Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Different Approaches to How We Build the Atlanta Startup Ecosystem

 

As we all work together to build and fuel the Atlanta startup ecosystem, there’s a recurring theme that I feel obligated to address.  In short, it boils down to this:   An ecosystem is an unpredictable, sloppy organism. It is not a structure to be designed by architects and built according to the plans.

Let’s back up. Here are the comments that one will hear regularly in Startup community leader conversations:

  • Atlanta doesn’t need another… {coworking space, incubator, accelerator, meetup of X}…
  • Atlanta should stop splintering our efforts…
  • The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing in Atlanta…
  • We’re duplicating efforts and not being efficient…
  • We need someone to coordinate all of this…

First, let me be clear that I do think coordination and intense communication across a community is valuable and helps the ecosystem. I love to organize things, and I love to participate in organized efforts.   That said, when I hear these comments I get a little uncomfortable in my chair. Here’s why.

An ecosystem isn’t an organization. And it shouldn’t act like one.  Per the Rainforest model, we must let chaos happen. Chaos is where weeds sprout and we never know what weed will be the next giant.  We can’t be farmers, planting in neat rows, keeping out the unplanned, and fertilizing our favorites. We must get comfortable with chaotic, splintered, competing efforts on some level.

Competition (and even program demise) is healthy for the system. If we didn’t have more than one (X), how would we know each is the best it can be?    Our coworking spaces, accelerator programs, meetups, media outlets, mentoring programs… all of these are good, but just because they exist doesn’t mean they are the best they can be.  If we embrace competition within the ecosystem, the community will select which ones are the best. Programs and facilities will evolve to meet the needs of the startups. If they don’t, they will die— and dying organizations make the ecosystem stronger.   (Think of strength building in your body: individual muscle fibers must break and then rebuild, this makes the system stronger.)

We can’t predict or decide what will work.  Looking at different industries and verticals, we often try to say: Atlanta is awesome for [IT Security, EdTech, Sports, Health IT, Fintech, etc..]… so we should focus our efforts on that and really leverage our strengths. Yes, I agree that focusing on our strengths is great, so long as we accept that we have lots of strengths, and that different people and organizations will focus on what they know best.  Having too many strengths is a great problem to have!

A shared vision is tricky.  I love that my good friend @ScottyHendo is working to help us come up with a shared vision for the Atlanta ecosystem. Sadly though, I haven’t helped him out much. I haven’t added much to the conversation, and I think this is why. I think an ecosystem, in order to be antifragile and thrive must be made up of thousands of individual visions for the future. Seth Godin said “The Future is Messy.”  I think this boils it down. The future of Atlanta startup scene will be made up of a combination of my personal vision with everyone else’s. Coordinating the vision seems tricky. Instead of coordinating the vision, let’s just coordinate our calendars, and perhaps our core values.

- Geography is geography and it is what it is. Many are talking about the need for density as a foundation of a strong community. I totally agree with this, but I recently had an epiphany. I realized that by trying to focus on Buckhead, or Midtown, or Perimeter, or Alpharetta, or any other suburb, and build a single high density neighborhood of startups, we’re trying to solve two problems at once.  Atlanta has nasty sprawl and horrible land use habits.   That’s a problem that I’m personally going to accept as a working parameter to the variable I’m more concerned with: more startups. I’m not saying I’m embracing the sprawl or giving up, I’m just saying I want to work around it. I’d like to see programs and resources available to startups wherever they happen to land in our ridiculously large metropolitan footprint.

Efficiency shouldn’t be the goal: robustness should be.  Many of these coordination efforts are in the name of efficiency. I don’t believe getting to the place we want to be should be based on the least amount of effort for the most amount of gain. Instead, I think we put our entrepreneurial instincts of efficiency aside as a goal and instead focus on antifragility. Sustainable. Robust. Long lasting.

Again, these are such great problems to have, that you can’t be excited enough for Atlanta startup ecosystem right now. Comparing to what I hear from other cities where events and programs are far and few between, poorly attended, and of low quality– we are really accelerating here and I love being a part of it.

 

Inspiration is for Amateurs

 

Recently in a great post on AVC, Fred Wilson talked about the days he feels like “mailing it in” and had (what I thought) was a very inspirational post about his energy level and vision for his role as a VC.    Down in the comments, Arnold Waldstein shared this comment:

Favorite quote of all time:

“Inspiration is for amateurs.”

Chuck Close

This threw me off!  At first it bothered me.   I started to question my own motivation for this blog. Check my own personal tag line, right up top: “seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.”   But I realized after some thought that this quote doesn’t conflict with how I believe inspiration works for entrepreneurs.

Energy from being inspired comes in bursts. There are highs and lows. Inspired days never last longer than a week or two at best. There will be low energy days for any super motivated entrepreneur. It’s important to accept this and have habits and awareness enough to know that you will have another inspired burst of energy soon and you must keep pressing forward until it finds you.

Here are some tips that can help manage the highs and lows of your energy.

  • Have a good co-founder.   This is so huge for entrepreneurs. Co-founders are critical when your inspiration and energy is low. Sometimes you will be low together, but most of the time you will have someone to lean on. Or even better, when your partner is feeling down, you can experience the great feeling of lifting him up out of the funk.
  • Have healthy habits. Even when you’re low on inspiration, it’s important to keep your rituals going. Keep reading. Keep exercising. Keep listening to music. Keep relaxing. Keep balancing family intentionally.  Habits are an extremely valuable stabilizer for dramatic swings in inspiration.
  • Have disciplined work goals. Aside from the habits, it can also be helpful to have hard metrics that you’re working to achieve. Number of customer calls per week. Cold e-mails per day. Blog posts per week. Whatever the number, never give up pursuing it. This will press you forward. Rely on the external numbers to hit when the intrinsic motivation is low and your forward progress will continue. It may feel like a lot more effort to move a shorter distance when you aren’t feeling inspired, but the important thing is that you keep moving.
  • Have self-awareness tools.  For me self-awareness comes most frequently from two things: (1) writing this blog and (2) my monthly EO Forum meetings.   On the blog side, it’s not that I write something and then immediately figure something out. It’s that I’ve not got almost a couple hundred posts of things I’ve figured out, and the act of writing, publishing, and often discussing means they are a little more burned into my psyche. In the lulls, so many times I think back and realize that I’m going against something I wrote. That helps me keep it together and press forward.     Second, my EO Forum meetings provide a nice slow and relentless rhythm. My wife can always tell when it’s getting towards the end of the month long period between meetings. Every meeting I leave recharged, with a new perspective on my so-called problems and the energy that comes from focusing on how I can help my peers through their challenges.  It’s mandatory rhythm for me.

There are plenty of other tips and tools, but the important thing is that I agree with Arnold. Inspiration isn’t a reliable enough tool to reach the levels you want to reach. We need to embrace the more mechanical necessities to be sure that constant forward motion is the norm.

 

 

Some Newly Discovered Productivity Tools

 

Efficient guyI suppose the last seven months of full-throttle all out insanity for me has forced me to constantly pursue mastery of an area that we can all pursue: Productivity.

A friend asked me recently for some tips, and I realized that I have tons of them!    As pursuing mastery in something means a commitment to constant improvement along with an admission that mastery will never be achieved: I enjoy always reviewing tools and tricks. Here are some tools I’ve recently fallen in love with:

Streak- I’ve been hunting for a personal CRM for a while, and this is it. It’s CRM within your inbox in GMail.  Although simple, it’s pretty powerful. I’ve setup Streak Pipelines for the three main areas I’m tracking. One of them is “Matchmaking.”  Within the Matchmaking pipeline, I have stages. They are:   (1) Startups Looking, (2) Individuals Looking to Join a Startup Full Time, (3) Consultants Looking to be Engaged by Startups and (4) Wannapreneurs.   Then within each stage, I have what Streak calls a “Box” for each company or person.  A box can contain e-mails, files, contacts, etc.  When I click on a Box that is a company name looking for startups, I see a dashboard of all the files, e-mails and content related to that startup.  The best part of this whole experience is that I never leave Gmail.

Rapportive- This is another Gmail plugin that I’ve come to depend on.   Beside every e-mail I receive, Rapportive shows me a dashboard of all social media info about the person I’m e-mailing with.  I love that the domain of the inbound e-mail is a clickable link straight to the web site. I love that it pulls the LinkedIn or Twitter photo.   There are admittedly too many times when I don’t recognize a name until I see a face. This is almost a crutch for me, but I’m ok with that. I also like that without leaving Gmail (or without even a pop-up window), you can click to Follow on Twitter, Connect on LinkedIn, Friend on Facebook, Find on AngelList, Open in Google Contacts, or Compose a Fresh E-mail to the Person.     You also have a nice list of all the recent e-mails with that person.

CardMunch- I was made fun of on Twitter for admitting how long it took me to discover CardMunch. I’m ok with that. :).    It’s still cool.    Simple idea: snap a photo of business cards, then you get the persons LinkedIn profile and you can connect with them. The card photos are stored, if you wrote something on it you will still have it (just one side), and you can throw the card away or hand it back to the person.    Bonus tip… Beware… sometimes older southern dudes can incredibly offended if you snap a photo of their card and hand it back to them. I don’t get it, just passing along that little tidbit from personal experience.

ScheduleOnce- I’ve talked about this before, but it continues to be invaluable. It requires constant tweaking to manage your availability, but it saves so much time that is otherwise spent with 3-5 e-mails back and forth trying to find a time to meet. In ScheduleOnce, I can just send out my personal URL that shows my availability and anyone who wants to meet just selects a few that work for them and I try to confirm it as soon as I can.    One tip here: often times, there are overlapping requests for the same time slot and when you confirm, people don’t look at the date of the confirmation e-mail and they’ve already written down their first selection of three. For this, I’ve started using the 24-hour reminder feature from ScheduleOnce, but it still hasn’t stop some people from showing up a week or two earlier than we scheduled.

I love productivity hacks and will continue my pursuit. If you have any tips or additions, I’d love to hear about them!

Less is More in Practice – Tips on Gumption and Antifragile

 

When you think about the concept of antifragile and removing clutter from your life, you probably will start to realize that clutter less life and high-functioning existence goes far beyond what’s in your desk drawers and your attic.   It’s a way of thinking. Less is more is the most valuable concept in which I am enjoying pursuing mastery.  Of course when you pursue mastery, you know you will never achieve it– and that’s why it must be pursued.   But this isn’t about mastery… it’s about less.

Here are some ways I have found “less is more” in practice:

  • Shorter e-mails. Google Docs work perfectly fine and are more collaborative than extensive dialogs.
  • Faster responses to e-mails with intentionally fewer details. The details can be handled face-to-face or over the phone, or if not, they didn’t need to be mentioned anyway. Over-discussing details in writing can slow down a team and often seems micromanaging.
  • Delegate the heck out of your “duties.”  Entrepreneurs running companies don’t realize how much unnecessary admin work they take on. It’s crazy and amazing when you realize some of the ludicrous tasks that you spend your time doing.  (Expense reports, back and forth about your calendar scheduling, ordering supplies for the kitchen)… I’ve seen some very powerful entrepreneurs spend their time on some very silly things, without even realizing it.   Taking those tasks isn’t about opening up their calendar so they can do more meetings– it’s about achieving less clutter in your head and clarity of thought throughout the day.
  • Fewer goals… how about just 1 per quarter? Or at most 1 per week?
  • One Page Strategic Plan for the quarter.  Not a book. ONE page! Strictly limited to ONE page.
  • No notes in meetings.
  • Less paper.  We should be beyond paper.
  • Inbox Zero. Tips here.
  • Be intentional about the number of meetings and hours you will work in a week. Take the clutter out of your calendar. Many things can wait.

I’m enjoying working to figure this out. To say it’s a seeking the mastery of ultimate productivity seems to be understating the value of this idea. It’s about clear thinking. Rhythm. Being intentional. And having clarity about how you move the needle.  It’s the core and first requirement of gumption.

Sit still and quiet long enough to know what needs to be done before you start doing.

 

 

Leading vs. Controlling – A Delicate Balance Needed for Community Building

 

Building the Atlanta Tech Village community has introduced some unique balancing acts to me that most startups don’t have and are, in some areas, new to me. Being a triple bottom-line organization, we are trying to maximize impact on the community. This means working to leverage the platform, the building, the brand, the energy to do more than we can do on our own. Of course we have an amazing staff and lots of resources, but we can still only do so much.   The advice we’ve gotten from so many other great entrepreneur centers and coworking organizations is to resist the urge to directly manage the logistics of everything and let the community step up and organize and lead its own programs.

We are absolutely bought into this. We are partnering with others that share our core values and our common vision for the City. I’ve seen this in associations for years: the ones that tightly control everything and are overbearing often bring limited value to their membership, where the ones who have found the sweet spot of curated open community thrive and soar.

So many variables I’ve observed in search of this balance:

  • Quality Control – you have to accept that some programs will bomb, and that’s ok. But you don’t want anything to bomb so badly it can affect other programs.
  • Sub-Community Cultures – there will be some variety of personalities and groups, that can trigger great serendipitous interactions if done right.
  • Competition – healthy competition within the community is good, but it shouldn’t create any negative attitudes or destructive intentions.

We are still juggling hundreds of ideas for the Village and how to fit them all together and squeeze them into our calendar and our space. I love the energy and motion in Atlanta right now.

The point of all this?  While entrepreneurial communities should be led by other entrepreneurs, there are some entrepreneurial instincts that must be resisted and put aside for community building.  Control is probably the hardest one to resist.    The best skills we used to build our companies aren’t always the best for building a community.

 

 

Start with Why – Simon Sinek TED Talk Transcript by TranscriptsHQ

 

We recently made an investment in Atlanta tech startup TranscriptsHQ.   The founder, Eugene Yukin is one of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve met in a long time and I’m already enjoying working with him.   Having a background as a reporter who was constantly purchasing transcripts for audio files, phone calls, and videos, Eugene believes that transcripts and summaries can be purchased a better way.   The service is super simple and very affordable. They still use humans to power the transcription which allows them to do summaries and notes– along with great quality.   Since I love the service, and since I have tons of traffic to this site for the Simon Sinek Ted Talk “Start with Why,” I thought it appropriate to provide a transcript of that popular video here.   

Videos through blogs are great, but personally, I prefer to just read. I like going at my own pace (faster than the video) and having the option to skim, highlight, copy, paste and more.   With all that background, here is the transcript of Simon Sinek’s TED talk, mandatory content for every startup entrepreneur in Atlanta and the Atlanta Tech Village. 

 

 

Transcript — Simon Sinek TED Talk: Start With Why (Original Video Here and Here)

We assume that we know why we do what we do, but then how do you explain when things don’t go as we assume. Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all the assumptions. For example, why is Apple so innovative year after year after year? They are more innovative than all their competition and yet, they are just a computer company. They are just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants and the same media. Why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in pre civil rights America and he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out control powered manned flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified and funded, and they didn’t achieve powered manned flight. The Wright brothers beat them to it. There’s something else at play here.

About three and a half years ago, I made a discovery and this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out there’s a pattern. All the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers – they all think, act, and communicate the exact same way and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it. It’s probably the world’s simplest idea and I call it the Golden Circle. Why? How? What?

This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others are not. Let me define the terms very quickly.

Every single person and organization in the planet knows what they do 100%. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating proposition or proprietary process or USP. But very very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean to make a profit – that’s a result. It’s always a result. By why I mean, what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?

As a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. It’s obvious; we go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and organizations, regardless of their size or industry, all think, act, and communicate from the inside out. Let me give you an example.

I use Apple because they are easy to understand and everybody gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them may sound like this: We make great computers. They are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?

Meh.

And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing and sales are done and that’s how most of us communicate interpersonally. We say what we do, we say how we are different or how we are better, and we expect some sort of behavior – a purchase or vote or something like that. “Here’s our new law firm. We have the best lawyers with the biggest clients. We always perform for our clients – do business with us.” “Here’s our new car – it gets great gas mileage, it has leather seats – buy our car.” But this is uninspiring.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates – Everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

Totally different, right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. But we are also perfectly comfortable buying an MP3 player from Apple, or a phone from Apple or a DVR from Apple. But as I said before, Apple is just a computer company. There’s nothing that distinguishes them structurally from any of their competitors. Their competitors are all equally qualified to make all of these products. In fact they tried. A few years ago Gateway came out with flat screen TVs. They are imminently qualified to make flat screen TVs, they have been making flat screen monitors for years. Nobody bought one.

Dell came out with MP3 players and PDAs and they make great quality products and they can make perfectly well designed products and nobody bought one. In fact, talking about it now we can’t even imagine buying an MP3 player from Dell. Why would you buy an MP3 player from a computer company? But we do it everyday. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. Here’s the best part. None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenants of biology. Not psychology – biology.

If you look at a cross section of the human brain, looking from the top down, what you see is that the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the Golden Circle. Our newest brain – our homosapien brain, our neocortex corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language.

The middle two sections make up our limbic brains and our limbic brain is responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior and decision making, and it has no capacity for language. In other words, when we communicate from the outside in then yes, people can understand vast amount of complicated information like features, benefits, facts, and figures, just doesn’t drive behavior. When we communicate from the inside out, we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from.

You know, sometimes, you can give somebody all the facts and figures and they say, “I know what all the facts and details are but it just doesn’t feel right.” Why do we use that verb? It doesn’t feel right. Because the part of the brain that controls the decision-making, doesn’t control language and the best we can muster up is, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Or sometimes you say you’re leading with your heart or you’re leading with your soul. Well, I hate to break it to you, those aren’t other body parts controlling your behavior, that’s all happening here in your limbic brain. The part of the brain that controls decision-making and not language. But if you don’t know why you do what you do and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get someone to vote for you, buy something from you, or more importantly be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do. Again, the goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have, the goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe. The goal is not just to hire people who need a job, it is to hire people who believe what you believe.

I always say that if you hire people just because they can do a job, they will work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they will work for you with blood, sweat, and tears. And nowhere else is there a better example of this than with the Wright brothers.

Most people don’t know about Samuel Pierpont Langley and back in the early 20th century, the pursuit of powered manned flight was like the dotcom of the day. Everybody was trying it. Samuel Pierpont Langley had what we assume to be the recipe for success. I mean, even now when we ask, “Why did your product or company fail?” People always give you the same permutations of the same three things. Undercapitalized, the wrong people, bad market conditions. It’s always the same three things. So let’s explore that. Samuel Pierpont Langley was given $50,000 by the War Department to figure out this flying machine. Money was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at the Smithsonian and was extremely well connected. He knew all the big minds of the day. He hired the best minds money could find and the market conditions were fantastic. The New York Times followed him around everywhere and everyone was rooting for Langley. Then how come we have never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? A few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio lived Orville and Wilbur Wright. They had none of what we consider to be the recipe for success.

They had no money, they paid for their dream with the proceeds from their bicycle shop. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education. Not even Orville or Wilbur. And the New York Times followed them around nowhere. The difference was that Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, a purpose, a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it will change the course of the world.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was different. He wanted to be rich and he wanted to be famous. He was in pursuit of the result, he was in pursuit of the riches and lo and behold look what happened. The people who believed in the Wright brothers’ dream worked with them with blood, sweat, and tears. The others just worked for the paycheck. And they tell stories about how every time the Wright brothers’ went out, they would have to take five sets of parts because that’s how many times they would crash before they came in for supper. And eventually on December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers took flight and no one was there to even experience it. We found out about it a few days later.

And further proof that Langley was motivated by the wrong thing – the day the Wright brothers took flight, he quit. He could have said, “That’s an amazing discovery guys and I will improve upon your technology.” But he didn’t. He wasn’t first, he didn’t get rich, he didn’t get famous, so he quit. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. Well, why is important to attract those who believe what you believe?

Something called the law of diffusion of innovation. And if you don’t know the law, then you definitely know the terminology. The first two and half percent of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5 percent of our population are our early adopters, the next 34% are your early majority, the late majority, and your laggards. The only reason these people buy touchtone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore. We all sit at various places at various times on this scale but what the law of diffusion of innovation tells us is that if you want mass market success or mass market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration and then the system tips.

I love asking businesses what’s your conversion on new business and they love to tell you proudly, “Oh, it’s about ten percent.” Well you can trip over ten percent of the customers. We all have ten percent who just “get it”. That’s how we describe them. That’s like that gut feeling. “Oh, they just get it.” The problem is how do you find the ones who just get it before you are doing business with them versus the ones who don’t get it. So, it’s this here, this little gap that you have to close as Geoffrey Moore calls it, “Closing the Chasm.” You see, the early majority will not try something until someone else has tried it first and these guys, the innovators and the early adopters, they are comfortable making those gut decisions. They are more comfortable making those intuitive decisions that are driven by what they believe about the world and not just what product is available. These are the people who stood in line for six hours to buy an iPhone when they first came out. When you could have just walked into a store the next week and bought one off the shelf. These are the people who spent $40,000 on flat screen TVs when they first came out even though the technology was substandard. And by the way, they didn’t do it because the technology was so great. They did it for themselves, it’s because they wanted to be first. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe. In fact, people will do the things that prove what they believe. The reason the person bought the iPhone in the first six hours was because of what they believed about the world and how they wanted everybody to see them. They were first.

So let me give you a famous example – a famous failure and a famous success of the law of diffusion of innovation. First the famous failure. It’s a commercial example. As we said before a second ago, the recipe for success is money, and the right people and the right marketing conditions, and you should have success then. Look at TIVO. From the time TIVO came out about eight or nine years ago to this current day, they are the single, highest quality product on the market. Hands down there is no dispute. They are extremely well funded, market conditions were fantastic. I mean we used TIVO as a word, “I love TIVO stuff on my piece of junk Time Warner DVR all the time.” But TIVO is a commercial failure, they never made money. And when they went IPO their stock was about $30 or $40 dollars and then plummeted and it’s never traded above $10. In fact, I don’t think it’s traded above $6 except a couple of little spikes. Because you see, when TIVO launched their product, they told us all what they had. They said, “We have a product that pauses live TV, skips commercials, rewinds live TV and memorizes your viewing habits without you even asking.” And the cynical majority said, “We don’t believe you. We don’t need it. We don’t like it. You’re scaring us.” What if they had said, “If you are the kind of person who likes to have total control over every aspect of your life, boy do we have a product for you. It pauses live TV, skips commercials, memorizes your viewing habits etc.” People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.

Now let me give you a successful example of the law of diffusion of innovation. In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the Mall of Washington, DC. to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in pre civil rights America. In fact some of his ideas were bad but he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe, I believe, I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause and made it their own and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time to hear him speak. How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed. And it wasn’t about black versus white. Twenty five percent of the audience was white.

Dr. King believed that there were two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by man and not until all the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws that are made by a higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life. We follow him not for him, but for ourselves. And by the way, he gave the I Have a Dream speech not the I Have a Plan speech. Listen to politicians now with their comprehensive 12 point plans, they don’t inspire anybody. Because there are leaders and then there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority but those who lead inspire us, whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why?” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them. Thank you.

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Socializing with the General Population – I’m Spoiled by the Company I Keep

 

I’ve hinted around this post before, but it just keeps coming up. I’m totally spoiled by the quality of the company I keep. Being around hungry, smart, driven entrepreneurs constantly is so incredible. But it can be so draining in social settings where it’s not the same high energy crowd.

I struggle with this because I know that non-driven people have a lot of value to add to the world, and I can learn so much from them. People are always deeper than they seem, I hope. However, here are some of the things that bug me about “how they seem” in social settings:

  • Negativity. It’s so easy to complain. The government sucks. Taxes suck. Rich people suck. Poor people suck.  Gas prices suck. My shirt is too small. Your shoes are ugly.  This food is too salty.     I have a theory that most people don’t realize the what percentage of what they say is negative vs. positive.  This isn’t a pot-smoking, tree-hugging hippie liberal kind of positive. I just mean to give the bitching a rest once in a while!
  • It’s not in my control.  Or call it apathy. I think the reason so much negativity exists is that non-driven people view complaining as their outlet. Perhaps somewhere in our minds, we imagine that complaining about a situation is the equivalent of acting on it.
  • On autopilot.    Lots of folks are comfortable not having their own plan. It’s easy and comfortable to follow the plan that has come before you. High school – college – entry level job – wife – move up job – kids – change companies – build pension – retire – play golf – die.  You don’t have to think, and therefore you aren’t as interested in navigating the economy or challenges in building something that outlasts your own life. You only have to navigate the next step in your pre-written plan.
  • Sarcasm.   Too often the humor of the less-driven relies solely on sarcasm. Sometimes this can be overbearing quantities of sarcasm.  I’m guilty of over-using sarcasm as humor, I admit it. But when this is the only laughter in a conversation, it can be exhausting for the others in the room.

For the record, I don’t even like posting this post. It feels just as negative as those I’m describing. But perhaps by being aware of these downers in our social setting conversations, we can all address our view of the world and how we socialize with our friends and neighbors.

 

 

 

Atta Boys – The Energy from Getting Feedback from the Right People

 

attaboyIf you’ve been paying attention to the success and traction we’ve received at the Atlanta Tech Village, you’ve probably heard one of us say “The Village is successful above all because of community… startups want to be around other startups… the office space, amenities, free beer and coffee are all nice, but the real meat is the community.

One specific benefit of a community is feedback. Not just any feedback, but relevant feedback. Feedback at the right time, from the right people, about the right things. I call them “Atta Boys.”

We’re now 7 months into this thing, so I’ve already had the exciting privilege of following the progress of some of the startups that have been around the Village. Some are accelerating faster than anyone predicted, and some have been forced to throw in the towel. (That’s ok, by the way– since they are already on the next thing).   As I keep tabs on these startups, I’ve noticed that when I get e-mail updates, my feedback seems to be intensely appreciated.  It’s almost surprising to me how much so.

It made me realize how much we all crave feedback and praise from people who have been in our shoes.   When you’re in the grind of making no money and trying to prove that your idea can be a real company, it’s easy to get feedback from your friends, girlfriend, and especially parents.  Of course they are going to support you.

When you tell your parents that you just ran a marketing experiment and found a 500% improvement in CTR, or that your demos per week increased by two fold over the last 6 weeks and close rates are going up– the feedback will likely be something like: “That’s nice sweety, you’re doing a great job.”   And if your parents are like mine, you could say “Things are hard, we’re failing, out of money, the team quit, and the customers are suing us.” the feedback will probably also be “That’s nice sweety, you’re doing a great job.

Don’t get me wrong. Praise is good. It always helps.

It’s just that praise from fellow entrepreneurs is so much more valuable in feeding your energy to keep you going.   Seek out the people who have been there, done that. Get their feedback – both good and bad, and use it to keep the energy high.

 

 

Deep Study – What do you Read?

 

booksOver the holidays, we got to spend some good quality time at Dog Island– the best place on earth.    As I prepared for the trip, I was going through the books I’m currently reading and some of the classics that I enjoy re-reading when it occurred to me that my “To Read” folder in Gmail has 199 messages in it.   I could probably read nothing but good e-mails and old blog posts for a few weeks and not need to pick up a book.

But something about this just doesn’t satisfy.  Only reading blogs, websites and newsletters feels very surface-level and superficial to me. It’s informative, but not satisfying. I consume, but I don’t necessarily improve or learn.

So I didn’t do it. I spent more time with my super-intensely-slow read of Antrifragile and also started Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  I enjoy deep reads with big ideas because I believe that processing ideas over an extended period of time gives you an understanding you just can’t get from other sources of information. I enjoy reading a few chapters of good books before I run, and then each run I have tons of intricate details to process and think about.

I guess the difference between reading blogs (yes, like this one!) and actual books is the difference in high energy from a cup of coffee vs. high energy from a healthy lifestyle (good sleep, exercise, eating right).

They both can be valuable and help you propel forward, but to have any existence worth having, I think you need the deep study side as well.

 

 

The (Short) Story of the Homemade Dog Island Yacht – Don’t Add a Jib Yet!

 

So many great titles came into mind for this post. Some of the others are:

  • Redneck Regatta
  • Junkyard Shipyard
  • Entrepreneurial Lessons from the Next Gilligan….

(…you will want to hang in to the end for the picture.)

Background. When one spends time where we relax, at Dog Island, FL– there aren’t many tourist attractions to keep one busy. We don’t have any stores, restaurants, golf courses, or putt putt facilities. We don’t have anything at all, really. We have sand, salt water, rust, four-wheelers for transportation, and sometimes electricity. If we want to fix or build something, we hope to have the supplies and tools needed on the property because otherwise, it’s not getting fixed or built without a half-day trip to the mainland.

Well this week, we had a lot of wind and rain, so my father-in-law and I have the same affliction of need-some-motion-itis. We needed something to do. Under the house we happened to have an old but still good set of inflatable pontoons. (It was the remains of a Coleman personal paddle boat– our original idea was you could paddle yourself offshore into deep water to fish for giant fish, then paddle home without using an ounce of diesel fuel. Only a few problems there, not the least of which being that paddling out into 3-5′ seas at 2 knots, in a 6′ inflatable lawn chair, didn’t work out so often.)

Anyway, back to the project at hand. The idea that came upon us was to build a homemade sailboat from these pontoons and using only the supplies we had at the house.

The top motivation was the typical, yet simple, island project motivation: Why not!?

The plans in our imagination called for a mini Hobie Cat of sorts.   We had all the necessary supplies that one needs to build a homemade redneck Hobie Cat of course:

  • PVC pipe (because who wouldn’t want extremely flexible/bendable plastic pipe holding up their sails?)
  • blue tarps
  • bungee chords
  • rope
  • tie wraps (3 different sizes, of course)
  • wood
  • screws
  • and of course… duct tape.

The project in total consumed about 8-10 man hours. We built a rudder, a seat, a mast, a sail, a boom and some rigging to hold it all together. Pretty simple.  In first hour of the project, while rigging up the sail to the mast (yes with tie wraps), it occurred to me that our second tarp cold be used to add a jib!  What’s better than a homemade sailing yacht with one sail, but a homemade sailing yacht with TWO sails!?   All we needed to do was… and then… and then we could… and then…

My father-in-law called me out on this one: “Hello!? We don’t even have a boat assembled yet– don’t be adding any jibs to it!”

Stepping back.

It is often said that you know you’re in a conversation with an entrepreneur when at the beginning of the conversation you mention an idea for a new business, in the second sentence he describes how it will grow, be funded, win customers, the third sentence is how big it will become and who will acquire it, and by the fourth sentence, he has already sold it and is evaluating what to do with all of the money.

So here I am adding a jib to your Junkyard Yacht before it has even touched the water.  It’s a nice reminder to think about the jib, but relax.  Build what’s in front of you. Make it work. Make it work really, really well… and after you’ve proven that it can float and you can control it. Then add a jib.

And yes– the project was a success-ish. Here’s the photo prove it!

Redneck homeade sailboat

Entrepreneurial Disorientation Dangers

 

I just read an aviation accident aftermath report and the entrepreneurial learning opportunity is huge.   A pilot was flying in IFR conditions (in the clouds, no outside references, trust your instruments to know which way is up, etc…).   He was changing altitudes and headings erratically and not following ATC instructions properly.   When ATC bluntly asked him basically “What is going on dude?” … he responded with a short and frightening comment:  “Uhm, yeah, just, uhm, just a little disoriented up here.”

Shortly after that comment he crashed and lost his life.

In aviation, we study this phenomenon and have labeled it Spacial Disorientation. I’ve seen this in entrepreneurs before as well. Disoriented is dangerous. Here are some of the situations I’ve observed entrepreneurial disorientation.

  • Disoriented to your own technology. This is often when a sales oriented leader is at the helm and attempting to sell a highly technical product or solution.   Perhaps even a product whose advantages over the competition are purely technical. A smooth pitch, great stories and beautiful cost/benefit analysis won’t work when confidence that you understand technical solution you are selling.   Your buyers (or investors) must be confident in your technical understanding of your product, and if you are winging it in front of technical buyers, your disorientation will not go unnoticed.
  • Disoriented to how people see you. This is straightforward self-awareness. Do you understand yourself enough to understand how people see you? Are you aware of your habits and mannerisms that people love and people hate? If you are often misunderstood, do you know why? Do you admit it and work to overcome misunderstandings. There is nothing more painful than being in a room watching an entrepreneur pitch when they’ve lost the confidence of the room… and everyone knows it, but him.
  • Disoriented to where you are financially.  This commonly happens when an entrepreneur believes he has made it based on the P&L without regard to the balance sheet. I’m talking about leveraging up to get going, and once you get going failing to pay down the debt but burning cash and taking more home. In SaaS and products businesses, obviously this is different situation than in services businesses. The important thing is to be intentional about both your balance sheet and P&L and recognize how you need to manage them to maximize value.

Obviously we can’t always see the future and be perfectly comfortable. Entrepreneurship is all about getting comfortable being uncomfortable. But keeping your wits and orientation is important.

For more thoughts, you may enjoy this post from Venture Village about Zen and Entrepreneurship and “seeing clearly.”

How You Do Meetings as a Leader: No Action Items

 

About 9 months ago, a successful entrepreneur shared with me that he doesn’t take notepads into meetings with his staff because he makes it a point to be sure he doesn’t bring away any action items for himself.  He shared with me that a key to fully trusting your team and effective delegation is to resist the urge that most entrepreneurs have to do so much ourselves.

Over my journey, I’ve been a big offender of this. I get so much satisfaction out of the technician side of entrepreneurship that it’s a hard habit to change. I love spreadsheets. I love researching a product, technology or idea. I love tinkering. I love signing up for demos of web apps and trying them out. I love posting jobs, reviewing resumes (at least the first 30), an inquiring about pricing. I even love making sales calls, doing demos, and working on tradeshow booths.  And flow-charts and process diagrams, yeah baby, hot stuff!  It’s all tons of fun to me. I’m realizing though that this way of thinking has been a significant limiting factor for me and for my teams.

Truly handing off and trusting the team is the only way you can accelerate to big things. You have to let go.

The simple act of going into meetings empty handed is difficult, symbolic, and most of all… a good start to a new way of thinking.