Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Timing Your Upshift and How I’m Managing Mine

 

stick_shiftIn your entrepreneurial journey, you will find that everything comes in cycles. I’ve written previously about cycles of low and high energy and how being aware of them can make you more resilient  (Inspiration is for Amateurs) . Another cycle that has run it’s course is the period of high-RPM’s and low torque.  It’s time to shift up a gear.

Starting a new chapter usually requires you to downshift at first. You have to be willing to slow down forward progress, run at higher RPM’s to see more ideas, meet more people, and broaden your field of view.   This is common for entrepreneurs who are between companies.  It’s really hard to find the next big thing. It requires a lot of cycles. As bad as you want to go deep instead of spreading yourself thin, you find that picking the right big bet takes longer than you expect.  As VC’s put it: you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.

But when you do finally slow down the idea review process and find the bet you’re ready to make, it’s important to know how to shift up a gear.

With 2014, my goal is to shift up. Here are three big ways I’m doing it.

1. Tighter Meeting Filter.
I need to accept many fewer meetings around advice giving or general connecting. The last two years, I’ve done a ton of meetings just for the sake of relationship building. I believe I successfully accomplished by 2013 goal of adding value for every person I met with through the year. In 2014, I need to increase the bar for these “just want to get to know you” meetings. My calendar is already too full.

2. Slower Cadence.
New Rhythms… mainly with the blog.   I’ve decided that 3-5 posts/week is at the present time, an unrealistic goal. For the past few weeks, I have established a new rhythm of 1 slightly longer post each week. This is a really healthy change for me. It has allowed my quiet time and my running time to think deeper about the challenges ahead for Voxa, our growing team, and how I can be the best CEO possible.   Those cycles were previously spent on new blog post topics.

3. More Off-Village time.
Whether I work from home, a Starbucks, a beach, or a cabin, I need to find more time in 2014 out of the high energy and extremely-high-RPM environment of the Village. The problem with the awesomeness of the Village is that it’s too awesome.  I want to be there 8 days a week! I love the density of people, ideas, of work hard play hard. But like many entrepreneurs, I am afflicted with extreme ADD.  It’s really hard for me to slow down when I’m in the Village.   I’m setting the goal to spend at least 1 half-day per week out of the Village, working from home, etc… and I’m setting the goal to take 2-4 weeks completely out of the hustle of the building. (Note, this doesn’t mean losing the daily touch rhythm with Team Voxa, it means physically forcing limits of my focus Priority 1: Family and Priority 2: Team Voxa.)

As with an upshift in a car, forward velocity will increase as RPM’s decrease. You have to already have the momentum to sustain the added force, but when you time it just right, I’ve seen the slow down to go faster do magical transformations in entrepreneurs’ lives.

When it’s time for your upshift, I hope you’ll consider what it really means to slow down to go faster.

 

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

 

Facilities Matter – First Reno Opens this Month

 

World Gym Fayette - New Lexington Location

World Gym Fayette – New Lexington Location

Last week my local gym opened a brand new beautiful building. I only use it for the pool, but I have to admit the old one was pretty uninspiring as far as facilities go. The new one is amazing.  My first swim was awesome. I won’t disclose my embarrassingly weak workout, but I will say that I did 50% more laps than my normal swim. Something about the brand new pool, super tall ceilings, glass everywhere, clean water, new locker room, and awesome showers just pumped me up.

As I drove away, I was thinking about how in January, we will open the first renovated floor of the Atlanta Tech Village.  Exactly 1 year after we started this project (and 10 months after we naively thought we would open renovated space), the 4th floor, featuring Private Suites and coworking will be finally open.  Just like my new gym, it will feature a ton of glass, an intentional modular layout, all new Knoll furniture, super tall ceilings, fancy-shmancy light fixtures, IdeaPaint everywhere, and large LED screens everywhere.

Thinking back on the office space we rented in my last companies, it never made me excited. We always got the cheapest space we could find and kept it as minimal as possible. We were never in anything better than Class C, and never bought furniture that didn’t come from Ikea or Office Depot.

This isn’t a sales pitch– trust me– but it always was an annoyingly persistent energy drain to be reminded that we were in crappy offices.  It didn’t help for recruiting, and when myself or my team would visit companies that we thought were similar to us but made their home in awesome Class A space, we  went back to our home feeling a little down.  We didn’t admit it, of course, but it’s human nature and unavoidable.

Being a little bit older and wiser, I’m ready to admit that I missed the mark on this. I should have acknowledged sooner that the facilities matter more than we think… and more than we like to admit. The energy of the team can be affected by the pride in the physical facilities of the company.   I cannot wait to start using the renovated space in the Village… and look forward to those long, hard workouts at my new gym too.

 

 

Five Tips for Family Operations (Learned from Business)

 

crazy-golf-cart-familyMany books have been written and seminars sold out from speakers who teach that life can be happier if you run your personal life and family like a business.  The talks I’ve seen on the topic focus on basics like: have a business plan, set goals, give each other performance reviews.    I have some more to add to the best practices. Thoughts on my mind as we run the Cook Household that I find I’ve learned from running companies.

1. Outsource like crazy.

In business (especially startups), it doesn’t usually make sense to do things like: manage you own e-mail server, run your own web servers, do your own janitorial work, etc…   These things must be outsourced so you can focus on what matters the most for your company.

In your personal life, there are often things to be outsourced that you haven’t considered. The first consideration is always cost, but it’s important to consider the value of your time, your energy, and sanity.

I have a friend who has taken outsourcing his personal life to the extremes. Cooking, cleaning, and yard work are the basics. But think next level: His dry cleaners pick up from his laundry room and return to his bedroom closet.   His banker drops envelopes of cash off on his desk at his home study when he needs money.  He has even been known to outsource the installation and decorating of his Christmas tree.   In his view, these things are less important than spending time with his children. His work schedule is intense, and if he isn’t working, then he doesn’t want to be at the cleaners waiting for his shirts.

2. But, keep core competencies in house.

In tech companies, we say that engineering and sales should be your core competencies: and you don’t outsource them.  What are the equivalents at home?   What are the things that only you can do?

Only you can exercise for yourself.   Only you can be the parent that you need to be by spending quality time with each child. Only you can start and maintain family traditions around the holidays.  Only you can be there to cheer on the games and recitals. If it’s not something that only you can do, it can likely be outsourced.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

As a business grows, it becomes inefficient for the top leaders to focus on smallest issues. Whether it’s what kind of printer we buy, or that we pay $5 more per month for coffee than we could if we switched vendors, or that a $10/month online service could be free if we switched providers.   These are distractions. Leaders are overwhelmed with important, massively “stay-alive” decisions every day and shouldn’t let the small stuff detract from what matters.

The same goes for home. I’ve found our family occasionally getting worked up over silly ridiculous small stuff, that really isn’t helpful.   Just this weekend, I got irked because I discovered that we’re buying $4 Peanut Butter instead of the $2 peanut butter.  In retrospect, who cares. $2/week isn’t going to break us or make us.

4. Smart leverage.

Every entrepreneur knows that capital is the lifeblood of the business.  They also know that long term liabilities are a perfectly healthy way to grow a business.  It’s ok to borrow money. It’s more than ok, it’s expected if you want to grow.  If done in the right, smart way, of course.

I know a few families who take the “debt is evil” approach to the extremes.   I’m not in any way advocating that families live above their means.  I am only saying that my view is that I only have one life to live. And I’m ok having a mortgage instead of paying cash so I can have the comfort of a little cash in the bank and live in a comfortably-sized house.  I also love my Amex points and perks that cost me nothing to earn and use, and I pay off every card every month in full. For a person with some self-control and intelligence, I don’t understand the “credit cards are evil” way of living.

5. Culture at the top.

The culture and alignment of the management team is what will make or break a company. If you haven’t figured that out yet and are running a business, then expect to learn it the hard way if you don’t figure it out soon.

For parents, the same is true. When Margaret and I get frustrated with each other, it is immediately apparent in the morale of the troops. When we’re having grumpy thoughts about each other it’s as though the kids become extra pissy and fight, argue, and whine even more than usual.     Keeping the “management team” on the same page and delighted about the mission as helped us a lot. Weekly date nights and vacations together with no kids and no friends every 6 months has really helped us.

Lately we’ve been thinking about reversing these two and doing vacations together with no kids every WEEK! If only…

Hard Parts are Not What You Expect them To Be

 

You will find that being a startup entrepreneur has its easy parts that are fun and its hard parts, but they aren’t always what you expect. They also aren’t what are top of mind on any given weekday morning.

Easy parts:

  • Talking to a customer about the product you are so passionate about: also known as selling!
  • Following the plan for the next step, checking the box of a big step (First 10 customers, etc)
  • Raising money when you’ve done everything right and you have the confidence that you don’t need the money to survive. Closing the deal, checking the bank account balance, getting serious.
  • Making an offer to the right team member and coming to agreement.
  • Joining the organizations like EO that will change your trajectory.

Hard parts:

  • Starting.
  • Exercising every day or worst case every other day.
  • Eating right.
  • Sleeping right.
  • Managing your calendar to meet 3-5 new people each week and build deeper relationships.
  • Being intentional about your family and personal relationships through the intensity of a startup phase.
  • Overcoming fear.
  • Extracting value of mentor advice even if it conflicts with your plans.

 

Two Things that Get Me

 

For all the writing and talking I do about being intentional and antifragile, there are still two things that can take me out and make me feel fragile and unprepared.   Someone else mentioned these same two things to me recently so I’ve been giving them some thought.      For me, all the work on a solid morning routine, great workout plan, intentional vacations, intense all-in work mode, disciplined writing and reading… it’s all great until it falls apart. And the two things that get me are: (1) business travel and (2) getting sick.

On the travel front, I used to travel all the time and had some decent routines and rhythm around it. But now I try to keep it to one overnight trip per month or less– and that’s not enough to have “habits.”  (Both good and bad, right?) But even when I know it’s coming, I come back from even short trips and things start to lose rhythm. Workouts are missed, the blog is completely neglected, I’m tired, the inbox zero starts to slip away… and things just kind of get disorganized until after sometimes a week or two before I can catch back up and get ahead of life.

On the getting sick front, I’m a terrible patient. I have no tolerance for pain or feeling miserable. Even the slightest cold just completely wipes me out. When I’m wiped out, it means I lay in bed and don’t give a flying s*** about anything like inbox zero or blog posts. Yes, it’s kind of amusing how pathetic I can be.

I don’t have the answers to these two boogars, but I’m hoping by acknowledging it and writing about it, I can start to think about routines and antifragile habits that can be more resilient against the inevitable travel and whatever plague the children bring home from school next.

 

 

 

Hot Hot Themes in B2B SaaS Startup Opportunities

 

Following up on the post from Sunday about types of businesses I like the best, I’d like to share some more forward looking ideas about startups that I like.   In Atlanta Ventures, we have a solid strength in B2B SaaS, and within this opportunity area, there are some themes that we see and love.   I wouldn’t consider these the same as Foundry Group’s Investment Themes; meaning, we aren’t limiting ourselves to investments in these areas. But these just get me extra fired up.

Automation. Sure marketing automation is hot, but there is so much more automation that can happen now. With tools like Kevy now connecting our data, business processes that are still done manually can no be automated to a level never before possible.

Predictive.  This are of Big Data is definitely bleeding edge of SaaS — but I think it’s about to explode. Given all the data we have now and the simplicity of connecting, evaluating, and leveraging it, making predictions about things we’ve not normally tried to predict is a huge area.

Data ownership.  Big Data is the new awesome wild west. There are now new opportunities in a whole new value chain. The collectors of data. The aggregators of data. The ideas of what to do with data. The services to implement the ideas. Obviously, the person with the most value potential in this chain is the person who owns the data. Whether it’s collection, gathering, generating– the ownership is key.

What an exciting time with all of this. I feel like a B2B SaaS MacGyver could really make a ton of money right now.

macgyver

 

Sales Solves All Problems – As Long As…

 

Years ago a successful entrepreneur friend of mine told me “Dude, sales solves all problems. Put your foot on the sales accelerator and no matter what happens, don’t let up!”

I keep trying to find an exception to this absolute statement, but I haven’t yet found anything to truly  contradict this.  Some examples of the debate go like this:

- Having a hard time fundraising for growth capital? More revenue and faster growth rate of revenue will always attract investors and better valuations.

- Limitations with your product?  If you have revenue now, then you have something that people will pay for, so sell what you have. Fund the product enhancements with sales revenue.

- Team resource limited? Need more hires to deliver the goods you say, sell more stuff and get creative with your payment terms and delivery plans so that you can do what it takes to deliver and have money left over to invest back into cash that will eventually be able to grow the team.

I could go all day… and some days, I literally do have this conversation with startups all day long because they are stuck raising money and don’t know what else to do. It’s not a silver bullet, blue pill, or magic potion, but it “sell more” is the answer that startups usually need, whether they like it or not.

There are however, just a few assumptions that go into this [otherwise] absolute statement that sales solves all problems.

Assumption #1: Your business model is fundamentally sound and you make a respectable gross margin.

Assumption #2: You are fully committed to the business for the long term. There are no quick fixes in growing a business.

Assumption #3: You aren’t disappointing your customers. You may not be able to exceed their expectations, but at least delivering to the expected value is mandatory.

Assumption #4: You have an awesome culture and your team is on board with you and enjoying life.

 As long as these fundamentals are in place, then I stand by the motto “sales solves all problems” for startups. Roll up those sleeves and make some cold calls.

Action item: need advice on how to sell? Read Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross YESTERDAY!

 

 

Inputs Drive Output, Dummy

 

I should be more embarrassed to say this:  It took me almost 2 years of disciplined running to really figure out that what you eat and drink hours and days before any run affects how you feel during the run more than anything else.

Once I started figuring out how to manage intake– I realized that the output happened. It was like magic.   Yeah right, you say.  Dummy, JC.

Luckily I’m not as embarrassed to say it took me about 30 years to learn that the same lesson applies to my entrepreneurial output.   What you put in dramatically affects your output. Call it productivity, effectiveness, efficiency, or success. Call it whatever you want. It’s output.  And input determines output.

When I started this blog almost 2 years ago (hey wait, that’s when you said you started running… coincidence? Of course not!), I added a section called “Fuel.”  I also had the tagline: “Seeking inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.”

I finally started to learn that what you fuel yourself with determines your output.  Your output determines your trajectory.

Fuel for entrepreneurs:

- Books. Constantly.

- Mentors.   Intentionally chosen.

- Mastermind Forums.   Uber confidential accountability groups. Structured.

- Music / Art = Creative Inputs

- Exercise = Oxygen for your brain + Energy for your day

- Disciplined cadence. Rhythm.

- Intentional Good Life, like this and this.

Consider this the reciprocal to “garbage in, garbage out.” This isn’t about garbage. It’s about neutral inputs vs. positive inputs.  More positive inputs = more forward motion.

 

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.

 

 

Taking Chips Off the Table for Later Stage Entrepreneurs vs. Cashing Out When You’re Stuck

 

casino-chipsYesterday, David wrote about entrepreneurs taking chips off the table.  I agree fully with his post. I’ve seen entrepreneurs act with more confidence and function at a higher level after they have removed some of the risk for their family.

This is usually a conversation for entrepreneurs who have built substantial value in their company, but there are many more who aren’t yet to this stage where taking chips off the table is an option. For these entrepreneurs, the Vegas metaphor that I like (from Tony Hsieh’s book) is that you may be playing at the wrong table.

Sometimes the best option is to cash out at your current table, accept that you are break-even, learned a ton, and can now play at a different table.

NOTE, this may not mean cashing out of your company completely.

It may mean you are playing in the wrong market. Or maybe you have the wrong team assembled.  Perhaps you haven’t been able to identify the painkiller that you thought, and it’s time to do some blue sky sessions and dream bigger to find a true pain.

I’m a big advocate for entrepreneurs who are fixated and spin their wheels with no traction after a long, long time… that for these guys, making a big dramatic change is just what they need to gain some self-awareness and visibility into their actions.

Entrepreneurs aren’t mean to be static creatures. We can’t learn and accelerate when we’re stuck in one place.  Sometimes, “cashing out” and taking your money to another table is a great option that will help you continue the hunt for the big fish.