Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

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.

 

 

A Binary Measure for Each Person in Your Network

 

thumbsTruth statement:   Every person that you know and will ever meet will fall into one of two categories. They either (A) bring you up and make you better or (B) they don’t.

Someone proposed this to me a few months ago and at first I wanted to challenge it. So I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Surely there are some people that are in the gray area?  Surely I don’t have to be black and white about people.  But I’m finding it hard to disprove.

Here are some other ways to ask the question:

- Does this person give me energy, or drain my energy?

- Am I better for being around this person, or unaffected (or worse, affected negatively)?

- Does the person have a personal network greater than mine or equal to mine?  Strike that one, per the discussion in the comments. This one is a separate measurement. 

Thinking about your network more intentionally will bring you immense satisfaction and is the best way to change your trajectory. If you want to love what you do, it starts with loving the people you are around. Loving the people you are around comes with first taking an honest look at how those people affect you.

 

Executing an Introduction

 

I introduce people to each other every day. Most people handle these introductions with grace but sometimes I notice areas for improvement. Here are some tips when you are introduced to a new contact. This is mostly framed around startups being introduced to mentors, investors, and potential first customers, but applies for most meetings.

- Face-to-face meetings are far better than phone calls for first meetings. Assuming you are both in the same metropolitan area, do your best to meet in person. It’s super hard to build rapport over the phone or even video chat.

- Assume the other person has more to offer you than you have for them. I always try to assume that a new connection can help me more than I can help them. Occasionally I’m proven wrong with folks trying to sell me hard or push for a job, but I think it’s better to assume the opposite and wait for the evidence otherwise. This pays off by putting you in the right mental state of humility and an open mind.

- Be yourself. When meeting someone for the first time, it’s especially important to be authentic. Don’t exaggerate your success, traction, or awesomeness. Just be real, open, and direct. This is refreshing and helps accelerate a connection from “contact” to “relationship.”

- Connect the dots yourself!  In the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO), there is a culture of only speaking from experience and not giving your peers advice. Assume that new mentors and connections will do the same. Be ready to connect the dots and learn from their experience.  Occasionally, you may want to ask for direct advice on your specific issue, but 9 times out of 10, the person on the other side of the table can’t possibly know all of the details of your situation. You can receive more value simply asking for their experiences in the area and extract your own actionable data from that experience share.

- Go out of your way to meet on their terms.  Be flexible. If they prefer to do coffee instead of lunch or beer instead of breakfast, do your best to meet on their terms.

- Follow up, follow up, follow up.  First, follow up with the new connection. Don’t let action items get away from you.   Be sure to thank them for their time.   Also, follow up with the connector. Thank them for the introduction, but also tell them something meaningful that came from the contact. Perhaps there is another connection that can be made for you based on what you learned from this connection.

Introductions make everything go faster. I encourage entrepreneurs, investors, and job hunters to simply meet more people. It’s very simple advice.   Each time you meet someone, ask them for an introduction to another 1 or 2 people you should meet. If you do this right, you can accelerate everything in your world in a very short period of time.

 

 

 

Team Dynamics in Investor Pitches

 

It’s no secret that investors seek the right people more than the right ideas. We invest in hustlers who understand their market and share our core values.  It’s pretty simple.

Most entrepreneurs pitching know that “people matter” and are smart to be sure I understand the background of each co-founder when they pitch. Sometimes it’s on a slide deck, occasionally it’s full resumes of each team member (please don’t, by the way), and other times it’s just a great story in the first meeting.   Yes, the individuals do matter and this information is important. However, there is another element that too many teams miss.

The dynamic of the team is just as important as the credentials of the individuals.   How does the team get along?  Do they generally appear to enjoy each others’ company?   It should be obvious that you must L-O-V-E your team in a startup. When doing a startup together, you’re about to spend a ton of time together.  It is 100% likely that you will disagree on something and have to deal with it. Here are some team dynamics I’ve observed:

Laughter.  There’s nothing better than genuine laughter in a meeting. Teams that have fun together and connect with others are awesome.   Other times, laughter is a nervous reaction, fake, and forced. It’s so obvious when it’s not real.

*How* you Interrupt each other.    I love the teams that finish each others sentences. These are the ones that are on the same page and it shows.  Then there are the teams who interrupt each other without grace and even show that the person who was interrupted is frustrated. If you can’t pull it together and polish your shtick in an investor meeting, your team that you’re about to build will surely see the friction too.

Correcting each other. Some details are ok to have wrong.  My personal preference if your cofounder is in a pitch meeting and says something incorrect is to just let it go.   Correcting someone is a delicate social maneuver.   My suggestion is to only correct a team member in a pitch meeting if the incorrect data is vitally important to the conversation.

Naive followers of an overly optimistic leader. Many CEOs are rockstars and their team is on board with them all the way and they are in tune to each other.  Other times, I’ve seen a CEO who is a great salesman, who has obviously made big promises to the team, and from the outside, it’s plain as day that what they’ve promised isn’t going to happen. This one is hard to watch, but it’s obvious to investors.  If you are a CEO be humble enough to find out how your team feels about you and the mission. If you’ve joined a CEO and have some doubts, be brave enough to voice them with the CEO before going into an investor meeting. It will be a healthy for you and if you decide to stay, the critical step forward will be noticeable.

Basic southern courtesy. As a southern boy, this seems obvious. Holding the door for someone.  Silencing your cell phone. Not answering your phone as it rings during your pitch (yes, seriously it has happened).

Team dynamics are critical. This isn’t a tip that is intended to help you put on a better show for investors.  You can’t fake this stuff. Rather, I hope this is a tip that you will use to evaluate whether you’re in the right place. If you are, come see me.

 

 

The Atlanta Ventures Accelerator – Background Ideas and Thoughts

 

Johnson-Cook-David-Cummings-Jamie-Hamilton

Johnson, David, and Jamie. Photo by my main man, Byron Small

Last week was exciting for the Village and for Atlanta. On Friday we announced the Atlanta Ventures Accelerator in this article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle and David’s blog post here. I’m super excited to be bringing this to life in partnership with Jamie Hamilton and Buckhead Investment Partners

It has been a 7-month process of reviewing our options for an accelerator and I wanted to share some of the thoughts, ideas, observations, and common questions that went into our thinking.

Does the world need another accelerator?

This was the question we kept asking ourselves as we considered whether or not to do this.   The answer: The “world” definitely has too many accelerators. However, I’m not concerned with the world… I’m concerned with Atlanta.  Atlanta does not have too many accelerators.  Atlanta has far too few accelerators, incubators, investors, and startup support organizations.  There are too few faces and names. It only takes a few weeks to get to know most people. That shouldn’t be the case. Atlanta needs more of everything in the ecosystem. More full time entrepreneurs, more angel investors, more angel funding organizations, more VCs focused on early stage tech, and of course more exits and big success stories.   The Atlanta Tech Village is a great platform, but it’s not the answer to all our needs. The Village is *a* leader (not “the” leader)  in a regional thirst to bring more programs and platforms like it to this already high-energy ecosystem.

Why are we non-cohort based?

The biggest reason is that we don’t want to be pressured by a scheduled start date to accept a specified number of companies.  We plan to be extremely selective in the companies accepted and by not placing any pressure to get X startups in the same cohort, we can take our time and be sure there is a total fit of the teams we accept.

Additionally, many of the benefits of a cohort driven program are the peer interactions. Because we are building this program into a Village where there are already over 100 startups and 300 people working on startups, we have no shortage of peer collaboration. We can leverage the existing community to bring that critical peer sharing and accountability aspect to the program. Most other accelerators don’t have this existing community on which to build. We are fortunate.

Structured curriculum?

Every startup needs different things. After speaking with several hundred startup entrepreneurs, we find a broad spectrum of domain expertise, customer understanding, product value proposition, and business model understanding. We weren’t able to identify a program that would be a one-size-fits all value proposition for startups. Instead, we decided that the investment terms of TechStars ($20k for 6% of the equity at a financing of $500k or more, plus a $100k convertible note) is the main common element that we felt appropriate to embrace.  More of a hand crafted approach than a factory production line (for now).

A Lean Accelerator

We aren’t seasoned accelerator directors, if there is such a thing. Admittedly, we are new at this approach compared to the YC’s and TechStars leadership. If we’re going to learn how to run an accelerator, we want to do it the same way we would start a company. One customer at a time. Lots of conversations. Lots of build -> measure -> learn.    We’ll figure out the best structure as we go. Of course we’re paying attention and learning from those that have gone before us, but we also want to learn our own lessons. Scrappy.

A single and simple KPI  

Everybody gets on base. It’s a money ball approach to accelerator.  The seed round is the goal for each of these companies.  How they get there will be different for each company. Some will have a product and need customers, some will need to spend many weeks on customer discovery. Others may have product, customers and revenue, but just need the contacts to raise the money.    Our goal is to do whatever it takes to get each and every company to that next step. Again, this is why we’ll be really selective on the front end.

What are you looking for in companies?

It’s nothing new. The right team. The scrappiest hustlers who know their space have focused energy, the gumption to put things together and make them work, and the polish to present themselves as adults (when called for)… but who don’t take themselves too seriously.   Nice people, who are dreamers, who pay it forward and know how to work hard and play hard.

It’s an exciting time for Atlanta and we hope the Atlanta Ventures Accelerator will be more fuel to the flame. To learn more and apply: atlantaventures.com/accelerator

 

 

Leading vs. Controlling – A Delicate Balance Needed for Community Building

 

Building the Atlanta Tech Village community has introduced some unique balancing acts to me that most startups don’t have and are, in some areas, new to me. Being a triple bottom-line organization, we are trying to maximize impact on the community. This means working to leverage the platform, the building, the brand, the energy to do more than we can do on our own. Of course we have an amazing staff and lots of resources, but we can still only do so much.   The advice we’ve gotten from so many other great entrepreneur centers and coworking organizations is to resist the urge to directly manage the logistics of everything and let the community step up and organize and lead its own programs.

We are absolutely bought into this. We are partnering with others that share our core values and our common vision for the City. I’ve seen this in associations for years: the ones that tightly control everything and are overbearing often bring limited value to their membership, where the ones who have found the sweet spot of curated open community thrive and soar.

So many variables I’ve observed in search of this balance:

  • Quality Control – you have to accept that some programs will bomb, and that’s ok. But you don’t want anything to bomb so badly it can affect other programs.
  • Sub-Community Cultures – there will be some variety of personalities and groups, that can trigger great serendipitous interactions if done right.
  • Competition – healthy competition within the community is good, but it shouldn’t create any negative attitudes or destructive intentions.

We are still juggling hundreds of ideas for the Village and how to fit them all together and squeeze them into our calendar and our space. I love the energy and motion in Atlanta right now.

The point of all this?  While entrepreneurial communities should be led by other entrepreneurs, there are some entrepreneurial instincts that must be resisted and put aside for community building.  Control is probably the hardest one to resist.    The best skills we used to build our companies aren’t always the best for building a community.

 

 

Socializing with the General Population – I’m Spoiled by the Company I Keep

 

I’ve hinted around this post before, but it just keeps coming up. I’m totally spoiled by the quality of the company I keep. Being around hungry, smart, driven entrepreneurs constantly is so incredible. But it can be so draining in social settings where it’s not the same high energy crowd.

I struggle with this because I know that non-driven people have a lot of value to add to the world, and I can learn so much from them. People are always deeper than they seem, I hope. However, here are some of the things that bug me about “how they seem” in social settings:

  • Negativity. It’s so easy to complain. The government sucks. Taxes suck. Rich people suck. Poor people suck.  Gas prices suck. My shirt is too small. Your shoes are ugly.  This food is too salty.     I have a theory that most people don’t realize the what percentage of what they say is negative vs. positive.  This isn’t a pot-smoking, tree-hugging hippie liberal kind of positive. I just mean to give the bitching a rest once in a while!
  • It’s not in my control.  Or call it apathy. I think the reason so much negativity exists is that non-driven people view complaining as their outlet. Perhaps somewhere in our minds, we imagine that complaining about a situation is the equivalent of acting on it.
  • On autopilot.    Lots of folks are comfortable not having their own plan. It’s easy and comfortable to follow the plan that has come before you. High school – college – entry level job – wife – move up job – kids – change companies – build pension – retire – play golf – die.  You don’t have to think, and therefore you aren’t as interested in navigating the economy or challenges in building something that outlasts your own life. You only have to navigate the next step in your pre-written plan.
  • Sarcasm.   Too often the humor of the less-driven relies solely on sarcasm. Sometimes this can be overbearing quantities of sarcasm.  I’m guilty of over-using sarcasm as humor, I admit it. But when this is the only laughter in a conversation, it can be exhausting for the others in the room.

For the record, I don’t even like posting this post. It feels just as negative as those I’m describing. But perhaps by being aware of these downers in our social setting conversations, we can all address our view of the world and how we socialize with our friends and neighbors.

 

 

 

Atta Boys – The Energy from Getting Feedback from the Right People

 

attaboyIf you’ve been paying attention to the success and traction we’ve received at the Atlanta Tech Village, you’ve probably heard one of us say “The Village is successful above all because of community… startups want to be around other startups… the office space, amenities, free beer and coffee are all nice, but the real meat is the community.

One specific benefit of a community is feedback. Not just any feedback, but relevant feedback. Feedback at the right time, from the right people, about the right things. I call them “Atta Boys.”

We’re now 7 months into this thing, so I’ve already had the exciting privilege of following the progress of some of the startups that have been around the Village. Some are accelerating faster than anyone predicted, and some have been forced to throw in the towel. (That’s ok, by the way– since they are already on the next thing).   As I keep tabs on these startups, I’ve noticed that when I get e-mail updates, my feedback seems to be intensely appreciated.  It’s almost surprising to me how much so.

It made me realize how much we all crave feedback and praise from people who have been in our shoes.   When you’re in the grind of making no money and trying to prove that your idea can be a real company, it’s easy to get feedback from your friends, girlfriend, and especially parents.  Of course they are going to support you.

When you tell your parents that you just ran a marketing experiment and found a 500% improvement in CTR, or that your demos per week increased by two fold over the last 6 weeks and close rates are going up– the feedback will likely be something like: “That’s nice sweety, you’re doing a great job.”   And if your parents are like mine, you could say “Things are hard, we’re failing, out of money, the team quit, and the customers are suing us.” the feedback will probably also be “That’s nice sweety, you’re doing a great job.

Don’t get me wrong. Praise is good. It always helps.

It’s just that praise from fellow entrepreneurs is so much more valuable in feeding your energy to keep you going.   Seek out the people who have been there, done that. Get their feedback – both good and bad, and use it to keep the energy high.

 

 

Entrepreneurial Disorientation Dangers

 

I just read an aviation accident aftermath report and the entrepreneurial learning opportunity is huge.   A pilot was flying in IFR conditions (in the clouds, no outside references, trust your instruments to know which way is up, etc…).   He was changing altitudes and headings erratically and not following ATC instructions properly.   When ATC bluntly asked him basically “What is going on dude?” … he responded with a short and frightening comment:  “Uhm, yeah, just, uhm, just a little disoriented up here.”

Shortly after that comment he crashed and lost his life.

In aviation, we study this phenomenon and have labeled it Spacial Disorientation. I’ve seen this in entrepreneurs before as well. Disoriented is dangerous. Here are some of the situations I’ve observed entrepreneurial disorientation.

  • Disoriented to your own technology. This is often when a sales oriented leader is at the helm and attempting to sell a highly technical product or solution.   Perhaps even a product whose advantages over the competition are purely technical. A smooth pitch, great stories and beautiful cost/benefit analysis won’t work when confidence that you understand technical solution you are selling.   Your buyers (or investors) must be confident in your technical understanding of your product, and if you are winging it in front of technical buyers, your disorientation will not go unnoticed.
  • Disoriented to how people see you. This is straightforward self-awareness. Do you understand yourself enough to understand how people see you? Are you aware of your habits and mannerisms that people love and people hate? If you are often misunderstood, do you know why? Do you admit it and work to overcome misunderstandings. There is nothing more painful than being in a room watching an entrepreneur pitch when they’ve lost the confidence of the room… and everyone knows it, but him.
  • Disoriented to where you are financially.  This commonly happens when an entrepreneur believes he has made it based on the P&L without regard to the balance sheet. I’m talking about leveraging up to get going, and once you get going failing to pay down the debt but burning cash and taking more home. In SaaS and products businesses, obviously this is different situation than in services businesses. The important thing is to be intentional about both your balance sheet and P&L and recognize how you need to manage them to maximize value.

Obviously we can’t always see the future and be perfectly comfortable. Entrepreneurship is all about getting comfortable being uncomfortable. But keeping your wits and orientation is important.

For more thoughts, you may enjoy this post from Venture Village about Zen and Entrepreneurship and “seeing clearly.”

I Suck at Taking Criticism

 

One of my biggest weaknesses as an entrepreneur, dad, and husband (and there are many!) is that I suck at taking criticism. I mean really, really suck. Even when I ask for feedback, help, and opinions, when I get them and they are contradictory to how I see the world or have decided something should be, I don’t know why, but I have internal patriot missile that wants to launch a nuclear mega shock-and-awe attack the incoming offender and lock down the hatches.

I’m taking a risk with this post and letting you know that I will delete your comments if you tell me you don’t like it. (grin)  Yes, you can see that I put myself in places where criticism is less likely to occur (entrepreneurship in general is this way), but I know I’m doing myself a disservice by not being more open to this feedback.

The value of productive criticism from people you trust is huge.   As my (very) old wise uncle said to me in an e-mail once (after I lashed out at him for criticizing something I posted on this blog):  — “there is a danger that if you can’t adapt after receiving criticism that people will stop telling you anything if there is a hint of negativity (or if they think you would interpret it as negativity)… and there are consequences to this happening.”

I agree. There, I admit it publicly. Now please be gentle.