Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Taking Chips Off the Table for Later Stage Entrepreneurs vs. Cashing Out When You’re Stuck

 

casino-chipsYesterday, David wrote about entrepreneurs taking chips off the table.  I agree fully with his post. I’ve seen entrepreneurs act with more confidence and function at a higher level after they have removed some of the risk for their family.

This is usually a conversation for entrepreneurs who have built substantial value in their company, but there are many more who aren’t yet to this stage where taking chips off the table is an option. For these entrepreneurs, the Vegas metaphor that I like (from Tony Hsieh’s book) is that you may be playing at the wrong table.

Sometimes the best option is to cash out at your current table, accept that you are break-even, learned a ton, and can now play at a different table.

NOTE, this may not mean cashing out of your company completely.

It may mean you are playing in the wrong market. Or maybe you have the wrong team assembled.  Perhaps you haven’t been able to identify the painkiller that you thought, and it’s time to do some blue sky sessions and dream bigger to find a true pain.

I’m a big advocate for entrepreneurs who are fixated and spin their wheels with no traction after a long, long time… that for these guys, making a big dramatic change is just what they need to gain some self-awareness and visibility into their actions.

Entrepreneurs aren’t mean to be static creatures. We can’t learn and accelerate when we’re stuck in one place.  Sometimes, “cashing out” and taking your money to another table is a great option that will help you continue the hunt for the big fish.

 

Atlanta Traffic – This Post is Not What You Think It Is

 

Every day, I drive myself 37 miles from Peachtree City to the Atlanta Tech Village in Buckhead (and 37 miles home).     Funny thing is: I love the commute.  People typically give me the “oh that must suck” and “poor you” comment, but I’m not kidding you. It’s a healthy time for me.

Here are some reasons why and perhaps tips for you if you have a commute.

Appreciating WHY there is traffic.
There are a lot of people in Atlanta. That means a lot of cars.  If there weren’t a lot of people in Atlanta, could you do the things you do?  What if you lived in Algona, Iowa… you would have fewer cars, less traffic, but would you have the same opportunities for connection and success that you have now?

Appreciate the buffer.
I don’t know about your house, but at my house there are 3 wild people under the age of 7 at home. At the north end of my commute there are 300 wild people under the age of 30. It’s wild on both ends. The downtime in the middle is quiet. Other than my shower and my run, it’s pretty much the only quiet time I have all day.

Productive, if I choose.
I love Audible.com. It’s my audio book listening app. I’ve got 3-5 books at any one time queued up on my iPhone and can play them through the Bluetooth connection to the car and it’s a great way to focus on deep study while still multitasking.   Also, the 40 minutes in the morning and afternoon are typically the only chance I have to sit in one place and return phone calls.  I try not to schedule calls during the commute but many days this ends up happening as well.

You know your city.
Every single day, I have the pleasure of passing the Atlanta Airport, Turner Field, the State Capital, Atlanta City Hall, Grady Hospital, Georgia Tech, Midtown, and Buckhead. I love how well I’ve come to know the city. I see the new tower cranes as soon as they pop up. I see Billy Cory’s crazy ass digital smokestack in the works in downtown. I see the Auburn Avenue revitalization coming together each day.   It’s exciting to me to see physical progress of the city. Otherwise I spend most of my time in the digital progress of the city via Twitter, blogs, emails, AngelList.  There’s just something about the tangible stuff around you.

Traffic is one of those things that people love to hate about any city. But I refuse to be a hater. I’m happy to have the freedom and opportunity to participate in Atlanta, with all it’s big city challenges and opportunities.

Oh, one more tip… I’ve written about this before. Even when you’re sitting in your car alone, try smiling at yourself even in the worst gridlock on the downtown connector. Its a very simple exercise you will find to provide immense and immediate stress relief.  Just relax, dude.

Reasons of Success (so far) of the Atlanta Tech Village

 

I’m on a plane traveling to Omaha to give a presentation this evening to the mentors and teams in the Straight Shot Accelerator about the Atlanta entrepreneurial community. It’s awesome that communities like Omaha are looking to Atlanta as a success story and asking what they can learn from great projects like the Atlanta Tech Village.

While Atlanta hasn’t proven itself as a top tier tech startup hub, we’re on the way. We’re doing, talking, and thinking about the right things.  The dialog is healthy.   The Village, as a leader in the effort, is successful thus far as a community within the community; so I will be sharing with the folks out West why I believe the first nine months have been so successful.

Why the Village is working really well so far (it just so happened that almost all of them started with the letter “C” naturally, so I finished it out):

1. Core Values.

I can’t stress enough that I believe the Village is working because we know and stick to our core values. This above all else, is a huge factor of success and will be our defining advantage. Be nice. Dream Big. Work hard, play hard, pay it forward.   We do everything we do with these values as our guiding light and it just works.

 

2. Community: “Meeting before membership.”

To join the Village, someone has to know you.   You have to either attend a group tour and get to know the group and the community managers leading the tours, or you have to come in with a good reference. This threshold for membership has kept the quality of the people high. Trust is strong, and friendships are blossoming every day.

 

3. Collaboration – openness and sharing.

Although it’s not a stated core value, there is a culture of sharing in the Village. When companies question the amount of glass going into the renovation or their ability to protect their competitive secrets, then we tell them they aren’t a fit for the Village. We believe that secrets provide little advantage for any startup and the best attitude is to be fully open and transparent, seeking feedback and advice at every corner.   You aren’t competing with the folks in the building, you are competing with the world.

 

4. Colossal Scale.

I blogged about this earlier. See it here. Bigger is better for a community.

 

5. Chaos Line

We believe that letting chaos happen is a great way to engineer serendipity. Obviously, we can’t fully embrace chaos, but our attitude is one of openness and experimentation more than tight corporate control. We push this line every day and are always seeking to find the balance between control and natural community chaos. Somewhere in there is a sweet spot where new ideas are born, new connections are made, and a community thrives.

 

6. Concentrated- Atlanta only.

I can’t count how many times people ask us when we’ll be launching the Charlotte Tech Village, Austin Tech Village, etc…   The answer is– that we aren’t focused on being a real-estate company for startups. We are focused on making Atlanta a top 10 tech startup hub.  The real-estate is just our tool to accomplish this.    Some coworking organizations that we’ve met with use community as their tool to fill up real-estate.   We are flipping that using real-estate as a vehicle to build community.

 

7. Control — We don’t answer to anyone.

I cannot tell a lie: It is really, really awesome that we don’t answer to a bank, investors, a Board, or even a landlord. We can do whatever we want. This gives us the freedom to screw up, a lot. And yes, we’ve screwed up a lot already and we fix it and we get better. If we were working towards quarterly Board meetings where our performance determined our next quarterly goals, we would not be as effective in our mission.

 

8. Celebrity.

Every community needs it. David Cummings is ours.   The name opens doors, attracts high rollers, big players, politicians, and reporters like you wouldn’t believe. Celebrity is definitely a key to our success.  Although the DC-Effect, as we call it, (where people were only joining the Village just to be around David), wore off after about 90 days, David still attracts the buzz and we don’t expect people to forget about his name any time soon.

 

9. Curated.

Similar to “meeting before membership,” curated community means that we want 80% of the community to be working on a product or platform that is a scalable tech company. We want to limit the service providers.    With everyone being mostly on the same page, you have shared attitudes about raising money, growth metrics, change the world mentality, and risk tolerance. We don’t have lifestyle companies with lots of folks pulling millions off their company and living large. We have scrappy, hungry entrepreneurs, creating products that change the world.

 

10. Concert.  Synergistic to other projects. (to keep the C’s going, I had to look up synonyms for synergy). :)

This is worth mentioning for other communities looking to learn. It’s an open and honest ingredient that works well for us. Atlanta Tech Village has the advantage of service multiple purposes. Because we have Atlanta Ventures incubated companies as well as the Atlanta Ventures Accelerator, there is a great synergy created by having 103,000 square feet of space that is filled up with 300 other entrepreneurs.   Yes, we would still be doing the Atlanta Ventures Accelerator if we weren’t doing the Village. The Atlanta Ventures portfolio companies all existed before the Village was even a twinkle in our eyes.

 

I’m sure there are other reasons for our success so far, and only time will tell which of these prove to be sustainable beyond the exciting first year or two of our existence, and I’m looking forward to finding out!

Scale as a Key Success Factor

 

When I give tours of the Atlanta Tech Village, my favorite part is sharing some of the stats about the awesome momentum that has already formed around the idea.

  • We now have over 300 individual members paying for desks, this makes up 105 startups
  • Startup Chowdown is regularly @ 190 attendees – Fridays at noon
  • Suites and offices post-renovation are basically sold out
  • In the last 90 days months we hosted over 120 events
  • Mega-events like the monthly Atlanta Startup Village are attracting 250+ attendees with zero marketing spend
  • Startups in the Village are finding they have a noticable recruiting advantage
  • More investor/startup connections are happening that otherwise wouldn’t have happened
  • Startups are failing and rebooting faster

A common question after all these stats is: WHY is it so successful?  HOW is it so successful?

The first and most obvious answer is that Atlanta has rich resources and we’re simply tapping into something that was already just under the surface waiting to be tapped.   But I think there’s a more tangible answer to the specific success of the Village.

One key is our scale.

Scale with coworking space
For a coworking space, the Village is a massive. 103,000 square feet is simply giant.

Financials
For the model to work, with such volatile market, the numbers have to be big, because the margins are tiny.

Variety
The programs and events that we do are awesome. But some of them only have 5 people show up. They still get a ton of value. But if 5 of 300 members show up, you start to see that if you only have 50 members, then

Volunteers and Energy
Programs just happen. All the time. Ideas pop up, then they are executed. With so many people in one high density area, there are always volunteers ready to jump in and DO something.

Staff
Of course having 8 full time staffers is an amazing key advantage for our mission.  Volunteer organizations are awesome, part timers have plenty of utility but there is an exponential advantage to full time team members, working for a paycheck AND the satisfaction of a job well done.

When we set out on this project, we knew that the building size would be an asset, but we underestimated how it’s a compounding effect of scale to success for a community+ecosystem endeavor such as the Village.

 

No Friction? No Progress!

 

In my experience, I’ve started detecting a pattern:   the more friction and resistance I have, the more forward progress I make.   I’ve seen the same for organizations and startups as well.

Mine started as an undergrad at Georgia Tech. I realized around my senior year that each time I registered for 18-21 hours per semester, I made the best grades. My worst semesters were the ones when I took 1 or 2 classes and wasn’t even registered full time.

The same goes for my entrepreneurial experiences. The more friction against my desired direction, the farther and faster I seemed to go. When I felt like resistance was less, meaning, things were on cruise control and I felt good about where I was and didn’t feel the urge to go farther, faster, higher… that’s when both my momentum and my satisfaction waned.

This lesson has so many applications for startups and entrepreneurs: 

1. If you have a 100% close rate, you either aren’t charging enough or aren’t putting enough deals in the top of the funnel.

2. If your innovation pipeline is empty with no “wishes and wants” for your product, you are on the path to irrelevance.

3. If your schedule is open (unintentionally), then you aren’t working your network to its maximum potential.

4. If you hire every person you interview, then you aren’t interviewing enough people.

5. If your workout doesn’t make you hurt (at least once in a while), you aren’t getting stronger.

6. If your run or swim isn’t longer than you thought you could do, then it wasn’t long enough. There’s no such thing as feeling great while in “maintenance mode” as a runner, I’m learning.

7. If balancing work and family time come easy, then you aren’t pushing hard enough forward on one side or another.  I will ALWAYS want more family time and ALWAYS want more work time. I know I’m at the sweet spot and making progress when they are both maxed out.  (Note: to be at this point, you must learn the art of not being stressed when you are at full throttle.  Being intentional means knowing that your situation is what you want it to be, and you should be able to relax with a smile every evening knowing you accomplished what you intended to that day.)

 

Don’t shy away from friction. Go find it. It will make you better!

 

 

Forget Teaching Entrepreneurship! Can you Teach Wexlering, Birdsonging, Wijesinghing and Portering?

 

I’ve overheard people say that sales and marketing is in the DNA of the Atlanta Tech Village.  It’s true, have a sales and growth focused culture.   Our community thrives when a smart product-focused entrepreneur starts building a business development engine around a great product.  This leads to a discussion we’ve been having a lot lately:

For a product-focused entrepreneur, can you teach the hungry, scrappy, do-anything mentality that it takes to get customer traction as soon as possible? 

Put another way, can you teach Adam Wexlering, Kyle Portering, Devon Wijesinghing, and Jon Birdsonging?

These 4 guys are the ultra hungry hustlers that every growth entrepreneur should want to be. They are machines. Each one of them has a special way of getting their foot, hand, and well, their whole body in the door where they need to go.   If you could combine them into a single entrepreneurial selling machine, you would end up with something like this:

Devastator-Robot_1234767532

This is the Devastator robot— when all the Transformers combined to make one giant super robot.

 

Here are some of the weapons used by the four super hustlers:

Kyle Porter, the master growth hacker.

Kyle Porter, the master growth hacker.

Portering
Top skill: Getting masses of people excited about what he wants them to be excited about.
Story: Kyle Porter, of Salesloft fame, is quickly become a professional growth hacker. He knows how to get content on any site, any day of the week and how to get it to pull people back to his own site to sign up for something. He also knows how to plan and execute awesome events like B2BCamp. How many people do you know who can gather 200+ people on a Saturday morning to hear a sales pitch?  Sure, B2BCamp is more than a Salesloft User Group meeting. Sure it is.
Nugget: As Kyle walks down the street, panhandlers give him money.

 

Wexlerbombing. Happens worldwide.

Wexlerbombing. Happens worldwide.

Wexlering
Top Skill: Getting a pitch with anybody, anywhere, any time.
Story: Adam Wexler (Insightpool) is becoming famous for this. It has been said that when Wexler decides he needs to find someone and pitch them, that he doesn’t sleep until his mission is accomplished. I’ve heard stories of offering to share hotel rooms with prospects.  No prospect is too far. He will fly, drive, even swim. He’s the master of CouchSurfing.  I’ve been at parties 10 states away, invitation only, with presidential security and suddenly Wexler drops in, smiling and asking “Who’s here that I need to know?”
Nugget: The US State Department doesn’t require Wexler to have his photograph on his passport.

 

Just say Devon. Everyone knows who you're talking about.

Just say Devon. Everyone knows who you’re talking about.

Wijesinghing
Top skill: Operating in the Atlanta startup world like a mob boss. (A friendly one, of course).
Story: Devon Wijesinghe knows everyone. He has a unique skill of building an extremely high powered network and then capitalizing on it. He goes for the ask early and often. And he does it in a way that doesn’t offend the person being asked. What’s more impressive is that if any of us tried to pull off the asks that Devon drops, we would quickly become the least popular guy on the block. Yet he continues to work his network like a master and his companies are in a constant motion forward because of it.
Nugget:   When Devon drives a car off the lot, it increases in value.

 

Jon Birdsong, the one and only.

Jon Birdsong, the one and only.

Birdsonging
Top skill: Making your feel like he is your best friend.
Story: I am Jon Birdsong’s (Rivalry.com) best friend. Doesn’t matter what you say. If he has something for me to buy, I would buy it.  But wait, everybody feels this way about Birdsong. Everybody is JonnyBird’s best friend!  He’s the nicest guy in town. (And yes, JonnyBird for Mayor is something we should all get used to hearing).  What’s awesome about JonnyBird– he knows how to turn nice into contracts.  He may be the fastest product-startup-to-first-paying-customer record in the Village.    Why JonnyBird is a 1% awesome growth entrepreneur: he is genuine. He’s as genuine as they come. If you feel like he likes you, it’s because he really does like you.  What you see is what you get. My favorite Birdsong story is when he was selling to a VP of sales who ran out of time for their meeting in Atlanta and tried to cancel. So Jon offered to meet him at his office, ride with him to the airport (selling all the way), drop him off at the terminal, return his rental car, and catch Marta back to the Village.  Yep, he closed that deal.
Nugget: When Jon dines out, he tips an astonishing 200%.

 

There’s a lot more to being a growth entrepreneur than the stats of cold calls, demos, meetings. It’s a unique skill set that makes up these guys and I enjoy learning from them every day.     If you have a startup in Atlanta and don’t know all four of these guys, I’d suggest you find a way to get to know them better. Learn from them. The good news is– it’s easy to find them. So easy in fact, that they will likely find you first.

 

 

 

Themes and Mistakes in Pitches for Atlanta Ventures Accelerator

 

The team and I have really enjoyed the awesome flow of pitches we’ve heard for the Atlanta Ventures Accelerator.  There are some brilliant people in Atlanta thinking about the right things. It’s inspiring and motivating.   That’s not to say we haven’t seen some issues.   Here are some themes that we’ve seen in hopes that when you are pitching to any investor, you can learn from some of these mistakes.

Regarding your idea: the single most important factor about an idea is the Vitamin vs Painkiller index.
This is where we spend 95% of the time evaluating ideas. We need to find that it is a true painkiller for somebody. You are solving a problem that is holding people back and they know it and they need a solution. We can’t afford to be in the business of teaching people they have problems so that we can solve them. We want to sell strong ibuprofen to really achy people.

KIS,S. Don’t do an ecosystem.
Oh buddy, these just make me tired. Many startups think they can build an ecosystem with dozens of inputs and outputs.   On example we see a ton of is Loyalty startups.  It’s cool if you want to solve a pain around loyalty for merchants, but don’t try to create a new currency that every consumer on the planet will use, merchants will trade and see value in it, and the back-end systems look a little more complex that American Express. Simplicity is key. Get traction, then build your ecosystem around it.

Openness to feedback as an indicator.
When companies are accepted into our accelerator the primary value they will receive is the mentor introductions.   One indicator of a good fit is how well the entrepreneurs respond to feedback and input on their idea. We don’t expect you to agree with our ideas and suggestions but fiercely debating that we are wrong for suggesting something is an indicator that perhaps you won’t get the maximum value from the mentors who will be trying to help you.

Really, really hard to scale.
This is a tough one because even if you’re on to something and have a great painkiller for some, but will need a LOT of capital (both money and human) to grow the business, it’s hard for us to get excited about it. With so many capital efficient startups, our tendency will be to avoid the capital-intensive beasts.  There’s a need for that in the startup market, it’s just not our game.

Confidence is good, but don’t act like you don’t need any help.
It’s a fine line between confident and arrogant. Enough said.

Existing business and not hungry enough on the new business.
Believe it or not, we’ve had a good handful of entrepreneurs with an existing business that is doing well and they want to start something new. I fully believe these entrepreneurs have the best shot at success, but only if there are motivated full-time team members on each company. Trying to keep multiple companies going (especially when one is a startup) without a full-time CEO in each one is next to impossible.   Also, entrepreneurs are just like anyone else and will be loyal to the paycheck. The company that pays the bills will always get the most attention… and if attention is subtracted, bad things can happen too easily.

Saturated market with no clear advantage.
If you’re going into a crowded space, you need to demonstrate a very clear advantage. Saying that you will figure it out once you get in, doesn’t work. You need to choose PRICE,  QUALITY, or SERVICE as a competitive advantage and put each competitor in one of those buckets.  Know HOW to attack the market.

Research at least a little, and READ, dammit.
C’mon guys.  The info you need to make a great pitch is out there.  HINT: Atlanta Ventures is backed by an influential investor who is really, really, REALLY transparent and super high-profile. When you come in and haven’t heard of him and haven’t read a single of his 1,500+ blog posts about what makes a good startup, honestly: you don’t have a chance.   HINT #2: It’s not ME!         Last point: read the basic logistics about your pitch. Know what is expected from technology, know how much time you have and manage it correctly, show up on time, just read the instructions. Simple.

I don’t believe we are all that different from other investors. Hopefully these tips will help you go in armed and dangerous for every pitch.

 

 

 

Forgetfulness

 

Isn’t it funny how we are so forgetful?  I am amazed at how we, both as individuals and a society are able to forget things.   We’ve all had those times in life where we started to figure things out. When we found something motivating, or some clarity, a new habit, or some inspiration that caused us to start working on the fundamentals and what we know is important. Yet, we still forget.  Energy fades. Focus wanes.

Even the most profound, life changing realizations and positive attitudes can fade away if not kept current.

The obvious example is exercise routines: the ol’ New Years resolution phenomenon. But there are other areas in life like being intentional, morning routines, thinking positive, smiling in public, networking — all of these are fertilizer for thriving in life, yet we still forget about them.

I don’t have the antidote to this affliction of forgetfulness.  But here are a few things I’m trying to maintain the energy from discoveries thus far and continue to move forward (not the other way!):

Say things over and and over and over and over.  This is one reason I blog. It is said that most bloggers only have one thing to say. They just say it differently over and over all the time. I’m cool with that. I’m saying it for me, anyway.

Being public about your goals and attitudes. Again, blogging is the public forum. Fear of embarrassment is a powerful motivator. There’s nothing like blogging that you love to run and realizing you are turning into a fatass.  People will notice.

Forums and accountability groups.  When you’re high energy like most entrepreneurs, you tend to be erratic. Setting the rhythm of a monthly accountability group is key to reentering on a regular cadence.

Have a big picture view.  This is in line with riding a motorcycle around a curve. When I was learning, I always wanted to look down at the wheels, monitor the bank angle of the bike, and look closely at the mechanics of the turn…. but then I learned I was doing it all wrong.  You look UP. You look to where you WANT to go instead of where you are now, and everything just works. All the little things just fall into place if your head is up and your attention is placed on the destination. This goes for life and startups too.   For me the big picture view comes from quiet time, music, and attending church on a fairly regular basis.

I wish I could say I know how to program myself and never drop a new habit. But I’m not there yet. The best I can do is to repeat out loud my chosen path and remind myself to stay the course.

 

A Binary Measure for Each Person in Your Network

 

thumbsTruth statement:   Every person that you know and will ever meet will fall into one of two categories. They either (A) bring you up and make you better or (B) they don’t.

Someone proposed this to me a few months ago and at first I wanted to challenge it. So I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Surely there are some people that are in the gray area?  Surely I don’t have to be black and white about people.  But I’m finding it hard to disprove.

Here are some other ways to ask the question:

- Does this person give me energy, or drain my energy?

- Am I better for being around this person, or unaffected (or worse, affected negatively)?

- Does the person have a personal network greater than mine or equal to mine?  Strike that one, per the discussion in the comments. This one is a separate measurement. 

Thinking about your network more intentionally will bring you immense satisfaction and is the best way to change your trajectory. If you want to love what you do, it starts with loving the people you are around. Loving the people you are around comes with first taking an honest look at how those people affect you.

 

WHO, Not What, Why, When, Where, or How

 

question-mark-faceThroughout the week, every week, I encounter entrepreneurs who are in between companies or for one reason or another looking for the next adventure. They’ve either sold a company, or closed one down, or were on a team and decided to leave.

Entrepreneurs are an impatient species. We don’t like to sit around and ponder the universe. We don’t do well in quiet times.  We always need the next hit.  I’ve been through this myself, and the absolute best advice that I received, literally changed my life.

This advice came in the form of a thought-provoking question. The question is very simple.

WHO do you want to work with? Not what, why, when, or where. Just WHO.

Selecting the co-founder, team, investors, partners, etc. is really and truly all that matters. Your decision is more simple than you realize.  Ask any successful entrepreneur.

- Ideas (What) – This will change a dozen times in the first year.

- Why – Your why, at this point, is because you are an entrepreneur. You can’t deny who you are. You build things, grow things, sell things.  You need to be on a team that fits with who you are.

- When – You always have more runway than you think. There’s no hurry. Slow down, wait for the perfect fit.

- Where – Geography is irrelevant these days.

- How – Let’s be honest. True entrepreneurs don’t care about the how in much anything they do. :)

The saying “hire slow, and fire fast” is infinitely more true when it comes to selecting a co-founder and team for your next venture. The slower the better. Selecting the right WHO is the biggest factor in setting your next trajectory.

 

 

FOMOGASE – A Condition Affecting Atlanta Entrepreneurs, Especially in the Fall of 2013

 

FOMOIt only takes a glance at the calendars of Hypepotamus, ATDC, Startup Atlanta, TiE, EO Atlanta, MACC, or the Atlanta Tech Village to understand that the Atlanta entrepreneurial community is explosive right now. With the fall event calendars ramping up to hyperdrive, there is a condition I’m starting to experience that you may have encountered yourself.

FOMOGASE:
Fear of Missing Out of Great Atlanta Startup Events… let’s go with FOMO for short.

See if this sounds familiar: You pull up Twitter one evening while you are cozily tucked in watching some good Netflix and you see comment after comment about this great event with rockstar speakers that you didn’t even know about.

Sure, it happens all the time.   In the last 3 months, in the Atlanta Tech Village alone, I counted 121 events on our internal event calendar. That averages to more than 1 per day. And that’s only in 1 venue!

With all this excitement, it’s important to remember balance and fight the natural tendency of FOMO.  Here are some things that are working for me.

- Prioritize events. Remember that your company and your goals come first. Be where your customers are first. Where your investors are second. And the rest of the community should fall into place after that. Also see my post about “In which circles do you want to be famous

- Live intentionally. If you have family, especially kids, ask yourself if missing the recital, art show, or soccer game is worth the event you are attending.   Part of living intentionally includes missing out on some events on both sides of the commute, just remember to be intentional. When you withdraw from one account, you should have a plan to bring its balance back up.

- Pace yourself.  This is the big one for me.  Since I started using SmartAlarm app to track my sleep hours, I see that I’m sleeping 9+ hour nights on the weekends. It’s because lately I’m completely and totally exhausted by Friday. I need to do a better job of managing my pace. Slow down. If I feel myself getting tired, I need to pass on some things and know that it’s for my health, my sanity, and (most importantly in the short term), my productivity.

- Twitter causes you to fixate.   There will always be tweets from events.  There won’t be tweets from the thousands of people who AREN’T at the events who are having dinner with their family or watching a movie and unwinding.  Our attention is drawn to the event Tweets because of FOMO, but refocus– think about what the twitter stream would be for a calm, chill evening at home. There’s nothing wrong with taking chill time, even though it won’t hit the Twitterverse.

Keep up the energy Atlanta, but remember to manage its output intentionally.

 

 

Team Retreats

 

Team Retreats _ CabinIn my last company, we had a distributed management team. 6 team members across 3 states. It took us a while to figure it out, but we eventually found a healthy cadence of huddles, team meetings, and everyone’s favorite: retreats.

Team retreats are awesome.   We ended up scheduling quarterly management team retreats. Occasionally these would be schedule during the 2-3 days before a Board meeting, so we could prepare and strategize for the next quarter, then use the Board meeting as a presentation/finale for the output of the retreat. Most often, however, these retreats weren’t anchored by another event and we would just go find somewhere quiet to get several days of focus on the company. Here are some ideas and lessons learned about retreats for startups looking to do these.

Always Plan a Detailed Agenda in Advance
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.   Any retreat where you don’t have a detailed agenda will go sideways.  People are traveling and having fun so often it is way too easy to throw structure and planned activities out the window.   It’s critical to discuss the agenda 2-4 weeks before the retreat and have the entire time on the same page.  If everyone has input to the agenda (at least the high level), it has a better chance of success.    You also can play around with which team member plans the agenda. You might trade this off to share ownership of the schedule and planned activities among the team.

Balance The Work vs. Play Time
This is a best practice for EO retreats and it translates well to team retreats. As you plan the agenda, decide in advance what breakdown of work vs. play time you want to build into the retreat. Assume you have a 10 hour day to plan. Decide what percentage of time will fall into which categories. Generally, we found a 50/50 or 60/40 (work/play) was the most productive.  You will find that being together away from the office yields the most productive work time you will find. It’s intense and exhausting. Trying to work all day without fun excursions isn’t fun and the productivity will tank fast.

Stay Together
We always liked to rent a house or a cabin and stay together. (Another lesson learned from EO.)  Going back to hotel rooms at the end of the night is an energy killer. We all still had our own rooms and private/quiet space, but there’s a different vibe when you are sleeping under the same roof and are responsible for taking care of the facility as a team.

Format Idea: Single topic per day or Half day
One of the formats that worked well for us was to avoid dealing with the little “piddly-sh*t” that you deal with every day at the office and take LARGE chunks of time (3-4 hours) and focusing on a single deep dive subject.  Whether it was a new product launch, a new market, or even a single big problem, like culture issues. We found these deep dives to be very healthy. Most entrepreneurs don’t have the attention span to imagine spending 4 hours talking about a single subject, but some topics are important enough to justify this intense focus… like culture.

Format Idea: Innovation Retreat
A few times over the years, we planned these “innovation retreats.” On these retreats, we intentionally agreed to not discuss current problems and fires and only think ahead. Blue sky sessions. Product brainstorming.  How to better serve clients or help them accomplish their mission. We usually came away with 2-3 big ideas to monitor and 1 big idea to actually tackle over the coming quarter. It was powerful and energizing to pull our head out of the grind and find something that is visible forward motion.

Format Idea: Pre-Planned Exercises Like Start, Stop, Continue
One exercise we did that worked well was to have each team member write down and bring 3 lists to the retreat. A list of things the company should START doing, a list we should STOP doing, and a list of things we should CONTINUE doing.   Each team member presented their list and they were discussed. Tons of action items came from these meetings any time we did them.

Format Idea: Core Values Only
In the early days of our company, we realized that we didn’t have a clean set of written core values or a clear understanding of our WHY.   One of the most painfully frustrating, yet equally rewarding retreats was the one where we agreed to discuss nothing the entire time but our core values. Given how important these are to your culture and ultimately determine your success, I don’t think this is a bad idea. Really taking time to debate and process core values was useful for us.

Team retreats are awesome, and I could write 100 more posts about these. In the early days of a startup, obviously you can take the whole company, but as you grow, this normally becomes financially impossible.  Still, remember to have some all-hands events when and where you can.