiller index is high, and our knowledge is pretty strong.

We call it Voxa.
Voxa is called the world’s first Automated CRM Assistant.

Where many are trying to disrupt Salesforce.com with a brand new competitive CRM, we believe there is a better opportunity to alleviate the pain of using CRMs like Salesforce.com without actually replacing the CRM. The momentum, App ecosystem, and adoption is so awesome around Salesforce  that large implementations won’t be leaving any time soon.  Instead, let’s just automate some of the most painful tasks for its users. Let’s remove the hurdles that keep people from maximizing the value of their CRM. Let’s crush the friction between Sales Managers who want to measure, track, and monitor every ounce of activity and the Sales Reps and Account Managers who simply want to do their jobs, work with customers, close deals, and deliver happy results.

Dealing with a CRM is modern day paperwork.

Voxa is almost 90 days old and we’ve iterated through about a dozen samples,  experiments, and ideas of the best MVP of where to start tackling the product. We’ve landed on a Chrome Extension (soon to be a full blown web app in the February release) that first tackles the bridge between Gmail and Salesforce.com. Here’s how it works.

  • Once you connect Voxa to Salesforce.com, login to Gmail in Chrome.
  • When Voxa is turned on (we call it AutoPilot mode), it automatically logs every e-mail you send into your CRM.  If the recipient doesn’t exist, we use a growing list of logical assumptions to add them with their relevant information, in the right place, and associated with the right things.
  • That’s it!  There is tons of logic and intelligence in the background deciding how Voxa works with your CRM.  In addition, you have a variety of options for teaching Voxa who to ignore, and if you forget to ignore someone, you always have a history of what Voxa has done for you in Salesforce.com and can undo actions from forever into the past.

Based on our first 15 or so companies using the Beta version, we are seeing strong patterns in feature requests to make it more powerful.  Look for some pretty awesome things coming down the pipe very quickly. It is so much fun to be back in the saddle, building, and growing something!

Many have asked, so I will answer here: Yes, I will continue as one of the Directors of the Village (after all, I was the only one of the 3 directors who didn’t have a startup!), and will continue my work in Atlanta Ventures  reviewing Accelerator Applicants and Angel investments… although admittedly, the time dedicated to these will be reduced.

As we’ve launched Voxa, I also have to confess that the biggest time impact has been writing this blog. My morning routine of writing has been disrupted by loads of recruiting e-mails, new user sign-ups, analytics reports, server usage log reviews, and other neat stuff.  I’ll need to re-center to find the new normal, but don’t plan to let blogging go! Thanks for tagging along. This is going to be a fun ride.  Like I’ve been saying… Atlanta is the BEST place to start a company. See… watch this! If you’d like to Use Voxa, go give it a try now.

 

 

Thoughts for Students Thinking About the Startups

 

Another critical group in the startup community are students. For today, let’s stick to college students, but we are seeing some great programs that are bringing high achieving high-school students into the startup world.

Students: Why should you care about startups.

The first one is pretty obvious: you need a job.   On the other hand, you may have the itch to start your own company. If you can’t stop thinking about it, have a great team, and can get in a program like Startup Semester or Flashpoint, then you should definitely go full throttle. If you are on the edge and have a feeling that one day you may start a company, but you don’t have the idea just yet… no problem. Just go hang out in the community. Being in the right place, surrounding yourself with the right people, will only make it easier when the time comes.

Students: How you can get involved most effectively in startups.

First, start reading your ass off. You need to subscribe to a few great VC blogs (Feld and AVC to start) and of course follow the top bloggers in the community (DavidCummings.org).

Second, get a job with a startup or tech teen company (aka large and well funded startup like AirWatch or Mailchimp). Plain and simple.  If you are an engineer, just get in and start helping build things. Learn how teams work to build things in the real world. Learn how to balance quality with GSD.   If you aren’t an engineer, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to get a job in sales. Learning how to sell stuff is the most valuable and widely applicable skill you can acquire.  You may absolutely hate it as some new grads do… if that’s the case, then try to commit at least 10 months to selling. At the 10 month point, if you are going to be successful, you should see the light at the end of the ramp-up tunnel.     Just remember that taking a job in sales doesn’t mean you’re committing your life to selling used cars or telemarketing. You are committing to learn.  When you do go start a company, you will look back and realize that any amount of time you spend in a sales job is the most valuable thing you can do for your chances of success learning a startup. Sales solves all problems.

Students: What you should expect to gain.

The most important thing you need in your early career is a strong network of deep relationships.  Getting involved in the startup community is an adult thing to do.  It requires follow-up and discipline. When you go to events, get business cards, ask to have lunch follow-up meetings with people you meet.  Ask entrepreneurs to mentor you.   If you do these things right, you will start to form an impressive network. Once you have a network, you will find that next steps in your life journey will come easier for you than your peers.

Career services will be the last place you will look to find a job if you know the right people.