Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Start with One

Rev. Bill Britt at Peachtree Road had a great message this week about missions and how you can help the world be a better place. The bottom line was this: don’t let the size of any task be a factor in your decision to start. 

Whether you are trying to eradicate a disease from Africa, end hunger for children, provide clean water for areas of the world that have never had it, you always have to start somewhere. Start with one child. One water filter.   One small donation.  

The same applies to your startup.   You don’t have to close all of your customers in one day, build your entire product in one sprint, or find the answers to all your problems this year.   The best place to start is the biggest one thing you can do today.   Start with one customer. Focus on their problems, relentlessly work on solving them.  Build one feature.  Start somewhere.

The same applies to your life. Reading, writing, exercising. You don’t have to finish a book this week. But why not pick one up and read 10 pages today?   No person will criticize you for writing a single blog post on Medium. It can take less than 30 minutes. Who knows, you might write another one tomorrow.    How about getting healthy?  You don’t have to lose the weight or build the habit today. But start with 1 mile.   Start with 1 lunch where you have a salad instead of the burger.  

Just start with one. This is how you make change.

Ordinary People Have No Imagination

Let’s start this post by defining who is included in the categorization of “ordinary people.”

If you are an entrepreneur, ordinary people includes: everybody.  

Yes, even other entrepreneurs.

In your universe, in your corner of industry, with your product, your market opportunity, and your vision— you have superpowers. You have the vision and you are the expert.  Everybody else is ordinary compared to you when it comes to your vision.

So here’s what you need to learn quickly about these other people… the ordinaries:   They have inferior imaginations compared to you.   I continue relearning this lesson daily.  

You spend your days telling people what you’re building, how you’re building it and why you’re building it. You draw it on whiteboards and bar napkins. You use multiple metaphors. You mix the metaphors. You layer the metaphors. You even tell personal stories to build up the vision. But still, people never imagine the vision as clear as it is in your head. 

That is, until you show them something.  Give them something to play with.  Or walk them through a demo of something in action.  Even if it is mocked up screen shots or a clickable prototype.   This is the only true way to describe a product to someone and make it “click.”    This is why we work so hard to win “Demos” with customers. We don’t win slide presentations or meetings, we win the opportunity to show off a product or results.

This week, I learned this truth yet again.   With Voxa Alerts invites going out  and users getting their hands on it, I see the lightbulbs going off.   I’m getting notes with compliments and praises about how brilliant our idea is.   Of course, I want to respond and say “Yeah duh. I’ve been telling you this idea for 6 months now.”  But instead, I’m getting more value out of the “Cool. Now that you’ve seen it, what else do you think it could do?”

And that’s how you help ordinary people work through their lack of imagination. 

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Bet on Technical Insights

how-google-worksI’m reading and enjoying How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg right now.  I’m only a third in, but can say that I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. Highly recommended for anyone building a tech company… of any size or stage.

One of the early concepts discussed is how critical it is for a tech startup to be focused on adding value to the world with genuine technical insights

With all the talk about sales and marketing in Atlanta startup world, it is an important reminder that you must somewhere in your product have a true technical insight that has a spark of magic.  Here are some of my favorite ideas from the book:

Bet on technical insights, not market research.

In Google’s case, the products that succeeded were based on a technical insight (serving more relevant ads, searching faster, filtering images with difficult-to-do algorithms) where the products that failed “lacked that fundamental technical insight that would shift the cost-performance curve nonincrementally and provide significant differentiation. (iGoogle, Desktop, Knol, Notebook, and even the popular Reader).

We are in a period of combinatorial innovation.

There is so much opportunity right now to combine platforms, data, technologies to solve big problems or reimagine solutions to the current ways of doing things.  (Personally, I call this entrepreneurial alchemy…mixing all kinds of crazy stuff together trying to make gold.)

Don’t look for faster horses.

From the book: “When you base you product strategy on technical insights, you avoid me-too products that simply deliver what customers are asking for.”    For those who read Steve Jobs bio, you know that he was a master of knowing what the user wanted … before the user did.  The book continues: “That sort of incremental innovation can work very well for incumbents who are concerned with maintaining the status quo and quibbling over percentage points of market share. But if you are starting a new venture or trying to transform an existing enterprise, it’s not enough.

In short, if you’re in a crowded market, don’t try to find your way out just with your messaging, marketing, and sales strategy. Spend time in your product, with your engineers. Look for deep technical innovations.

When you do start to uncover these insights, the entrepreneur/CEO’s job is to package them up and figure out how to get that product in the hands of as many people as possible.   Granted, selling is just as important!! Looking for technical insights in your product… is a good reminder about what has to be at the core of what you’re all about. 

More to come from this book as I work my way through it.  Entrepreneurs won’t be disappointed in the read.

Your One Thing that Closes Deals

 

This may be simplistic, but hang with me.  There is only one thing that closes deals for your team: Activities.   Duh, right? But wait…

No matter what you sell, how you sell it, or who you are: there are activities that lead to closed deals.  How you measure and track these activities is up to you. But the companies that have the most predictable, controlled, and successful sales processes track activities with aggressive precision.  If you are great at inbound marketing, activities might be web site visits, trial sign-ups, engagement, usage, or shares.   If you are dialing-for-dollars and working deals to the close, activities are calls, emails, Tweets, demos, meetings, follow-ups, and check-ins.   If you’re selling enterprise deals that are giant and slow, you have meetings, proposals, meetings, contracts, meetings, and meetings.

No matter what you sell, there is some fundamental building block of a deal that you can measure. Are you measuring it?

 

 

Rogue Sales Reps

 

Going Rogue. Get it?

Going Rogue. Get it?

In sales pitches with large companies, there is a common feedback that we hear at almost every meeting. It goes something like this:

“…Getting all of our customer conversations in Salesforce.com would be great… but there are some reps who just don’t like using Salesforce and they just never will….    They are doing great and they have their own way of doing things and nobody will ever tell them otherwise.”

We chuckle at this feedback.  I often wonder if the sales leaders can hear what they are saying as they say it. Maybe I’m missing something.   I agree that a rockstar producer should be given more flexibility perhaps, but making excuses about why they don’t share information about customer conversations in your CRM seems like a stretch.

In sales, (yes, even large, complex enterprise deals that take years to nurture and caress to a close) companies benefit from predictability. Process leads to predictability.   Data is needed for a process to work.  You can’t know if you’re in step 3 or step 13 without data.  And yes, everything is a process. Even the softer side of caressing C-suite executives on the golf course, over cigars, or on a private jet to shoot birds in South America (you know who you are! #jealous)… it’s all a process that is leading to the same thing. A signature that means money will find it’s way to your company and your services will add value to a customer.

Even the big deals should be tracked. Everything should be tracked! What happens if your top producer is taken out by Dick Cheney on one of these hunting trips?   Where will you find the status of the conversation with the countless contacts at the organizations they are working? Are you going to power through their years of emails and decipher who goes what and what goes where?

With the growth and expanding importance of CRM software to companies, I stand by our position that

every 

single

tiny

piece of information about customers that you can track 

should live forever in the CRM!!

Forever and ever, amen!

 

 

 

 

Relocating and Re-Centering

 

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, so it’s time to get back on the wagon!   No, I didn’t make an intentional decision to stop blogging. It started with some travel, then being down with a cold (or something), then more travel, then some more travel, and then life just accelerated over my rhythm and cadence. No good, and it’s time to get re-centered.

The first big change in life that I feel obligated to share is that the downtown connector will soon have one less vehicle on it. The Cook family is moving ITP!    It was a difficult decision for us, because as I’ve bragged about many times, life in The Bubble of Peachtree City is a magical place to raise a family.  But as one of my long time mentors says: “Time is not a limiting factor. You are the limiting factor.”

The bottom line is that investing the 2+ hours/day in the car to transition between my Voxa Family and my Life Family was more than I can continue to support.   My family will now be a mere 4 miles from the Village and lots of exciting new opportunities will come with that geographically aligned life.

In addition to that big change, I’ve noticed that with Voxa’s growth accelerating, so has my attention and focus followed. I’ve gone against the advice I’ve given to so many startup entrepreneurs.   Keep your balance.  Don’t be consumed so deeply that you stop reading, writing, and exercising.

Effective growth and success comes from perspective, creativity, and positive energy.  Focusing from the time you wake up until you hit your pillow only on one thing without taking a breath once in a while will work against your intended motion.  Eventually you will run out of steam.

I’m looking forward to the next chapter of our lives and will work hard to keep the rhythm of reading, writing, and exercising as I locate the new center.  Time for JC to slow down to go faster.

 

Three Sins of Sales Management

Jack Daly SalesI just started Jack Daly’s book, Hyper Sales Growth , and as expected, it is solid.  Jack is the best speaker I have ever heard. I’ve probably heard him talk 4 times and every time it is powerful. His book flows like his talks, (although it’s not quite the same without all the screaming, profanity, and sweat flying as he jumps around on stage).

Jack opens the book with what I believe is the biggest thing I learned from his very first talk. The three sins of sales management that entrepreneurs make.

If you want to grow your business, you need to invest in your sales team. Duh! And to grow a sales team, you need the right sales leader.  The right sales leader can be the key to your success or the cause of your mediocrity.    Too many CEOs handle the sales management role the wrong way.

Sin #1. The CEO is the sales manager.   In this scenario, you are saying that the company only needs a part time CEO and a part time sales manager. Some of the time you will set the vision and some of the time you will be the sales manager (recruiting, coaching, training).   You can’t be both CEO and Sales manager. They are two very different jobs.

Sin #2. You promote the top sales guy to be the sales manager. In a live seminar, Jack would say something like this: “You dumb shits! You just lost your best sales person and now have a crappy sales manager.”   Selling and sales management are not the same skill set. It’s not the same personality.

Sin #3. Even worse, you promote the top sales guy to be the sales manager AND you expect him to keep selling!  Once again, Jack would let you have it for this one.   Now you have a person in your company who has the job of training the team, but is compensated for only selling their own deals.  Fail on fail.

Jack Daly is phenomenal. As it turns out, Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) in Atlanta is bringing Jack to speak at a one day sales expo. Thursday October 2 in Buckhead at the Intercontinental Hotel.  Mark your calendar.

In the meantime, if you are committing one of these sins of sales management, you better get right before Jack comes to town!

Nail Your Business Model or Nothing Else Matters

 

EndOfRunway

 

 

One of my biggest hard lessons learned over my entrepreneurial journey has been the importance of having a clear, focused, and simple business model.  We’ve all been impressed with the successes coming out of Flashpoint at Georgia Tech, and I believe this is exactly why. Flashpoint puts startups through the “pressure cooker of customer discovery” and forces them to power through hundreds of customer interviews in order to build out the Business Model Canvas.

In my first company, we chased our business model for years.  We had some good proprietary technology, so we had some product components. But we also offered services. We integrated the pricing and billing because we wanted to win the deals. We won some customers on variable pricing and some on fixed pricing. We did win the deals because of this, and we did make some money, but it was always hard to see the path to greatness and giant success because we had so many different options ahead of us. We could double down on services, hourly billing, fixed margins and really add bodies and billable hours. Or we could ramp up R&D and accelerate the product side, hire a ton of sales and go down the SaaS path. Choices, choices.

Having too many options can be a bad thing for startups. When I meet with early-stage entrepreneurs, often doing their first startup, I start to see problems immediately when they have to describe (or worse, draw a chart) showing “How We Make Money.

When you’re starting up, you have the world against you. You have a boulder the size of a dump truck that you and you alone have to push up Stone Mountain.  You have so many things to figure out, you can’t afford to be be figuring out a new business model for long.

Be innovative on your product or your service. Be cutting edge and invent a new widget that the world has never seen, but don’t try to do it on a business model. Either sell a product, sell an ad, or sell a service.  Ripoff and duplicate a success story in your space.  Copy a business model exactly.  (Side note: unless you are a black-belt entrepreneur with good funding or know a specific space really well, I’d advise against any business model that is two-sided.)

When the airplane starts accelerating down the runway headed for trees is no time to figure out which direction you want to go. You pick the direction and accelerate, and get your ass airborne fast, or it will be a short trip.

 

 

 

Inside the Mind of B2C VCs – What B2B Startups can Learn from B2C Investors

 

b2b_b2cThere is an interesting dialog in Atlanta right now around the lack of B2C startups and successful tech companies. My only comment on the dialog itself is that I wish it could stay positive and not come across so negative from a few folks. It’s really great topic with powerful ideas around how to make change.

In parallel to those Atlanta conversations, as follow-up to the Bay Area trip with Kasim Reed, I’ve had the opportunity to chat at length with VCs who do very well investing in consumer startups. Also, I’ve learned a great deal by helping our Atlanta Ventures Accelerator company, YikYak negotiate investments from B2C focused VC’s from Silicon Valley.  I’ve learned that the way the B2C crowd thinks about growing startups is completely foreign to me, and learning how they think has opened my eyes to some valuable points for my own B2B startup, Voxa, and can help others as well.

It’s easy to sit atop the imagined ivory tour of Enterprise SaaS startups that can generate substantial revenue very early and proclaim that businesses without revenue models don’t make any logical sense and aren’t sustainable… but… B2C startups benefit from a clear, undeniable, singular focus that often times it is hard for B2B folks to achieve. B2C startups must be 10000% completely focused on building the best product, period.

Build the best product, or die.

One of the investors in SnapChat, Facebook, and Twitter told me that they tell their portfolio entrepreneurs over and over to stop thinking about monetization. They tell them that monetization will be figured out in 3-5 years at the earliest. Instead, focus on the user experience. Focus on building a product that has tremendous value. Live inside the head of your users. Be a user!  Use the app yourself constantly. Always be thinking what you can do to make it more useful for yourself.  It’s very simple what to do.

In the B2B world (and I can already see this happening in Voxa), it can be easy to get distracted with the other challenges of building a sales oriented business.   You have to put a ton of effort and energy into your customer acquisition machine. If you do this before the product is fully ready, you will have issues.   If you have success with your sales efforts, but have a product that hasn’t been fully proven to add sustainable value, you can be falling into traps you set for yourself. While it’s important to find the balance between sales and product, remember that when you put your “product hat” on to think like a B2C startup.

Think about what features and improvements make the product the best to *use*. 

In any startup, you will always be prioritizing your product roadmap. As you get users, you will add more desired features. Some of these features make the product easier to use, while others may be growth hack features. Features that are intended to make the product more far reaching perhaps shouldn’t be prioritized over features that make the product 10x more valuable to the current user base.

It’s all a balancing act. Everything is a compromise.  Remember to give both sides of the equation intense and intentional attention.

I look forward to learning more from B2C startups as Michael Tavani becomes successful in bringing a boat load of energy towards more B2C in Atlanta. Way to go Michael!

 

 

How You Win

 


We spend a lot of time painting the picture of the ideal entrepreneur. We talk about what you should focus on, how you should prioritize and sling around advice constantly.

In the end, the ultimate goal of all this is to win.

Winning means beating the odds, building a company, making a few bucks and along the way having thousands of little wins. It takes a lot of winning to build something.

So then all of this advice that we sling around is all about “how to win.”

However, if you ask the question “How will I win?” the answer will probably not be something you read on a blog. The answer is unique to you.

You will win by being yourself, and being the best at being yourself.  You have a very specific set of skills. These combine to give you advantages that the other guy doesn’t have and can’t develop.

Figure out what it is, embrace it, and go nuts.

Liam Neeson - Skills

 

Register for the Race

 

I have enjoyed thinking about health and exercise from the perspective of establishing a system, thanks to Melonakos’s blog about the subject.   As I hear people talk about getting healthy in the New Year, I encourage them to do the same thing that worked for me to finally get my lazy butt in gear.   Pick a race 3-6 months out, register for it, and bite the bullet to get training.   Looking this far out makes any goal less intimidating.

It just so happens that exactly 11 weeks from right now is the Publix Full & Half Marathon in Atlanta. Guess what, if you can run/walk 3 miles, then you have time to train to complete 13.1. I brushed it off for years as well, and last year I finally did my first half. It was incredibly rewarding. So I will be chugging through 13.1 in Atlanta on March 23.

Here is what you need to know. A novice training plan, courtesy of HalHigdon.com is pasted below, along with the dates you need to track for this race.  Look, I’ve done all the work for you.

Register for the race RIGHT NOW.  Use this code courtesy of ITL Coaching to get $10 off.  LGITLPGM14 ($10 off) — Check out what ITL Coaching is doing to help runners set small goals to meet big ones!

Feel free to register along with team Atlanta Tech Village. (I don’t really know what this means, but it’s cool to say you’re with a team.)

Now get on it.   Don’t just start running without a goal and an end point. If you don’t register for this one, register for something.

WEEK MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
1
Dec 30
Rest 3 m run 3 m run 3 m run Rest 4 m run cross
2
Jan 6
Rest 3 m run 3 m pace 3 m run Rest 5 m run cross
3
Jan 13
Rest 3 m run 4 m run 3 m run Rest 6 m run cross
4
Jan 20
Rest 3 m run 4 m pace 3 m run Rest 7 m run cross
5
Jan 27
Rest 3 m run 4 m run 3 m run Rest 8 m run cross
6
Feb 3
Rest 3 m run 4 m pace 3 m run Rest 5-K Race cross
7
Feb 10
Rest 3 m run 5 m run 3 m run Rest 9 m run cross
8
Feb 17
Rest 3 m run 5 m pace 3 m run Rest 10 m run cross
9
Feb 24
Rest 3 m run 5 m run 3 m run Rest 10-K Race cross
10
Mar 3
Rest 3 m run 5 m pace 3 m run Rest 11 m run cross
11
Mar 10
Rest 3 m run 5 m run 3 m run Rest 12 m run cross
12
Mar 17
Rest 3 m run 2 m pace 2 m run Rest Rest Half Marathon

 

You Already Have the Advantage

 
confident-pilotConfidence. That’s the biggest advantage you can give yourself in life. Yes, you can give it to yourself. Confidence is a decision. You have to decide to be confident.  When you are confident, you have the advantage over the other guy.

When you are confident:

Focus on the wins.   Live them up. Celebrate victories. Frame them and hang them on the wall. Talk about them often. Get pumped up.

Ignore the losses. Treat a loss like a coroner treats a cadaver. Get what you need out of it and move on. Do not let it stay with you.

Make active decisions. Stay in motion. Don’t sit still. Constantly evaluate where you are and where you are going.   Confidence must be fed with motion. Stagnation doesn’t help confidence.

Be aware of your surroundings.   Confidence needs information. You need to know what’s trying to kill you so that you can fire the first shot and take it down.

Never forget the fundamentals.   Focusing on fundamentals more than the other guy will make you win. Stay healthy. Read. Write. Learn. Balance your family. Be intentional.

Keeping your confidence alive, fresh, and healthy is just the advantage you need as you look to 2014.   Beware of the thin line where confidence spills over to arrogance.  Try hard not to cross that line, but be sure you go right up to the edge.