Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

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 startup team 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.

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.

 

 

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!