Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur Profile – Chris Wegener of PaperStyle.com

 

Chris-Wegener_caricatureContinuing the series of successful entrepreneurs sharing their thoughts on personal questions about how they build the person that builds their business.  Next up, one of the entrepreneurs that both inspires and encourages me every single week.     Chris Wegener founded PaperStyle.com in 1999 which has been featured as one of ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things’ and a finalist in the invitation category on NBC’s ‘Today Show Throws a Wedding.’

  • What is your exercise routine? I try to exercise for one hour, Monday – Friday at 6 a.m. with a boot camp in Buckhead.  Sometimes a long run Sat. or Sun. morning if I’m training for a race.  I love running.
  • What gives you the most personal energy? Although I am often inspired from people I admire, personal energy is easy for me.  I’m just wired that way.
  • What do you avoid because it drains your personal energy? One of the biggest drains I know is negative people.  I try to influence them with humor, and if they don’t ‘get it’ (or think I’m funny) I try and go the other way.
  • What are your most proud moments regarding your own legacy? On the business side, creating a business that people love to work for and customers love supporting.  We’re trying to provide a great work environment and be considered as a best place to work.  On the personal side, I love people and try my best to influence them to be their best and always look on the positive side of things.  Some people have to remember how good they have it!
  • How do you find ways to help others and give back? I have my favorite charities like everyone, but really enjoy giving back to my high school, college and of course, any entrepreneur who wants my honest opinion.
  • Do you have a personal mastermind group? Can you describe how they give you energy?  Without a doubt, my EO Forum is that group.  Their energy, support and ability to see things in a way I might not, is priceless.

 

 

Irrational Behavior Needed

 

No person in their right mind would start a company. Right?  The cost-benefit analysis, pros and cons, risks vs. reward equation just isn’t in favor of passing up a cushy corporate job with a steady salary guaranteed pension, pre-determined hours and duties for the unknown.  Starting a company is leaping into the unknown.  You don’t know how long it will take to get to revenue or to cash flow positive. You don’t know if you have the right idea or if you will need to pivot, again, again, and again.  Entrepreneurship is to enter an abyss of uncertainty.

Yet, if we are to create an ecosystem of innovation in the Atlanta Startup Rainforest, we must accept and embrace this type of irrational behavior. The reason the rainforest thrives is because at the lowest level there is messiness. People make emotional decisions that can’t be predicted or explained. People are really screwed up.   But it is from the screw ups and irrational decisions that unexpected ideas, connections and even companies are born.

From The Rainforest…

Atlanta Startup Rainforest – Axiom #2: Rainforests are built from the bottom up, where irrational behavior reigns.

One of our specific challenges here in Atlanta is that southern culture is generally conservative and risk averse. To invest one’s college education in a startup is risky. To take any of the family trust and commit to helping technology startups change the world?! Well let’s just say that the country clubs of Buckhead aren’t humming with this kind of talk… yet.  However, we can create the system of tech startups and demonstrate where investing time, energy, and money in startups isn’t just investing in a single company that may fail or thrive: it is investing into a system. The inputs into the system will feed the system. Failed companies provide incredible learning for the founders and investors. Money that was used to get to the failure, led those founders to their next company, and the next.

Bottom line for Atlanta: let’s focus on the system and be cool with a little more  irrational behavior at the bottom level where the magic happens.

 

Entrepreneur Profile – Mike Landman of RippleIT

Landman

Continuing the series of entrepreneurs sharing their thoughts on personal questions about how they build the person that builds their business.   Mike Landman is the founder of Ripple IT and believes that freedom unleashes the best work and the best life. He also makes my “best dressed Entrepreneurs list.” (I just made the list up so I could put Mike on the top of it.)

What do you do as an entrepreneur to balance your most important personal relationships (spouse, kids, family)?

I do the same thing I think others should be able to do. I let my work and my life blend as needed. The nice thing entrepreneurs get free with the job description is that they have complete freedom to balance their life as they see fit. Usually work is more fullfilling than watching reruns. One of my missions is to make sure everyone gets to make the same choices whether they start a company or work for one.

What is your exercise routine?

When my schedule is humming I work out 3-4x a week. When other things get in the way, sometime I don’t work out for a week.

What gives you the most personal energy?

Thinking out loud. Either with people or alone. One of the things I have to be cognizant of is that I will sometimes seem like I am passionately advocating an idea, but in fact I’m just thinking it through (aloud). If people aren’t aware of that, they can be left with the impression that I’m making my case for it. That’s confusing when 10 minutes later I’m making a very different argument.

What do you avoid because it drains your personal energy?

I avoid the telephone and voicemail. I avoid low-importance conflict. Sitting in one place. Cable news. Bad coffee.

How are you involved in the community?

I am most active in entrepreneur-oriented activities. There’s an awesome myth that surrounds entrepreneurs – that we know what we are doing. But most of us really don’t. There’s nowhere to learn something you’re personally making up, other than counsel from other people who made stuff up. So I have been involved with leadership in EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) since 2007. Most recently as President of the Atlanta chapter, which was a great honor. But the role I’m most proud of in EO was launching the Accelerator program which is designed to help first-stage entrepreneurs get their businesses to $1M while still being awesome people. I am very pleased with the success we’ve had for 5 years.

Are you involved in a church or other religious organization? How do you think spirituality is important to your entrepreneurial success?

I am not religious. I believe that people doing the right thing is the morality we’re all striving for. I try to do the right thing.

What are your most proud moments regarding your own legacy?

I don’t have a legacy yet, but I’m starting to think that ultimately I will have had some impact in the ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) revolution. That my influence has touched and will continue to touch companies and inspire them to trust their employees and grant them the same freedoms and responsibilities that entrepreneurs get by virtue of their job title.

How do you find ways to help others and give back?

Most directly I give back by running a ROWE. Being a ROWE has allowed me to help people carve out the freedom in their lives to never miss their daughter’s recital, or their son’s soccer games. Two Ripplers have toured with bands for weeks while still getting their jobs done. Another was able to adopt a child from out of state because of ROWE, and nearly all of us have been able to attend to medical care for ourselves or family members that would have been impossible or very challenging in a traditional work environment.

Ripple are also new partners in On The House which is a great probono program started by the folks at Matchstic. Every year On The House chooses one charity or not-for-profit in need, and delivers a full suite of services from rebranding to IT consulting to app development. It’s an amazing overhaul for one organization in need, every year.

Do you have written personal core values, what are they?

I have mostly adopted the Ripple Core Values. Our mantra is Humans First, and our values are:

  • Responsible
  • Enduring (relationships)
  • Fair
  • Open
  • Style in all we do

We call them REFOS

Do you have a personal mastermind group? Can you describe how they give you energy?

I have my EO Forum. Having a place of trust with 6 people that I know have my interests at heart to go to 1/2 day a month is great energy.

What competitive advantages do you have as an individual that has made / will make you more successful than the guy you are competing against in business?

I learned when I played tennis that in my DNA I’m never really competing against anyone else, but that I compete against myself. I didn’t know what that meant (except that tennis had made me crazy) until Jeff Bezos said, and I’m paraphrasing, that “you can either be competitor-focused or customer-focused.” But not both. I’m customer-focused.

 

I think there are qualities as an individual that have helped me; I’m nice, I like helping people, I don’t take myself too seriously, and I like to help people make connections and be successful. I think it rarely has to be a zero-sum game.

Let’s Build a Startup Rainforest in Atlanta

 

Recently, I finished reading The Rainforest by Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitz.  These guys are VCs that did an amazing job of writing a book that applied depth of ideas behind why Silicon Valley delvers such output of startup innovation while other communities (many with similar assets) fail.   The authors apply biological models to economic systems to see what we can learn from why the rainforest thrives.    I don’t feel I can do the ideas justice in just a single post so I’ll be my thoughts on how Atlanta, and our very own Atlanta Tech Village, can create a rainforest of innovation and a thriving startup ecosystem; so this is the first of a series let’s call “The Atlanta Startup Rainforest.”

From The Rainforest book:

Rainforest Axiom #1… While plants are harvested most efficiently on farms, weeds sprout best in Rainforests.

The idea here is that the agricultural mindset of planting seeds, keeping the weeds out, then harvesting your mostly predictable crops is the opposite of what we want to happen in an Atlanta startup ecosystem.  What we need is for new species to form regularly. We need surprises.  We need predictable unpredictability!  We need great companies that, at their birth, are indistinguishable from those that will fade back into the elements.  We can’t predict what will work, who will thrive, who will fail: nor should we try. We should be encouraging a system that encourages everyone to give it a try.

In our Atlanta Startup Rainforest, we can’t control the specific process of each individual company being planted and growing, but what we can do is manage the system. We want to be sure that all the right elements are in place for the system to create new sparks that turn into flames. (Hmmm… perhaps I’ll avoid “fire” metaphors for this “forest theme.”)

The South has many of the elements in place to become a rainforest of innovation. Great people, financial resources, great universities, low cost of living, an attitude of sharing and helping one another. Broad connections and deep relationships are common in Atlanta, introductions happen easily, infrastructure is solid, policy is sound (with room for improvement and headed in the right direction).  Our job as leaders of the rainforest are to continue to manage how these elements are connected within the system.   More to come on all this as we continue to explore this idea.

Please… If you know anyone working in, on, and around the Atlanta startup scene, I encourage you to pass this along and ask them to subscribe via e-mail to this blog. It’s important that we work together in unity to explore these ideas and bring Atlanta to a Top 10 tech startup hub in the US.

 

Play Hard – Signing Off

 

CaribbeanSailingIn the spirit of being intentional about vacations with no kids, I’m happy to share that I’m going completely off the grid today and won’t be back in the Matrix until next weekend.   My bride and I are sneaking away to blue water and sunny skies for a week.   We both need the disconnect.

We plan to fill our schedule with intense fun – no lounging on the beach for the Cooks. That’s not a vacation.   “Down time” just gives your mind to think about things you aren’t doing at work and home.  We just need fun time.  It’s the same relaxation as flying airplanes for me – the only way to truly disengage your mind is to engage it on something else.

Don’t get me wrong, the afternoon naps will be glorious power naps.

Neo out.

See you on the other side.

 

 

Serendipity Makes You Go Faster

 

In a recent blog post, David Cummings shared that he didn’t anticipate how amazing, regular, and intense the serendipitous interactions would be at the Atlanta Tech Village. I can echo that surprise and share some more thoughts. It is a huge benefit of a community like the Village that can’t be overstated.

Everything happens faster for you when your day is sprinkled with unplanned interactions with high-energy people, who are all looking to help you.  It’s an energy level that I’m now completely addicted to.  In former lives, I would look forward to a day or two working from home each week. But now when a day goes by where I’m not in the ATV, I can’t help but wonder what interesting people I didn’t meet, what cool company ideas I didn’t hear, and what neat new feature a tech startup has added to their product that I won’t know about.

Building a company is all about the getting momentum on the flywheel. It really is about speed, sort of.  It is hard work and takes a ton of energy and time, but doing it in a high-motion community like ATV can compress that time.

TechStars has a motto (and a book): Do More Faster.   I get it now.   Hopefully ATV, ATDC, Hype and other Atlanta programs like this can start to turn up the volume of serendipity that happens in our city for tech startups… not just in a few specific buildings.

 

 

Person Building – The First Entrepreneur Profile

 

Since I launched this blog almost a year ago I’ve focused on topics around finding inspiration and energy required to build a better person. Specifically a person who happens to be building a business: the entrepreneur.

Most of the nuggets and ideas I’ve shared aren’t original. They are things I’ve picked up from the amazing people I meet every day.  So being a guy who is addicted to introducing people and making connections, I want to introduce you to some of these individuals directly.

In the coming weeks, I will be doing a series of short posts about successful entrepreneurs who have made a difference in my life.  They won’t be long in-depth write-ups, but they will be answers to a list of questions that always carry interesting answers.

I’ll do the proper thing and lead off by example, with my own answers to these questions. So first up: Johnson Cook.

What do you do as an entrepreneur to balance your most important personal relationships (spouse, kids, family)?

My wife and I have a goal to schedule at least two 4+ day vacations per year with just each other (no kids, no friends). It’s important to schedule the next one as soon as we finish one – 6 months out. Otherwise the insanity of 3 young kids plus everything else keeps it from happening.  I also have a morning routine with my oldest – to do breakfast together and take him to school. It limits my availability for breakfast meetings or being at the office early, but I make up for it by getting up around 5am each day to get in several hours of good deep work.

 What is your exercise routine?

I don’t let two days go by without running. If I have extra time on a non-running day, I will go to the gym and swim. Peachtree City has amazing trails in the woods and lakes that make for great combination of tasks: running time is quiet time.

What gives you the most personal energy?

Reading in the morning and exercise.  After exercise I feel unstoppable. If I miss a workout, I feel like crap.

 What do you avoid because it drains your personal energy?

People who are always down on their luck. People who constantly complaining but who don’t take action.  People who’re generally negative towards others.

Are you involved in a church or other religious organization? How do you think spirituality is important to your entrepreneurial success?

Part of what prompted the idea of this series of questions for other entrepreneurs is that I started noticing a trend that most “rockstar entrepreneurs” I know are either heavily involved in their church or are deeply spiritual in other ways.  Yes, I’m active in our church, (Peachtree City United Methodist Church) and occasionally attend different churches.   Our family is Methodist.  I believe having a rhythm to slow down and be in a large group on a regular basis that is pondering issues bigger than our day-to-day is very healthy.   (Side note: I also think that organized religion has done a lot to screw up the way people experience God. It’s a shame that churches in general have turned so many people away from an important personal necessity. But I won’t go there today.)

 What are your most proud moments regarding your own legacy?

I work hard to teach my kids that they are in charge of their own lives.  This especially focuses on entrepreneurship, but also on how they manage their decisions. I don’t think I had this realization until way too late in life and I think they can make a difference in the world if at least if they hear the right words over and over.

 How do you find ways to help others and give back?

I love making introductions, because I love helping people exchange talents, ideas, and resources.  I love, love it. I’m all about giving on an individual level more than an institutional level. Give to someone where you can see the direct impact that minute. It’s so rewarding and can go so far.

What hobbies are important to you and why do they give you energy?

Golf is great time to connect with friends.   Flying airplanes is great mental challenge, although something that my schedule has kept me from doing as much as I’d like. I don’t count running as a hobby because it’s way more important. Hobbies can be ignored.

Do you have a personal mastermind group? Can you describe how they give you energy?

My Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) forum, and my Quench Network (Quench) forum. They are amazing and are the most critical relationships to me aside from my family.

What competitive advantages do you have as an individual that has made / will make you more successful than the guy you are competing against in business?

I believe my morning routine is my competitive advantage. It’s setup nicely where I get all the fundamentals in first thing. I have established a rhythm of waking up very early, reading, writing, family time, and then workout. It’s the best way to start the day I can imagine.

I enjoyed answering these questions, and I hope you find a nugget that is useful.

 

 

Trust

 

One of the amazing aspects of the Atlanta Tech Village is the instant connection the members, aka Villagers, seem to have with each other. It’s great to watch friendships and close working relationships being formed because people share something in common as simple as working in the same building on similar life goals. It is with the these relationships beginning to form, that I believe we will see more and more a precious thing called “trust” form.

Trust is a huge asset in business. Trust is what makes people move. If I trust you, I will do business with you. If I trust you, I will recommend you to an investor, a potential employee, or a company working on a similar product.

Trust is also key to finding the secret to happiness: Alignment.  If you are working in an environment full of trust (both others’ trust in you, and your trust in others), you are more comfortable, happier, and able to function on a higher level.  Where trust is lacking, things stall. When a company doesn’t trust a leader – for lack of transparency, a question in competence, or just personality issues – a culture cannot thrive.

Trust, however, doesn’t happen just because you work in the same building. It happens over time. It happens through a series of short conversations and the occasional long conversation. It happens by learning about something else you have in common with each other. It is also very easily transferred.  I have my A-list of folks who come with an automatic seal of approval. If they trust you, and they tell me they trust you (either implicitly or explicitly), I will automatically trust you.

Trust is a cool energy builder. Try to trust more people.