Johnson Cook

Energized. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Johnson Cook - Energized. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Startup Problems

I’m not different from most entrepreneurs in that I have the patience equivalent to that of gravity.   (E.g. If something has to come down, it may as well come down right now.)   We see where we want to be and when we decide we want to be there, we are immediately uncomfortable not being there.

In Startup Life, you set out to build a company. Maybe for the first 2 weeks you are excited to “do” a startup. But for those who have been down the path before, you know what the company looks like and it does not look like a startup.

As our Team at Voxa is starting to find our groove— deals are closing, issues are happening and being fixed, recruiting is going— all of these things are making it start to look more like a company and less like a startup.

But with all that patience we talked about before, we start to immediately think about ourselves as a company… and when we do that, a funny thing happens.    All of the things that are normal checklist items for a startup to get done to become a company, all of a sudden can feel like problems.

Problems everywhere!  Our offer letter sucks, that’s a problem.   We don’t have enough MRR to do X: problem.   Our product only has 20% of the capabilities that we want it to have: problem.    Our engineering team is too small: problem.

But in reality, these aren’t problems, they are just things to do.   At the end of the day sometimes, I walk out of the Village thinking “Oh crap, we have a company with tons of problems.”  But honestly, every thing that we see is a problem, isn’t something that fell apart because we haven’t been paying attention, it’s just something that we haven’t gotten to… yet.

It is excruciatingly difficult to step back, remember the big picture, and slow down the analysis. But when you do, you’ll remember who you really are, how impressive it is what you’ve accomplished already, and how to enjoy the fact that you have so many opportunities every day to shape what will become a great organization.   Just keep moving. Each day, get something important done.

Exciting News – Voxa is Joining ATDC Select – Here’s Why

 

Voxa joins ATDC SelectOver the past month, Team Voxa has been working to apply, pitch, and be reviewed for admission into the ATDC Select program.   Yesterday, we received news that we have been accepted and we are now members of ATDC Select. Score!

As I’ve told folks about our desire to be in ATDC Select, I’m not surprised but a little disappointed that this is the common response:

“Why would you join ATDC? Aren’t you in the Village?”

This tells me that there are lot of things about startup ecosystems that aren’t clicking for folks in Atlanta. Hopefully the story of Voxa and the other Village startups that are ATDC Select members will influence a refactoring of our paradigm around startup incubators. (Damn that sounded fancy… I’ve been hanging around Dr. Halaschek too much!)

First, here are the reasons specially Voxa is joining ATDC Select.

  • Reason #1: Connectivity to university research.   As we build out the Voxa product to connect Email to Salesforce.com, we will be incorporating a ton of cool technologies related to Natural Language Processing. This is a really cool field, and a good bit of research is happening at Georgia Tech.
  • Reason #2: Connectivity to the student body for special recruiting opportunities. While the Village has great Startup Student Connections, nothing can beat having on-campus events specifically for CS and CompE students at Georgia Tech.   Craig Hyde at Rigor was the first to tell me that these events are tremendously valuable for recruiting smart engineers who can talk and are excited about joining a startup.
  • Reason #3: Having a rockstar Entrepreneur in Residence on our team.   I know a lot of the EIR’s at ATDC and they are all fantastic, but when you meet Tim Sheehan, you will agree that he is an amazing asset for any company.  His resume is pack full of big names, west coast startups (both B2B and B2C), and all the right connections.  Having Tim on our team is worth 20x the price of admission to ATDC Select program. (KP, don’t get any ideas on us!)

Some more thoughts about ecosystem and hubs like the Village and ATDC.

  1. Success is often about surface area for a startup.   Connections make things happen faster. Connections to investors, customers, talent. Connected entrepreneurs have easier times building companies than entrepreneurs who live on islands.  Joining multiple organizations, each with their own networks, increases a startups connections and increases the chance of serendipitous interactions that change your trajectory.
  2. The two hardest parts for us are product and sales.    It just so happens that we get a ton of great sales ideas, strategies, tips, and tools from our fellow Villagers.   ATDC on the other hand will likely be more valuable to our CTO and team of engineers as we grow.
  3. It’s NOT about coworking / office space!   KP Reddy used this quote when we first started talking about collaboration between the Village at ATDC: “The only metric that I’m not measured on for success is: Amount of office space rented.”
    Exactly right!  Despite our local business media’s obsession with commercial real-estate, (especially related to tech incubators for some strange reason)… none of the folks doing coworking and incubators with the right intentions give a rip about the square feet as a measure of ultimate success. The square feet need to be paid for to be sustainable, and it’s great to have folks close to each other doing similar things, but that’s as far as it goes.

I’m looking forward to Team Voxa participating in the ATDC Select community.

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.

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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.

 

 

Introducing Voxa

Gmail to SalesforceOver the past year, I’ve made it no secret around the Atlanta Tech Village that I’ve had the itch to build another company. One can only be a maker of delicious dog food around for so long before one wants to eat some of it! So now it’s time to eat some dog food, finally!

After evaluating several hundred startup ideas over 14 months, David Cummings and I finally landed on something that we felt was right there in the sweet spot for us personally, for the market, for where painkiller index is high, and our knowledge is pretty strong.

We call it Voxa.
Voxa is called the world’s first Automated CRM Assistant.

Where many are trying to disrupt Salesforce.com with a brand new competitive CRM, we believe there is a better opportunity to alleviate the pain of using CRMs like Salesforce.com without actually replacing the CRM. The momentum, App ecosystem, and adoption is so awesome around Salesforce  that large implementations won’t be leaving any time soon.  Instead, let’s just automate some of the most painful tasks for its users. Let’s remove the hurdles that keep people from maximizing the value of their CRM. Let’s crush the friction between Sales Managers who want to measure, track, and monitor every ounce of activity and the Sales Reps and Account Managers who simply want to do their jobs, work with customers, close deals, and deliver happy results.

Dealing with a CRM is modern day paperwork.

Voxa is almost 90 days old and we’ve iterated through about a dozen samples,  experiments, and ideas of the best MVP of where to start tackling the product. We’ve landed on a Chrome Extension (soon to be a full blown web app in the February release) that first tackles the bridge between Gmail and Salesforce.com. Here’s how it works.

  • Once you connect Voxa to Salesforce.com, login to Gmail in Chrome.
  • When Voxa is turned on (we call it AutoPilot mode), it automatically logs every e-mail you send into your CRM.  If the recipient doesn’t exist, we use a growing list of logical assumptions to add them with their relevant information, in the right place, and associated with the right things.
  • That’s it!  There is tons of logic and intelligence in the background deciding how Voxa works with your CRM.  In addition, you have a variety of options for teaching Voxa who to ignore, and if you forget to ignore someone, you always have a history of what Voxa has done for you in Salesforce.com and can undo actions from forever into the past.

Based on our first 15 or so companies using the Beta version, we are seeing strong patterns in feature requests to make it more powerful.  Look for some pretty awesome things coming down the pipe very quickly. It is so much fun to be back in the saddle, building, and growing something!

Many have asked, so I will answer here: Yes, I will continue as one of the Directors of the Village (after all, I was the only one of the 3 directors who didn’t have a startup!), and will continue my work in Atlanta Ventures  reviewing Accelerator Applicants and Angel investments… although admittedly, the time dedicated to these will be reduced.

As we’ve launched Voxa, I also have to confess that the biggest time impact has been writing this blog. My morning routine of writing has been disrupted by loads of recruiting e-mails, new user sign-ups, analytics reports, server usage log reviews, and other neat stuff.  I’ll need to re-center to find the new normal, but don’t plan to let blogging go! Thanks for tagging along. This is going to be a fun ride.  Like I’ve been saying… Atlanta is the BEST place to start a company. See… watch this! If you’d like to Use Voxa, go give it a try now.

 

 

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

 

3 Jobs I Wish I Did in High School

 

Private JetLooking back at my high school and college days, I can’t help but wonder if there are things I could have done to accelerated the learning that happened in my 20′s.   I notice that some kids coming out of college are super impressive and “get it” and others are more in line with expectations.

Thinking about my own kids, I focus on what can I encourage them to do that could trigger the acceleration of some worldly wisdom. The obvious answer is entrepreneurship. I try hard to teach them that they don’t have to work for someone else to make money… that to make money, you just have to decide that you want money. Then figure out how to get it.

But there is still so much value in working for other people, especially when you’re young.   Here are some jobs that I think if I had had them on the list, they would have been valuable for me.

A Gopher / Personal Assistant to someone successful.  I’ve know several entrepreneurs who point to a single person they worked for in this capacity.  Someone who takes you under their wing and treats you with tons of respect and helps you because they see that you work hard for them.

Intern at a Wealth Management Office. If only I had learned 15 years earlier the value of a connected and powerful network for my own trajectory. It’s hard to find a better place to build this network than the place where they go to manage their money.

General Aviation / Private Jet ramper. So maybe there is one other place where you could build this network… at the airport, helping the movers and shakers fuel their jets, warm their coffee, ice their in-flight champagne.

Lots of people will point out the golf course as another place where young people can build this network. I actually did work at a golf course in high school, and I agree.  The trick is getting in the right job where you can build a network.  Caddies are fantastic.   Cart guys like myself usually have such a minimal interaction with the golfers that it’s hard to build any meaningful relationships.

The bottom line is the importance of learning the value of a personal network. I didn’t appreciate it soon enough and how incredible life can be if you know the right people in the right places with the right kind of relationships.

 

Bad Breath and Food In Your Teeth Socially

 

Few people have the guts to tell us when we have bad breath or food in our teeth. We know this and don’t expect to be told. So we are sensitive to it and self-monitor as best we can. We check our teeth in the mirror when dining out. We pop mints. We try to smell our breath.

But what about your perceived attitude?   Do you know anyone who comes across as constantly negative?   Someone who is sarcastic, always laughing, always making jokes, but perhaps at the extent of someone else?   Or perhaps they believe they are coming across as inquisitive, but are actually seen as disagreeable by those around them.    We’ve all met these people and we usually don’t enjoy being around them.

Perhaps we should start thinking about what we say and how we say it with the same sensitivity as our breath and the food in our teeth.

Think back on your conversations in social settings.   Look at your own Twitter stream.   How many times do you come across negative vs. positive? Assume there is no gray area. Each Tweet, each comment is either a +1 or a -1. take your last 50 comments and score them.

It is statistically unlikely that if you have “bad energy breath” that someone will  tell you directly.    Instead they will avoid you.   You will not realize their absence, but your success will be limited.  We are the sum of the people we spend time with. If fewer people want to spend time with you, you understand the math.

I admit, of those people who simply chose not to be around you because you are negative person, I will be one of them.

 

 

Sneaky Catalysts to Reinvention

 

revolutionIt’s interesting what triggers big change. Often, change comes from something we don’t expect.  Often, it sneaks up on us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about mobile lately and how our mobile computing capabilities are forcing change in almost every established software market, whether it’s obvious or not.

Already, you could make the case that mobile completely changed the importance of e-mail in our lives.

Would Twitter be as massive as it is without mobile.

Facebook?

So what else is mobile going to cause to be reinvented? Some examples in my life…

The internet of things… I use my phone to manage my thermostats in my house. Can mobile be the trigger that causes a market shift for mechanical controls and building automation?     I love my FitBit Aria scale… is mobile responsible for a “health technology” revolution?

What about CRM?   We all say that Salesforce.com is ready to be disrupted as the market leader in CRM for SMBs. But how is this going to happen? It doesn’t seem to be coming from Sugar or Zoho offering web-based knock offs. Perhaps a mobile revolution in CRM is what the world needs to disrupt the intense pricing and overly complicated experience with Salesforce.

What about online learning?

What about word processing?   Presentation software?   (Can PowerPoint finally just die already?)

Maybe it will be mobile that sneaks up and disrupts these, or maybe it will be something else.   My point is that often a disruptor isn’t what we expect it to be.    If you’re a startup seeking to disrupt players Clayton Christensen style, be on the lookout for the catalyst that will accelerate your mission.

 

 

These 8 Talking Points Could Save Your Life at Holiday Parties

 

It’s December and that means it’s party season.  Time to see friends, neighbors, and colleagues that you often only see once a year. Time to reconnect with extended family galore.

Many of these people will be far removed from the tech scene that we live and breathe. However, if you are in any way affiliated with a tech company, or have brought up anything related to the Atlanta Tech Village in conversation, you should be prepared for these unavoidable party topics.  Don’t be caught off guard!

8 Topics you will be forced to discuss because of this affiliation:

TOPIC 1: New in 2013. Bitcoin.
What is it? How does it work? Isn’t this illegal? Should I buy some? Do you have any? I don’t understand why it exists.
Best answer: I don’t know.

TOPIC 2: The NSA.
Best answer: Just be careful what you say in your e-mail, granddad.

TOPIC 3: Healthcare.gov Debacle…
Why didn’t it work? What happened?
Best answer: I need more wine.

TOPIC 4: Traditional favorite: Can you fix my printer?
Best answer: You know, I hear cousin Johnny (who just started college) is taking a computer class. He can probably fix it better than I can.

TOPIC 5: The One that won’t Die: My Windows 98 computer just started popping up an error message on startup?  It takes too long to load Outlook Express, do I have a virus?
Best Answer: This turkey is delicious. Is this homemade dressing or stove top stuffing?

TOPIC 6: Should I get an iPhone?
Best answer: Yes.

TOPIC 7: I don’t “get” the Atlanta Technical Village. What exactly is it?
Best answer: It’s hard to explain. You have to come see it.
Alternative answer:  We aren’t allowed to talk about it. We’re working with the government.

TOPIC 8: Tell me again, what does your new company do?
Best answer: Computer stuff, mom.

It’s a jungle out there. Best of luck to you all.
See you on the other side!

 

Intentional Mentor Relationships – Acknowledge Growth and Chapters In Your Journey

 

One of the secrets of the most successful entrepreneurs is their ability to leverage mentor relationships along their journey.  An interesting observation here that few people talk about is that mentors for one chapter in your journey may not be the most effective for future chapters.  Of course there are different kinds of mentors: personal mentors, family mentors, industry mentors, and general entrepreneurial mentors.

From my own experience, I have a ton of love and respect for my mentors along the way. But I admit, and they will tell you, that what I needed to get my very first business off the ground at the age of 20 is different than the mentoring that I needed to grow it and different again for what I need now. Many of my early mentors I now consider my closest friends (more than mentors) and will appreciate them forever.

You too will find that you will outgrow your mentors, and there’s no shame in this, as long as you show respect and remember to pay it forward and help others, just as those early mentors helped you.

A great book on this topic and others is listed on my books page: Necessary Endings. It is a super encouraging book around how we grow, how we prune our lives and move forward when it’s time to move forward.

I encourage entrepreneurs to constantly be evaluating your mentor relationships. Be intentional about them. If you aren’t being challenged and fed loads of helpful value, it’s ok to look around and add mentor horsepower to your calendar.

 

The Rah-Rah CEO is Priority Number 3 of a Good Startup CEO

 

The third of the top 3 Startup CEO priorities, I believe, is to be the Rah-Rah CEO Face of the Company guy.    People who have pitched us in Atlanta Ventures have heard me ask this question: “Which one of you is the Rah-Rah guy?”

What I mean is this: Who is going to be “out there” jumping up and down, grabbing attention and being the face of the company?   Every company needs a persons face. It’s not enough to be a cool brand.   Facebook is Zuck.  Apple is Jobs.   MSFT is Gates.   Dell is, well, Dell.  Yahoo is Marissa. Salesloft is Porter.  Pardot was Cummings… now is Salesforce, is Benioff.  AirWatch is Dabierre.  ISS was Klaus. Oracle is… Virgin is… Twitter is… Google is… Turner is…     You see where I’m going with this.   Even a 3-person startup, needs the Rah-Rah “face guy.”

Here are some tips and thoughts on being the Rah-Rah guy.

Be active on social media.   Not obsessed. Just active. Show a personality. Share thoughts, share opinions. Be funny. Be where the discussion is happening. Get mentioned there. Not a company twitter handle, a personal Twitter handle.

Write.   Personal blogs are hugely important for Startup CEOs. It gives you an outlet to discuss macro views of the world that aren’t specifically appropriate to your corporate blog. It also gives you good rhythm and is a nice personal brand platform. It’s pretty likely this won’t be your last company. Make sure people know what you are doing.

Be a person.   Don’t be afraid to share personal stories and parts of your life that are important to you.

Speak, educate, inspire.   Startup CEOs need to be in front of an audience every chance they get. If possible, set a yearly goal for how many public presentations you will give.  Help educate your market about what you do. Help them accomplish their mission in their own businesses and they will repay you.  Don’t always be selling in these presentations. Just be there, be inspiring and be helpful.

Share your personal values.    Along with sharing your personality, share what’s meaningful to you. People will connect with you, because more than likely, other people care about some of the same things you care about. Don’t silo your beliefs and passions away from your company. Be open and transparent about them.

Be an active leader in the community.    Participating in non-profits, leadership or otherwise, is a valuable activity for any Startup CEO. It will help you keep perspective on your own problems, but if you have the right intentions, it will repay you with new opportunities, new ideas, new contacts, new inputs that will help your startup.

Don’t be too afraid of other entrepreneurial projects.   The most successful entrepreneurs I know always have more than one thing going on.  One of my friends tells me that he sees his life as a stool, and he wants it to have four-legs.  Your stool can still stand on 3 legs if one of them falls out from under you.   This goes against what most think about being focused and only doing one thing.  While I agree, for first time entrepreneurs, keeping the plates spinning requires 150% focus and attention, but once you’ve been around the block at least once, you will begin to understand that adding diversity to your energy output makes you learn how to be more efficient.   Done right, you can create a personal synergistic ecosystem where each project feeds the others.

Last point… if you aren’t the Rah-Rah guy, it may be hard to come out of your shell and go find him or her. I sympathize with you, although I can’t relate. :)  My advice to you is to get in front of the connectors around you. Investors, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs.   Be humble and tell them you need a Rah-Rah CEO.  The good thing about Rah-Rah CEOs is that they aren’t hard to find if they are good at being visible.      I can say with confidence that there are plenty high energy guys out there looking to be your Startup CEO.

 

Ingredients and Indicators of a Startup Chances of Success

 

Today I will share what I believe are the top indicators of a startup chance of success for very early stage companies.  Some folks may disagree with this breakdown, and there are of course cases that prove otherwise. That’s cool. This is from my own experience. I specifically want to focus on the top variables that are in an entrepreneur’s control in Stage 1 and Stage 2 of a startup.

Here’s the high level breakdown:

  • 20% of startup success is your Idea
  • 30% of startup success is You
  • 50% of startup success your Team

startup success

20% Your Idea – Painkiller Index

  • Is your target market big enough, do you know it well enough, are they ready for your solution or do you have to convince them that their pain hurts so you can sell the pain killer?
  • Your execution – Is your solution is clunky, have too much friction to use or acquire? Can you create an easy to use solution that buyers need, and can you deliver to the level they expect?
  • Your Timing – believe it or not, timing is a discussion in the idea of startups. I don’t mean trying to time the market in the traditional way the term is used (often associated with the stock market and is something that is next to impossible to do)… instead, as far as a painkiller goes.   I may have a pain of needing a more efficient route algorithm, or colder cocktails to enjoy in  my driverless car, but the timing of these painkillers isn’t right.
  • Focus – Is the idea small enough that you can accomplish it as a startup, with the world against you?

30% Yourself

  • Your intentional life balance – Starting a company is brutal. If you aren’t geared up to handle it in your life, things can go sideways quickly. Are you healthy?  Are you intentional about where your time goes? Do you have a bigger picture view of the world, spiritual or otherwise? Are you giving back to those around you in order to better learn?   Do you have your priorities and your s**t together?
  • Your confidence – Confidence is often the biggest difference between a kickass entrepreneur and one who is mediocre and spinning his wheels.   Finding the thin line between extremely confident and overly arrogant is a tricky challenge, but one that can make or break you.
  • Your discipline – Back to the intentionality: can you hold the line?  Can you keep going even when you’re exhausted?
  • Your abilities – Do you have the knowledge and experience in your market?

50% Your Team

  • YES, I propose that the team you assemble is the largest variable in your control over your chance of success.  So this means if you score low and put the wrong team in place, your odds of success are painfully slim.  This is the top takeaway, I hope you’ll see from this post. The team is the biggest chance you have for success.  It doesn’t just mean the co-founders, it means everyone around you. Your Investors, Directors, Advisors, Employees, Managers, even Vendors.    Get the first two right, but even if you screw up a little on the Idea or Yourself, having an amazing team can carry you through these.