Johnson Cook

CEO @ Voxa. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Johnson Cook - CEO @ Voxa. Seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.

Editorial Comment- About Startup CEO References

In many of my posts when I talk about the energy it takes to build a startup, I specifically mention the “Startup CEO.”  I do this intentionally, because I work hard to only speak from experience.  My own experience is based on being the CEO, and I have little experience-based credibility in sharing advice and ideas otherwise.

However, as it has been pointed out to me several times (especially at the Atlanta Tech Village water cooler), many times my thoughts and ideas are valid for anyone building a startup. Whether you are employee #2 or employee #20, the work is still hard, the energy still needs to be positive, and the ideas are still valid. 

I will continue to speak from experience, because I believe this is the only credibility I have. If you do follow my writing, I hope that you will see yourself as “CEO of yourself” and have no issues with the reference to actual job titles in your startup.

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Travel Reviews are a Double Edged Sword

Do you remember what it was like to travel or try a new restaurant before there were reviews?

Do you remember having to pick vacation spots, hotels, or restaurants in a new city before there was TripAdvisor or Yelp?  

I have to admit, it’s difficult for me to think back.  I honestly can’t remember how we would pick hotels or fun things to do in cities. I guess we used those paper things from those places that keep them. (Libr… something?)

Now that we live in a world where we can read a review about anything we do before we do it, making decisions is much easier. 

However, there is a downside to the mentality of reviews.   If you pay attention, you will notice that you are inevitably guilty of this: Often, we notice negative aspects of our experiences only because we read about them in reviews.

When you read that a restaurant is great, but the music is too loud. You will probably be listening out for the music. 

When someone posts on TripAdvisor that a hotel is great, but the walk to the elevator is too long and the views are often partially blocked by trees, you will notice those problems.  

Most negative things we notice after reading a review aren’t negatives we would have noticed otherwise. 

Try to think about this the next time you research reviews then experience something and put those negative items in context. Ask yourself “Would I have noticed this on my own?”

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Unstructured Data is Good for the Mind

While unstructured data may be bad for your company, there is a place where it can add unbelievable value to your life. 

When we read books, we expose our mind to new ideas, thoughts, and stories. These ideas more than likely aren’t able to always be structured in our head. There is no card-catalog of the mind where you visit when you encounter a real life opportunity to apply an idea you’ve read about, find the category, remember the book, and apply the idea.  It doesn’t work like that. 

Instead we are forming a complex view of the world where ideas collide with memories and experiences and we navigate forward based on those collisions. 

Reading books only adds to the ideas and experiences our mind uses.  

Maybe one day science will be able to show us the structured database of how the mind works, but today, I’m perfectly happy knowing that it is 100% unstructured.

You can’t tell how you will use the ideas you read about this morning, but you were exposed to them, and as you overlay them on what you experience today, what you hear about from others, and what you read about tomorrow, you will begin to form your own new ideas, opinions, and path forward. 

This is why consistent mental diet of reading books and blogs is so important. There isn’t a predetermined amount of content we need to consume to succeed. Instead, we need to make content consumption a regular part of our life. 

You’re Missing Out – Leverage Professional Associations

The first decade of my entrepreneurial career was spent selling online learning solutions to professional associations. We lived mostly in the Bar Association, Accounting Society, and Medical society worlds, but we worked with all kinds of associations. Yes, there is an association for everything. Funeral directors, organ donors, veterinarians, clowns, circus owners, makeup artists… everything. Our favorites when I was working in the industry was, of course, the Associations of Association Executives. But wait, one more level: then there is the Association of Association Executives who run the Associations of Association Executives. No, I’m not kidding.

Anyway…. on the topic of being resourceful, I find that I am now making the mistake that I think most people make in their careers: we don’t leverage the value of organized associations nearly as much as we could.

Paying the dues and attending the annual conferences is usually as far as most people go. Maybe you read the newsletters. But go deeper!  Members of your industry associations can be your biggest resource when you’re hunting for clients, partners, vendors, employees, or even just ideas. Just find a way to get involved.

Remember, associations are usually powered by tons of volunteers. Yes, even professional associations with expensive dues. If you want to grow yourself, start by giving to your industry by via an association.

 

Advice Isn’t What You Need – Don’t Miss the Value in an Intro

Bad Advice Cartoon

When you meet someone new, how often do you have a clear expectation of what they can do for you?    Particularly when you reach out to someone and ask for a meeting, advice, or assistance: do you have a clear picture in mind of what “yes” looks like?   What is success?

I bring this up because I take many meetings with young entrepreneurs who ask for help, but after digging in, they don’t actually know what they need or what they’re asking.

Advice is cheap. Advice is readily available from every dude sitting at a bar or eavesdropping in Starbucks.     Reaching out to an individual to ask advice is nice, but plain ol’ advice probably not real value that moves the needle for you.

In my case, if you come asking my advice, you should know that I don’t know your situation any better than you. My so-called advice for you will only be as good as my own experiences, which may or may not be relevant to your situation, and in most cases may have only a single common thread with where you are.  I wouldn’t take advice from me, if I were you.

So here’s a tip: I only have one humble value-add for your trajectory. My network.

What does it look like when I offer this value to you? It looks like this:

“Mike meet Joe – you guys should get together.”

Of course there is more to my introduction than a one-liner. Usually I follow a double-opt-in process where I clear the introduction with both sides before actually making the connection.

The point is that too often we miss the value in an introduction.   We may think that we are being pawned off or we are just running in circles going from one introduction to another.

The secret is to realize that each meeting is a new relationship. Each introduction is a win. Each introduction is an entirely new network of potential introductions. And if you believe that meaningful relationships are the most important thing for your success, then pay attention to the measurement for wins.

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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.