Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

I Suck at Taking Criticism

 

One of my biggest weaknesses as an entrepreneur, dad, and husband (and there are many!) is that I suck at taking criticism. I mean really, really suck. Even when I ask for feedback, help, and opinions, when I get them and they are contradictory to how I see the world or have decided something should be, I don’t know why, but I have internal patriot missile that wants to launch a nuclear mega shock-and-awe attack the incoming offender and lock down the hatches.

I’m taking a risk with this post and letting you know that I will delete your comments if you tell me you don’t like it. (grin)  Yes, you can see that I put myself in places where criticism is less likely to occur (entrepreneurship in general is this way), but I know I’m doing myself a disservice by not being more open to this feedback.

The value of productive criticism from people you trust is huge.   As my (very) old wise uncle said to me in an e-mail once (after I lashed out at him for criticizing something I posted on this blog):  — “there is a danger that if you can’t adapt after receiving criticism that people will stop telling you anything if there is a hint of negativity (or if they think you would interpret it as negativity)… and there are consequences to this happening.”

I agree. There, I admit it publicly. Now please be gentle.

 

Discover the Joy of Less Clutter

 

Perhaps it’s a symptom of getting older. Or maybe it’s the amount of Legos in my house. Or perhaps it’s working in an open floor plan, high density office in Atlanta Tech Village  Or maybe it has something to do with my new attention on better focus and being intentional. Whatever it is, my patience with and for clutter has evaporated.

I don’t mean anything philosophical here like mental clutter or relationship clutter. I’m just talking about crap. Junk. Stuff.  CLUTTER!  I want to address all physical space around me with this clutterless goal, so I’m having a great time being on a clutter cleanse.

Some thoughts and observations.

  • Your desk at home and work.   Seriously, it’s time to ask: how many pens do you really need?  If you run out, don’t you know where to get them?   Just because you brought home 20 “new” ones from every tradeshow, doesn’t mean you keep them. Donate them or trash them.  You don’t even use pens any more. I didn’t use a pen to write this blog to you and you won’t use a pen to forward it to your wife telling her you are ready to clean out your desk at home this weekend.
  • Files and paperwork.   My goal now on paperwork is to only keep the absolute legal minimums. I’m not sure I even need to store my paper tax returns, since I all have them stored (with redundancy) in the cloud, but I still have them.  Old bills, receipts, credit card statements.  I’m working to make those go away also.
  • Your car.  Tony Tseih, the CEO of Zappos talks about how when they interview new job applicants, someone hangs out in the parking deck and takes a peek inside the candidates’ cars. They are looking to see if there is trash and junk or if the person is neat.   At Zappos, a neat car is the sign of someone who is organized and the right fit for their culture.
  • Storage rooms.  Just because you have it (mostly talking about your house), doesn’t mean you have to use it.   This has been a tough one for me, and I’m still combating the tendency to keep things that used to be cool to me.  But my goal is to get our storage closets (and basement and attic) down to less than 50% used.  (Ours are mostly toys, kid clothes, and baby gear… and now that we agree and I’m publicly blogging that we’re done at 3 kids, we can get rid of all of it! Right honey?)
  • Cabinets don’t have to be full. It’s so easy for us to collect and collect because we can put things in cabinets and they go out of sight.  Go back and ask the hard questions.  Defrag the cabinets!

I’m definitely not there yet on this, but it’s a big priority. Feel free to call me out on it when you come over to our house and see clutter. (It’s probably the kids’ fault anyway.)

 

 

BE NICE. Rainforest Axiom 9: Innovation and human emotion are intertwined.

 

Think about people you don’t like. You probably have some of these at work. Some folks that are just on a different page, rub you the wrong way, or come across as downright offensive to your tastes.   How do you work with these people? Do you think you are more or less effective in a work setting?

In the Rainforest Book, Hwang discusses experiments of team dynamics and shares that research has concluded what our common sense also tells us: “…people that get along better, innovate better.”

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

It is often said that the majority of human communication is nonverbal. The nonverbal signals we give each other are not just an interesting sideshow in the study of communication. Nonverbal signals indicate emotions, and emotions are at the heart of the collaborative process. We cannot understand innovation without recognizing that economic value creation is determined significantly by our emotions toward one another.

This is why I believe our core values at the Atlanta Tech Village are so important. (Be nice, work hard play hard, pay it forward, and dream big).    For our city to become a top tech startup hub, we must share core values such as these beyond our own companies, coworking centers, and meetups.

These values must extend community wide. And I think we’re doing a great job.

 

Start with WHY. But That’s Not All.

 

Your WHY is not a value proposition.

If you haven’t seen the Simon Sinek talk on “Start with Why,” it’s here and mandatory 18 minute video for anyone in a startup (founder and team members alike).

There’s a problem with how some folks interpret this video and this idea of starting with WHY.  Some entrepreneurs, mostly in early startup phase, take this too literally. I see it most common with folks starting up social enterprises and non-profit startups.  Your WHY may be the reason you are doing what you are doing, but it’s not a value proposition by itself.  You can’t sell your passion for something as the reason people buy from you.  The reason might be the reason I buy from you and not the other guy, but it doesn’t stand alone. Your fire may push you to be the winner, but before I even got to comparing you to the other guy, I had decide that you had something I need.

To build a business, you have to sell something of value in addition to being passionate about it.  Once you’ve nailed that and you can confidently tell your customers that your product is the best— then you can really seal the deal by showing them your WHY and your FIRE.

 

 

Antifragile Systems Require Fragile Components – Startups and Failure

 

In antifragility,  for a system antifragile, the individual parts will often be fragile. Think of building stronger muscle in your body. A hard workout actually breaks the muscle fibers, then they grow back bigger and stronger.    This makes the system stronger, but if you happen to be that individual muscle fiber who was broken, you don’t feel antifragile– you feel broken!

Considering an antifragile startup ecosystem, it is important to acknowledge that startups themselves are incredibly fragile. They will break.  They will fail. Some of the entrepreneurs who launch full time into a change the world, build-the-next-whatever crusade, will go nowhere and end up doing something different. They may even raise tons of money and hire big teams. In order for the system as a whole to become more resilient and antifragile, it is necessary that some of these must fail.

Here’s the neat part about having a system though.

When those do fail, a strong system will support them and rebuild them into something else.  High density community like the Atlanta Tech Village (and the entire Atlanta startup rainforest, as I’m seeing it grow right now), is robust and healthy such that the individuals involved in the fragile components will find another, and another, and another opportunity to succeed.

Our goal for the community and our mission at the Village is that the connections between talent, ideas, and capital happen faster.  “Faster” is the keyword.  We aren’t trying to help build a system where everybody who starts a company thrives. We want you to find success or failure faster, and if you find the later, we want you to find the next capital, idea, and talent faster.   I guess you could say we want the city of Atlanta to be the protein shake after that hard workout.

 

Atlanta’s Startup Ecosystem Limiting Factor – The Number of Full Time Entrepreneurs

 

When talking about Atlanta, startups, tech, and becoming a top tier tech startup city, the first question is: “What do we need to add for the ecosystem to go faster?”

My answer: Atlanta needs more full time entrepreneurs.

We have a lot of hobbyists. These are folks who are living off their spouses income, showing up to every startup community event, active in social media, blogging even… but they are in the same place with their startup that they’ve been for the last 2 years. They say they aren’t able to raise money or they justify it by saying there isn’t enough capital in our city.  I consider these folks hobbyists.

We have a lot of wannapreneurs. Sadly, I see at least one of these per day.  It’s the guy (and yes, most are guys) in the corporate job, hooked on the crack salary – with a mortgage, club membership, car payments – and isn’t willing (or able) to make the dramatic changes that need to happen to do something meaningful. These guys are miserable in their job, climbing the ladder, have the skills needed to be a startup entrepreneur, but aren’t able to pull the trigger.   Often they come to me with this sad argument: “If I can just raise money, then I can afford to go full time on my startup.”  Every time, they almost pull off the surprised face when I tell them that they won’t be able to raise money until they are in full-time.

We have lots of one-hit wonders.  I think this is the most promising group of potential full-time entrepreneurs. It’s the original team members of great Atlanta startups. They jumped into a startup 10+ years ago, stuck with it to make it wildly successful and now it’s a big company. Now they have their stock options and big salaries but often have the itch. These are the people who have done it before and can usually do it again.   Mindspring, Pardot, ISS, Airwatch, Mailchimp, Weather.com, Firethorn, CNN, Radiant Systems… the list of successes in Atlanta is long, and the founding core teams are often still around with the skills to do it again.

We need to recruit outside the state. This is something admittedly, that I need to do better. We all need to make an effort to attend the events like Southland in Nashville and other regional events to promote the amazing resources in Atlanta for tech startups and full-time entrepreneurs.

I know with all the excitement we are moving in the right direction, but it’s important to acknowledge our biggest limiter: the number of full-time entrepreneurs.  Not ideas. Not capital. Not talent for the growth team. We have plenty of those.

 

I Am Computerless

 

Just recently Atlanta Ventures moved our offices within the Atlanta Tech Village from an old-school traditional office to an open floor plan. There are no more offices!  One of the things we added to make this work is four huddle rooms with large iMacs and 3 phone booths, also with iMacs.    These computers are wide open and ready for anyone to jump on when you have a phone call or have a quick need.   Around the same time, I bought another laptop so I can stop lugging my MacBook Air back and forth from home to office.

Now with these two small changes (public-ish computers plus two laptops), I’ve realized that for the first time since I was 14 years old, I don’t have, or need, my “own” computer. 

My computer doesn’t exist. It’s all in the cloud. Everything.  I can sit down at any machine with Chrome and be set to go. Here’s what I use and what I mean:

  • Gmail – all my email is stored in the cloud, complete with my custom keyboard shortcuts, folders, and viewing layout preferences
  • Dropbox – all of my files are in Dropbox, quickly accessible through the app or the web site (or my iPhone, or my iPad)
  • Triple Redundancy – I happen to let my two laptops keep 90% of my dropbox files synced locally to both machines. Not sure I need to do this, but I have the storage so may as well.   As a kicker, I have Carbonite running on one of the laptops, creating another Cloud backup in real-time of all my files.
  • Google Drive – I’ve been able to almost completely dump MS Office and use the amazingly powerful Google Drive+Docs for just about everything. (The last remaining hurdle is some big spreadsheets with fancy gadgets like Pivot Tables where Google Spreadsheets isn’t quite there yet.)
  • Chrome – by signing in and out of my browser now, all of my bookmarks, history, passwords, extensions and goodies are right at my finger tips (and right where I expect them to be) no matter what local machine I’m on. It’s amazing to me to leave the office, come home, pull up my browser and have all the same tabs open with the sites I was reading at the office.

As a nerd, I’m so thankful to be alive right now. Technology is so awesome.

 

Driverless Cars for Atlanta

 

This has been bugging me ever since I realized that tons of new cars now will park themselves, keep you from rear-ending someone, keep you in your lane, or even stop/start you through congested traffic using radar cruise control.  I realized that all the individual technologies necessary for driverless cars are already here.  Now we just need to put it all together and make this happen for our country, ASAP.

Here is some background– first, a video from Google showing how a blind person is now able to move around:

Now a Ted Talk:

As you start to pay attention, articles like this pop up with loads of useful ideas and arguments for driverless cars.   I’ve been thinking about my own list too:

  • Imagine the millions of hours of productivity gained from so many angles here:
  • Productivity from an extra 60 minutes to respond to e-mails, read a book, or talk to a friend while your car drives you to where you need go
  • Productivity from less time in the car since there won’t be traffic accidents or traffic jams. Every time I’m forced to watch humans argue over how to merge from 2 lanes down to 1, I just think how stupid we humans are compared to what a computer could do for us.
  • Financial boost for individuals because we won’t need to own cars any more. There will be networks of taxis that are affordable enough to pick you up and drop you off anywhere.
  • Business opportunities – a whole new ecosystem is created. Driverless car operators. Amenities. Features. Maintenance. Add-ons, services… premium options and low cost options.  Franchises and more!
  • Think of the improved mental energy from the millions who are now drained after their long afternoon commutes.
  • This infrastructure, compared to “mass” transit makes so much more sense from an economic investment standpoint. Instead of taking Marta out another 10 miles for 25 gagillion dollars, let’s buy a fleet of these vehicles and setup an Uber-like app for ordering your rides.
  • No more DUI’s, ever.
  • Teenagers (and all of the rest of us) become so much safer. Thousands of lives will be saved.

As pilots we are trained in instrument flying that when you become disoriented in the clouds or a sticky situation, often times the safest thing to do is to turn on the autopilot. The computer doesn’t get disoriented. It always knows which was is up, down, and which way is home.  Hand flying is risky.

Atlanta is a big transportation hub. It’s one of our strong points. With companies like UPS, Delta, and Georgia Pacific calling Atlanta home, plus the Tech Startup Explosion that is upon us, I believe we are in a prime spot to lead the driverless car movement.

Somebody tell me how I can help make it happen.

 

Another Benefit to Raising Outside Money

 

One of the discussions we have a lot in Atlanta these days is whether startups should bootstrap or raise outside money. Whether you’re talking angel money or VC money, one reason I believe it’s worth bringing on an investor is that founders need the mental freedom to operate with (less) fear than if bootstrapping.

Too often when bootstrapping (and I speak from close personal experience on this), you live with and focus too much on the fears about “what if this doesn’t work” … what if you don’t close the next account, you miss a mortgage or rent payment, you don’t make payroll, they take your house, your family will disown you!?  How can you make a clear, effective, and confident sales presentation to that Fortune 500 prospect when you’re worried about your house?  While a hefty appreciation for the value of fear is good, too much fear can be paralyzing.

Entrepreneurs in startup phase need confidence. You’ve got to keep moving. Don’t stop. You need to go after each deal as if you didn’t really need it and you know there are 10 more after that one if you don’t close it.

As a startup founder, you’ve already met your quota of irrational thinking by starting this company in the first place.  Once you’re on the train, it’s time to stay focused, confident, and smart. Smart means rational.  Fear challenges rational thinking.  Sometimes a little bit of money, and knowing that someone has your back and you’ve got enough money to keep your kids from going hungry is the spark of confidence that will get you to the next level.

 

 

No Trophies

 

Last week, David Cummings won the prestigious Ernst & Young’s 2012 Deal of the Year Award. Very cool! We are all proud of David and excited for story that led to the award. The morning after the award when I congratulated him, I asked “So you going to put the trophy right here in the lobby of the Atlanta Ventures suite?

His response is a lesson for all of us:  “Nope. Trophies are about the past, so I don’t care for or display them.  We need to focus on the present and the future.”

Boom.

Simple yet profound point! Whether your past includes selling a company for $95mm, or a whole list of failed attempts to do so… it doesn’t matter.   None of it matters. What matters is today, and what you do today– and you should think about tomorrow too.

There’s a ton of freedom in that.

 

Help Yourself, Help another Entrepreneur, Serve on a Board

 

In my work with Atlanta Ventures and Atlanta Tech Village, I’ve had the opportunity to help and advise many dozens of companies in 2013. It’s amazing how much you can learn by helping other people. I wrote about this over a year ago and labeled it Selfish Generosity. The idea continues to be a top 5 key to finding goodness in everything.

Sometimes startup entrepreneurs only need someone to listen to them process their issues. Just describing problems out loud, is often all they need to get to an answer.  Other times, they have a major roadblock that you can solve with one introduction for them.   The issue with most help we provide is that it is superficial and short term. We have  friends and contacts, but it takes some structure for us to take deep dives and find long term ways to help. One great idea I recommend to entrepreneurs to help yourself by helping others is to serve on a Board of another company.

In short, I agree with Brad Feld, that All CEOs should be an Outside Director for One Company. To have the big picture perspective on someone else’s companies, helps you put your own challenges and struggles in the right view.

There are so many reasons why CEOs can gain value from serving on another Board:

  • Your own Network – by participating in another group to help move another needle, you will be exposed to people that you may not otherwise encounter
  • Your own Rhythm – keeping in pace with other company board meetings, tracking their progress, will help you put your own rhythm in place for your own company and your own board
  • Your own Discipline – this is what I love most about Board meetings is the requirement to get your s**tuff together once a quarter. Financials. Progress on goals. Accountability to your action items. By learning from other companies, you can be inspired and less intimidated by focused discipline required to please a Board.
  • Fresh Ideas – All too often, we entrepreneurs dive deep into our own world and only come out for food and beer. Looking at other industries, new technologies, different team structures, other peoples’ financials can give you fuel for your own creativity that is hard to gain by reading the same blogs and Twitter Discover links

For more thoughts, I encourage you to read Brad’s post.

 

Yes, You need a Board

 

I’m surprised at how many startups and growing companies in Atlanta (less than $5mm revenue) don’t have a Board.    Whatever you call your board members (Advisors, Directors, etc…) I believe the perspective and value they provide are critical for any company that wants to go faster.

Board members and board meetings help entrepreneurs and their teams establish the bigger picture rhythm. Hopefully, you are doing your daily standup checkins, and perhaps weekly team meetings and monthly deep dives, but Board meetings are different. They help you revisit your 5-, 3-, 1-year and even Quarterly goals and strategy.  It’s a refreshing “slow down to go faster” routine that should be embraced.

In my personal experience, I knew the Board was providing me the most value when I left feeling the most uncomfortable. A good Board will challenge you when you get comfortable. They will point out big areas where you are weak or completely missing the boat. Many times, they also provide great support personally for entrepreneurs. If they are the right people, they’ve likely been there, done that, and can relate to the stress that entrepreneurs face in a young, growing company.    Entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic. We are dreamers and big idea people.  A Board help balance this out with reminders to check in with reality, measure the right things, and keep you in gear. It’s important to develop a thick skin in all this because you don’t want the tough love to hurt your optimism and excitement for the business. Just go in with the right expectations, and you will end up gaining tons of good energy.

This is one of those items that investors require from startups where they invest money: to form a Board of Directors. To me, even if you aren’t raising money, it’s an area where a best practice for the big boys will serve you well.