Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Making the Upside Down Org Chart Your Reality


Upside Down Org ChartWhen I was an undergrad at Georgia Tech, I had the opportunity to hear the legendary Jack Welch give a talk.  There are some talks like this one where a few bullet points stand out and stick with you. One that stuck with me was about the mentality headquarters.

Jack told his people: “If you are in GE headquarters, then you are here to support everyone else on the front lines.  You should receive more phone calls than you initiate. You shouldn’t be creating work for the front lines, you should be making their jobs easier.”

Other organizations call it an Upside Down Org chart.   Put the customer at the very top, then you have sales and front-line representatives, followed by team managers, and then at the very bottom, you have the executive team. Right there at the foundation, supporting the rest of the team.

In a growing startup, the CEO has to think about the shape of this chart every day. I’ve written before about the jobs of a startup CEO.   A CEO’s main duty on a daily basis is to support the team.  When you’ve handled job #1, and made sure that the company has the financial resources to pay the right people for the right roles, then it’s time to support them.  Here are some tactical ways that I am trying to be better at supporting Team Voxa.

1. Have more unscheduled time than scheduled time.  My friend Dan Kurzius over at Mailchimp taught me this. His calendar remains largely open so that he is there to bounce around and help team members all day.  This is the one I struggle with the most and have written about it before.

2. Don’t take on tasks for yourself.   Also something I’ve written about, but still it’s hard.  When you love creating, it’s so easy to say “I’ll handle that one.”  I’ll write that marketing copy, spec that product, make that proposal, etc… but what I’m finding is that for each task I put on my plate I am hurting the company more than I’m helping the company.

3. Prioritize your team over others.    CEOs have a ton of inbound pings and requests for attention. Vendors, investors, other entrepreneurs, other commitments. It’s important to be intentional about showing the team that they come first, that they are your first priority. It will sting to turn down some of those distractions, but being there for the team is important.

4. Avoid the urge to be the one creating all the processes.   There are a ton of processes to be created in a startup. From sales processes to onboarding, to engineering/spring planning, dev ops, daily stand ups, employee onboarding… In my experience, while helping the team understand that intentional, well-designed processes for every single thing we do are extremely important, it’s not necessary that the CEO actually create them. Just that the CEO help reinforce their importance.

5. Let go. Allow failure.   If you want your team to become resilient, antifragile, and committed. It’s important that you allow them to find their own way. Let experiments happen. Let them lose deals.  By letting go, you create an entrepreneurial culture where everyone has true ownership of their role on the team.  It’s hard to watch, when it’s so easy to jump in and handle it yourself. But jumping in does nothing for helping the team member grow.

6. Understand the personality/DISC profiles of your team.   Put this in the category of “Things I wish I knew 15 years ago.”    You can learn so much about people when you have a firm grasp on DISC and the primary personality types. This will help you predict with great precision when someone is going to handle a task/project well, how it’s going to go for them, and how you can help.   We have leaned on DISC and HBDI for the teams at the Atlanta Tech Village and Team Voxa and I can honestly say I don’t know how I ever built teams without these tools before. If you aren’t doing DISC, here is the best one I’ve ever seen, and it’s free.

7. Have a core team.  As a CEO, you need an inner circle. Whether you call it  a Management Team, or Executive Team, Partners, Founders, whatever… it doesn’t matter. You need a core circle, even from the very beginning where you have added meeting cadences to be together, to evaluate your progress, to ask hard questions, to consider dramatic changes, and to keep the oxygen of ideas flowing into the company.    Be sure that each major functional area of the company is represented in your core circle — Sales, Product, Marketing, and Customer Support.

An upside down org chart is more than a cute talking point for culture. It is a leadership mindset.

Day 1 in the smallest of startups isn’t too early to start building these habits that will make your team and your company more successful… and tons more enjoyable for everyone, by the way.


Timing Your Upshift and How I’m Managing Mine


stick_shiftIn your entrepreneurial journey, you will find that everything comes in cycles. I’ve written previously about cycles of low and high energy and how being aware of them can make you more resilient  (Inspiration is for Amateurs) . Another cycle that has run it’s course is the period of high-RPM’s and low torque.  It’s time to shift up a gear.

Starting a new chapter usually requires you to downshift at first. You have to be willing to slow down forward progress, run at higher RPM’s to see more ideas, meet more people, and broaden your field of view.   This is common for entrepreneurs who are between companies.  It’s really hard to find the next big thing. It requires a lot of cycles. As bad as you want to go deep instead of spreading yourself thin, you find that picking the right big bet takes longer than you expect.  As VC’s put it: you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.

But when you do finally slow down the idea review process and find the bet you’re ready to make, it’s important to know how to shift up a gear.

With 2014, my goal is to shift up. Here are three big ways I’m doing it.

1. Tighter Meeting Filter.
I need to accept many fewer meetings around advice giving or general connecting. The last two years, I’ve done a ton of meetings just for the sake of relationship building. I believe I successfully accomplished by 2013 goal of adding value for every person I met with through the year. In 2014, I need to increase the bar for these “just want to get to know you” meetings. My calendar is already too full.

2. Slower Cadence.
New Rhythms… mainly with the blog.   I’ve decided that 3-5 posts/week is at the present time, an unrealistic goal. For the past few weeks, I have established a new rhythm of 1 slightly longer post each week. This is a really healthy change for me. It has allowed my quiet time and my running time to think deeper about the challenges ahead for Voxa, our growing team, and how I can be the best CEO possible.   Those cycles were previously spent on new blog post topics.

3. More Off-Village time.
Whether I work from home, a Starbucks, a beach, or a cabin, I need to find more time in 2014 out of the high energy and extremely-high-RPM environment of the Village. The problem with the awesomeness of the Village is that it’s too awesome.  I want to be there 8 days a week! I love the density of people, ideas, of work hard play hard. But like many entrepreneurs, I am afflicted with extreme ADD.  It’s really hard for me to slow down when I’m in the Village.   I’m setting the goal to spend at least 1 half-day per week out of the Village, working from home, etc… and I’m setting the goal to take 2-4 weeks completely out of the hustle of the building. (Note, this doesn’t mean losing the daily touch rhythm with Team Voxa, it means physically forcing limits of my focus Priority 1: Family and Priority 2: Team Voxa.)

As with an upshift in a car, forward velocity will increase as RPM’s decrease. You have to already have the momentum to sustain the added force, but when you time it just right, I’ve seen the slow down to go faster do magical transformations in entrepreneurs’ lives.

When it’s time for your upshift, I hope you’ll consider what it really means to slow down to go faster.


Hire Competitors – Four Reasons Why


Hiring RunnersSince the launch of Voxa, we have been in heavy recruiting mode. It has been a ton of fun and we’ve met many fantastic people.   I can now say with certainty that the Village as a recruiting tool is more real than I expected. People really want to work in the high energy atmosphere that is the Atlanta Tech Village.

Given this great environment for us as a company, with lots of great people to choose from for each area of the business, we have the luxury of choosing the best of the best.

One trait that I believe comes with the best recruits for any startup is their proven competitiveness.   Runners, athletes, even fine arts: startups should look for competitors.

Of our first two full-time sales hires for Voxa: one has a couple of state championships in a very competitive sport under his belt, and one is an aspiring Olympic athlete… yes, THOSE Olympics!

I’ve heard other entrepreneurs who say they will give strong preference to athletes or runners for certain positions – mainly sales – and I think it’s a great idea.

Here are the top benefits and reasons why demonstrated competitiveness in a sport is a huge plus for candidates.

Discipline. This is the biggest reason.   To get to the top of a sport is never a quick hit. It’s months and years of training. It’s a commitment to the training… to the process of getting better.  Competitors understand that consistent energy applied towards a direction will eventually move the needle in big ways. Competitors are willing to make this investment.

Reward. Competitors understand that what happens after this disciplined training is completed is a reward. Focus on the prize. Focus on the W or the PR, or whatever it is… there’s something at the end of the process and it’s worth busting your ass for.

Focus.  There are lots of high energy people who don’t have the focused energy necessary to move the needle. Competitors know that all energy must be applied in a single sport, single muscle, single skill.   Hard core weight-lifting improves a marathon runners time as much as learning to write code helps a sales person close more deals.

Mentally and Physically Healthy.  My personal favorite reason — competitors generally remain healthy in body and mind. They continue to run, swim, workout and this makes them a delight to be around during the day. They don’t have wild unfocused energy. They are positive and upbeat. They stay on schedule and on task, aren’t relying on caffeine or alcohol to function throughout the week and can kick ass in their natural state.

This is why I prefer to hire competitors. If there are any EEOC complaints from this post, I’ll take the heat.


Quick, important last comment: ALL of the above can be applied to anyone who has served in any branch of the military.   Give me a Veteran of the US Armed Forces all day long!  Those people know what it takes to literally go to war, and that’s the kind of person I want to be beside.