Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Develop Yourself by Leading Leaders

 

challenging-climbIf you’re looking to grow as a leader, I challenge you to find a place where you can be a Leader of Leaders.

I’ve found that leading leaders is challenging, inspirational, and can lead to amazing trajectories in life. For me, some of my roles that have been most rewarding are taking on the role of moderator in my EO forum, then later joining the EO Atlanta Board, and now being involved in the Atlanta Tech Village.

In each of these experiences, working side by side with entrepreneurs who have already accomplished amazing feats in life, are extremely well connected, and are the most dynamic humans walking the planet has led me to be better in so many ways.

  • You learn from other leaders things that you can’t learn in a group of “ordinary.”
  • When a team is made up of all extraordinary humans, the team itself accomplishes things that “ordinary” teams cannot fathom.
  • Group dynamics in leaders are extreme. Managing strong personalities, deeply engrained opinions and passionate expression of those opinions is challenging and will push you to the limits of your patience and tolerance. It will make dealing with “ordinary” people seem easy.

This is one of the reasons the Atlanta Tech Village is emitting such an attractive energy to the community. It is the brightest and best the South has to offer all gathering in one small corner of Buckhead. The enthusiasm, optimism, geeky smarts, ambition, and inspirational accomplishments are amazing.

 

Your Trajectory

 

trajectoriesOne of my A-list mentors likes to use the term “trajectory.”    Thinking of yourself on a trajectory is an interesting exercise.   You are lined up and positioned to follow a certain path at a certain velocity.  You may not be able to see your own trajectory, but consider some folks around you: Don’t you feel like you can predict where they are headed?  Some are headed for the stars, and will be unstoppable. Others are spinning their wheels, not getting traction, and you can tell, but they can’t see it for themselves.

But consider your own trajectory. Where are you headed?  What are you lined up to do, and what speed will you be able to maintain?

It could seem depressing to think that what’s about to happen to you is already in motion.

But here’s the inspirational part.

What can you do to change your trajectory?

What changes can you make that will put you on a different level?  It may be velocity. Maybe you need to dream bigger. Maybe it’s larger customers. Maybe it’s a new advisory board. Maybe it’s setting your sights on a meeting with one individual who could single handedly change your trajectory.

Whatever it is, look for it. Find the next higher trajectory for yourself.

And enjoy the ride.

 

 

Where are you working to be Famous?

 

Where are you famousOne thing that I’ve found interesting in the tech startup community (at least in Atlanta, but I’m sure it exists elsewhere) is that there are a lot of folks clamoring to be famous among the circle of other startups and entrepreneurs: even though fame in these circles does little for actual progress with their company.

It seems to me that some of these folks would be better served if they put their focus towards being famous in circles where their customers live, work, and play.

Startups make terrible customers for other startups. They have no money, infrastructure, staff, or other resources needed to be a good profitable customer.

In my entrepreneurial journey, I found the most profitable deposits of energy came from going “all in” on industry associations specific to my company (most recently: professional and trade associations, distance learning, eLearning, etc…). Most of these people were not in Atlanta. It required me to get on a plane often. To suck up sponsorship fees every year. To volunteer to be on conference planning committees.  But it paid off in the right ways. It was the right place to be building relationships, street cred, and friends.   Those were the relationships that moved the needle.

I’m not saying it’s not important to be actively involved in the startup community. Of course you need to be around peers and others in your same boat. But be sure it’s not at the expense of getting crazy involved with the circles with people who can change your trajectory.

 

Dream Bigger

 

Dream BiggerOne of our core values at the Atlanta Tech Village is: Dream Big. But it occurs to me that we should change it to Dream Bigger.

Here’s why.

We’ve been told our whole lives to dream big.  Everybody dreams big. Of course our dreams are big, otherwise they wouldn’t be dreams. They would just be life.  But the coolest people and the crazy successful people I have encountered in life are self-aware of where they stand in the universe to know that even their big dreams aren’t as big and great as they can be.

Our potential is not limited by anything other than our own self.

Big isn’t satisfying. True satisfaction comes from the pursuit of bigger.

There isn’t a limit to what you can accomplish. There isn’t an end result in “bigger.” You will never get to “bigger.” That’s why you should chase it.

You’ve heard this many times stated another way: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

Dreaming big implies that you can get to big; but dreaming bigger means you commit to the pursuit of greatness… of bigger… a pursuit that will not end.

 

Startup Momentum comes from a Delicate Balance

 

Balance Product R&D with SalesFor a tech startup, creating momentum is the most important thing to do in the beginning. Momentum means traction. It means progress that matters for the long game. Progress that is sustainable and that increases the chance of startup success by the day.  Momentum for a startup means turning all that potential energy into kinetic energy.   In the first weeks at the Atlanta Tech Village, I’ve spoken with at least 65 tech startups in all stages.  In each of these conversations, I’m seeking to identify what programs, services, and amenities the Village can provide that will have the most impact on a startup’s momentum.

The reoccurring theme across startups of all stages (from successful, to on their way, to doomed) is that traction occurs when entrepreneurs find the right balance of building a product and selling that product.

Some examples: there are some startups who have gone through accelerator or mentor driven programs that focus intensely on customer discovery. They interview, interview, interview… they find out all the answers, but they don’t actually build anything that they can sell.  In the end, there is no momentum. There is no kinetic energy. They’ve added potential energy only.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, there are hack-a-thons and other really cool geekfests that output a lot of cool shiny products that the entrepreneurs don’t ever take the next step and release, market, promote, and sell! They have kinetic energy, but without some motion towards revenue, they won’t last long.

I’ve noticed that the ones that are the most successful are able to find that very delicate balance of building products that are just enough to sell, then refining the products while the sales efforts are ramped up.

It seems to be that if there is a secret to a successful startup it is this: balancing product R&D with sales that drive revenue.

Our goal at the ATV will be one of helping tech companies find that balance and constantly focusing on both sides, that are equally important to succeed.

 

Foot note– this perspective is from the “bootstrapped startup” approach. This already complex balance becomes even more complicated when you have VCs and certain angels involved.  Not that you shouldn’t raise money if you can raise money, just that you may change the dynamics of your short-term progress with more folks having a vested interest in your company.

 

Be Impressed with Yourself

 

Club House Sign Up SheetThere’s nothing I’ve done to take credit for this, but my oldest son, Michael, is pure entrepreneur. See the image to the right.  Here’s the story.

A few weeks ago, we found an LED light from a broken toy.   He shined it on his whiteboard and noticed it made a funny shape. So he held it up, and traced it with a marker. Then he colored it in and noticed it looked like a letter “C”.   So then (after just learning what a “Logo” is from his dad), he decided to take the C and turn it into CLUB HOUSE.

For two weeks now he’s been drawing his “Club House” logo on everything and then a few days ago decided to make a sheet like the one you see in this image.   He now has gotten 20 kids from his class to sign up for the “Club House… Over 3 Fun Activities!!!

Margaret and I were a little perplexed as to what we will do since he was expecting that all 20 kids will just show up at our house this weekend to enjoy their new membership. But we’ve decided to tell him that when the weather warms up, we’ll have a “club house party” and have parents over too, do a cookout, and let the kids enjoy their 3+ activities.

This morning he was eating his cereal, admiring his signup sheet, and thinking about the big party with all the parents and what he said blew me away:

Dad, I just can’t believe it. It’s so cool how things happen.

Because like, dad, I mean all this started just from that little flashlight and I noticed it made a shape.

And then I drew the shape and all this started from that light and what was in my head.

I mean dad, I just can’t believe it.

Boom.

Of course the follow-up response from me was to share in his amazement about all the things that we use, have, buy, consume, enjoy… they all came from the mind of someone who decided to turn it into something.  It truly is amazing to ponder.    I was glad to see him proud of himself and amazed and what he had accomplished.

You should be more confident in your abilities, and be a little more amazed with yourself. Confidence is such a major game-changer for any person in any journey.

 

Willing to Organize Less

 

EMyth - ManagerI’ve started to notice that something I usually consider a strength can be a weakness that limits me in my entrepreneurial journey.

In, Michael Gerber’s E-Myth, he teaches the idea that the entrepreneur must master the balance between the three inner roles that he needs when starting and growing a business.

  • The Technician – this is actually doing the work, making the widget, writing the code, sweeping the floor, helping the customer
  • The Manager – this is organizing the business, creating org charts, financial forecasting, growth planning, hiring, arranging, keeping the organizational machine operating
  • The Visionary – this is the creative big dreamer, seeing the long game, painting a vision of big success so that everyone on board can know where the bus is going

Gerber says to succeed as an entrepreneur, you must be aware of these three roles and balance them and fill them each with yourself or an actual person as you grow. My observation during our time building the Atlanta Tech Village is that my “inner manager” sometimes gets too involved and over-plans, over-organizes. Have you ever noticed this in yourself?

The problem with over-managing is that you become invested in the plan rather than the vision. If you keep the vision as the priority rather than the plan, you will probably find that your first, second, and even third plan wasn’t the right way to get there.  This is what being a scrappy entrepreneur is all about. Your plan yesterday will probably be thrown out the window – and you need to be ok with this.

Obviously, if you don’t have a clear long-term Vision and WHY, changing plans every day can be a problem. It means you’re floundering, spinning your wheels and not going anywhere. But if you have that clearly painted picture in your mind of where you are going, it is probably a good idea to evaluate how willing are you to change your planned route to get there.

 

Big Resolution that Will be Easy

 

Make every meeting valuable If you ask me what’s the single most important thing to me that I write about it’s the idea of selfish generosity.   The idea of giving yourself, your ideas, your energy, your talents to the person next to you. This is pretty much the secret to a happy life and successful anything.

My resolution for 2013 is this: for every single scheduled meeting I have, I want the other person to leave with something of value from me. I want to be sure that 100% of people who spend time with me, leave our time together somehow better off than they were before we met.

I have a feeling, being at the nucleus of the Atlanta Tech Village, this is going to be easy.  I’m doing my best to schedule time with each individual member company to hear about what they do, where they are going, and what they need. Already, the “Village” concept of the whole being stronger than the individual parts is coming true.  Whether it’s helping find that key developer, sales person, or investor… or maybe it’s just refining their pitch… or most often, it’s a key introduction to a potential customer, beta user, or industry expert in their field.

I’m looking forward to giving more to those around me. The best thing that can happen is that one person starts to see this and makes giving more a higher priority in their own journey.

 

 

The Great Balancing Act of the Atlanta Tech Village

 

Atlanta Tech Village - Balancing ActThe Atlanta Tech Village is a “double-bottom line” enterprise, as David Cummings has written about several times. Meaning that profits will be measured in (A) the value we create for the Atlanta tech community by growing more successful startups and (B) the monetary value we create for the Atlanta Tech Village as a for-profit organization.

This is trickier than it sounds. Seriously.

Why?    Because each goal challenges the other.

  • If we focused too much on “B,” we could charge a ton of money to the startups, investors, and service providers that want to be in the village. Obviously, we have proven that there is demand. Economics 101 teaches you that when supply is limited and demand is high, you raise the prices! But that’s not the goal here – we aren’t trying to take cash strapped startups and raise their expenses. We want to make it easier for them to grow and thrive.
  • If we focused too much on “A,” then we would ultimately give away the on-site memberships at cost (or less) and end up looking like a non-profit that would have to sustain itself by fundraising and sources like… gasp… the government.

The ultimate goal is to make connections that matter and add value, and find the ways to make profits in those connections. The win-win-win is the scenario that we seek and it will not be easy. This will be a journey defined by the ultimate balancing act.

  • Startup WIN = low-cost, high-value that helps them grow
  • Service Provider / Partner / Sponsor WIN = high-value services, visibility, connections, introductions, facilities
  • Atlanta Tech Village WIN = the first two Wins + money on the bottom line at the end of the day

Smart associations have known this for years. Membership dues are not where you make money for R&D, growth, and exciting new programs. Dues are there to provide the basic necessities.  The members are the organization.   Revenue for growth must come from “non-dues revenue.”  Things like educational programs (connecting experts to people who need knowledge), investments (connecting capital to members who can use it),  affinity and revenue-share services (getting discounts for members who use specific services), and in the case of the Atlanta Tech Village – facility rentals for event space, happy hours, conferences, and more (given that the members’ use of the facility receives first priority.)

What an exciting challenge ahead – the great balancing act of 2013!

 

 

Atlanta Tech Village – Gasoline and Fire

 

gas-fire-Altanta-Tech-VillageThe Atlanta Tech Village is off to an unbelievable start. The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, which I believe indicates a huge demand for more connection and more community for startups, investors, and tech companies in Atlanta and the South.

One example is that on Saturday morning, we shared that we would be opening up the first 20 memberships on Monday morning at 10:30, but when they were all gone by Sunday afternoon, we had to decide to overflow into more empty space and keep the train rolling.

It’s exhilarating to be at the connection point for all these groups that want to be around each other.   It feels as though Atlanta as a major tech hub for the U.S. has been sparking along trying to get some serious traction and we are about to pour gasoline on it!

Some of my observations so far:

  • While we went into this project thinking we are going to be the guys who revolutionize coworking and office space utilization, we are finding that changing office space isn’t the primary need; the need is for people to be around each other.    We thought that demand would be somewhat low until the renovation made the building one of the coolest, sexiest places in Atlanta; but people are literally showing up saying they will sit on the floor in 1980’s law-firm-style office space if they can be sitting on the floor next to the right people. Incredible!
  • Not everybody gets it.  We are seeing exactly why government sponsored programs for startups don’t get most people very excited.  People who don’t line up with our (very) entrepreneurial Core Values stand out immediately.   Some of these have been candidates to be in the building and property management functions of the Village and others have been interested in joining. Brad Feld, and any one else out there talking about successful startup communities have been saying, and add me to the list: startup communities must be led by entrepreneurs.
  • Real-estate is fun, and everything is a compromise.   One successful CRE entrepreneur gave us some advice as we embarked on this project. He said, “a development like this is a journey. It will be a challenge, but look at is as a journey rather than something that has to get finished and you will enjoy it a lot more.”   Yeah, so our normal AGILE approach to building things like web apps doesn’t work in a 100,000sf urban office building renovation.  It’s going to go slow and there are tradeoffs every step of the way. Speed for quality, creative overhaul for inconveniences during construction, and money for… well, money for everything.

If you’re in Atlanta, come join the ride or take a look. If not, I hope you’ll indulge me on the topic while I share the excitement of the gasoline being poured onto the fire.

 

The Big Personal Energy Investment of 2013 – Atlanta Tech Village

 

Current Photo - Atlanta Tech VillageAs you know from the theme of my writing, I’m a big believer in the power of personal energy to make change. I believe that anyone who practices gumption, quiet reflection, and knows how to G.S.D. can make a huge difference on anything they are passionate about.    As we begin 2013, I’m excited to share that I’m making a big investment of personal energy by jumping into a “startup” called the Atlanta Tech Village.

The Atlanta Tech Village is a 100,000 square foot building in the heart of Buckhead. That’s all it is. Just a building. But along with David Cummings, David Lightburn and a whole team of high-octane entrepreneurs, we will turn this boring old office building into a vibrant and powerful, change-making community machine of startups and technology companies that thrive and grow together just as you would hope with a name like the Village.

Just as any VC would have to justify an investment of capital in a startup, here are my justifications for my investment of time, energy, and passion for the Atlanta Tech Village.

1. Always Be Around the Right People…

The central purpose of the ATV at this point is to bring startup entrepreneurs and their teams together with physical proximity. But with physical proximity comes true relationships, non-stop knowledge sharing, relevant connection making, and the ever-important generosity of giving before getting. Investing my time in at ATV not only gives me the honor and privilege to be around amazing people, but it allows me to practice what I preach and give before I get.

2. Perpetual personal growth…

Any ounce of success I’ve had in life to date has been because of the people with which I built relationships, but I have to admit, in the first 3-5 years of my first startup I didn’t appreciate this nearly as much as I should have.  I get fired up when I’m able to help people learn things that I know will help them grow faster and go farther.

3. Creating Brings Joy…

This blog helped me learn that I love the opportunity to create. And even in the first month of the ATV’s existence, there has been an unbelievable amount of creating to be done! And we’ve got many months and years of creating ahead of us.

4. Entrepreneurial Alchemist…

I’ve been told by my mentors along the way that I’m a business and technology alchemist. They mean that I love to mix and connect things together and see what happens. The ATV is going to be a powerful vehicle to connect entrepreneurs with entrepreneurs,  startups with customers, people with ideas, investment capital with startups, needs with leads, and on and on!  It will be a grand lab where crazy concoctions of ideas and resources are blended to create success… along with lots of welcomed failure and learning.

5. A Startup Association…!?

If you haven’t picked up on the theme here yet, the point is that the ATV is so much more than a building, it’s a community, an affiliation, a network, a group, an association of people.   Having 14+ years experience working with and around associations, I can see the power of a large group of people can make when they are organized around a single mission and direction. The ATV is a Startup Association with big ambitions and the most change-making-capable members you can imagine: startup entrepreneurs with passion.

2013 is shaping up to be a seriously kickass year.   If you’d like to come by and see a boring old building that is about to become so much more, check out www.AtlantaTechVillage.com. Or if you aren’t in any hurry, wait until the summer after Phase I of our massive renovations!  I’ll keep you updated here on the blog as well.

Happy New Year!

Bonus material — additional reading about the ATV can be found here, here, and here.