Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Practically Speaking, What does Giving Up Mean?

I was with another early stage entrepreneur recently, and we were comparing notes on how hard it is building startups.  He said to me “Some days, I think I’m getting ready to just give up.”

I encouraged him to explore that option. What if you do give up? What are you going to do? 

Get a j-o-b? 

Of course you will. And yes, you can get any job you want. You’re experienced, connected, smart, and talented. Any job you want. Do you believe that?

He said: Yes, I do.

Ok then, let’s say you go get this dream job.  How will you really feel about yourself every day when you go home and on the weekends?

Will you be satisfied? 

Will you see that big boat, hear about those big vacations, those super-cars that you love and feel that you are doing your best to get there for yourself?   

Or will you be satisfied knowing that you may be taking your big dreams off the table and working at your j-o-b?

Of course not!

Or let’s look at another option. Maybe you think you should have gone down a different startup path?   Do you really think it would be easier building any other company besides the one you’re building right now?

Remember how easy it looked when you set out to do this? You knew the idea was sound, the market was huge, and you had the skills and team to go after it? I bet any other idea you have looks about the same from the outside, but remember… they’re all hard once you get going.  So don’t fool yourself.

Remember that you chose your current path.  You can change your mind at any time.  But why would you? When you realize this, you take giving up off the table, and you have immense freedom to focus on moving forward. It’s the only option.

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Expanding Out of Trouble

One of the most impressive things about Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial journey, as chronicled in his book, is how many times his company was in a near-death situations, and how most times he managed not only to get out of a tight spot, but also take the company to the next level.  

Growing a record label and chain of record stores takes a lot of capital, and a lot of good banking relationships (read: debt!).  On more than one occasion, Virgin Records was about to have their line called, or something with the bank was going sideways and it looked like the end could be near. 

However, the most impressive lesson from Branson is how he managed each crisis. Each time, rather than retreating, playing defense, or “cutting fat,” he found ways to expand to the next level.  Whether it was adding a store, buying a company, or making a big bet, he had a lot of offensive moves that got them out of hot water.

Don’t get me wrong, there was no small amount of good luck that accompanied those moves, and I’m sure many seasoned entrepreneurs and business school professors would say he made some terrible decisions that could have gone horribly wrong.  But they didn’t. He got lucky and kept at it.   

It’s inspiring to think about using a tight spot as an opportunity to go bigger, play offense, and expand into the next level.  

10 Best Decisions I Made In 2014

As we look forward to a new year and folks start talking about resolutions for 2015, I decided to first take a look back at 2014 and make a list of the things I got right. This will help guide my thinking to the new year, and reflecting on the big wins is a positive energy exercise that you would enjoy doing as well.

Here’s my list.

#1. Relocated my family 34 miles closer to my office.

This may be the smartest thing I’ve done in the last 3 years. It has been positive for so many reasons beyond just reclaiming 12-15 hours/week I was spending in the car. Having my personal life in the same community as my professional life is synergistic in ways I didn’t anticipate. The family is better off. My company is better off. My professional relationships accelerate because of our family relationships. Being “all in” on a single community without spreading out our energy is a life altering change.  

#2. Decided that eating right is a way of living.

In the last 90 days of the year, it finally clicked. All the stuff that I know I shouldn’t eat, I just don’t eat. It’s not the pursuit of a number, or a short term dieting approach. It’s just a “this is who I am” mentality and it actually works. I’m ending the year at a weight I haven’t seen since I was 18 years old and feel better than I’ve ever felt in my adult life.

#3. Played offense on my startup.

When survival of your company is constantly in question, it is so easy, natural (and maybe logical) to make all decisions based on what path is most likely to help you survive.  However in this at-bat for me, I’ve made the decision that this one is a “go big” venture. It has meant stepping slightly farther out of my risk tolerance zone, but so far, in the first 14 months, every offensive decision has paid off.  Survival isn’t the goal; the goal is to make a giant impact on an industry and thousands of lives. If we do that, we will survive and then some. 

#4. Sent my wife on a week long vacation with Sir Richard Branson.

Yes, it’s a long crazy story. And yes, there are plenty of photos. And no, I didn’t go! And yes, she came home. But so much good happened out of that. Getting the mom-of-3 little ones out on a vacation of her own rejuvenated her and brought new energy to our home.   For me, taking a week to be a single-working-dad was actually a ton of fun. Thanks to boat-loads of family support, I was able to stay engaged with work, keep the house together, and have some good memories with the kids. It was good for me to have an “all in” week of Dad duty.  And yes, wifey getting to be buddies with a group of entrepreneurs and a Knighted Billionaire on his private island has very little downside for me (so long as she still comes home). :)

#5. Invested in people.

In both my startup and Atlanta Ventures, I made investments in people and they have paid off. In our startup, I really embraced the importance this time around of having Class A++ founders and early team members.   On the investment side, we picked some solid young entrepreneurs and those investments appear to be on the right track. (evidenced here and here)

#6. Decided that the best place to build personal network outside of Atlanta is in Silicon Valley.

I love the Atlanta tech community. That community is a cross-section of two communities: Atlanta and tech. To put energy into the second half of that, then you must admit that the center of the tech world is the San Francisco Bay Area. I spent several amazing trips out West and will continue to put intentional energy into building my relationships in the tech capital of the world. It not only pays off for my own startup, but also helps Atlanta build a bridge to where the overwhelming majority of early stage capital lives.

#7. Made my big decisions with long term in mind.

It only took me 35 years of life on this planet to finally start putting problems and decisions in perspective. In 2014, I was finally able to think about my decisions and frame them in the context of “when I look back in 5 years, will this decision really matter?”  

#8. Re-engaged with an amazing church.

By moving back ITP, our family was able to get involved again at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church.   Having that back in our lives, not just Sunday mornings, but all week long for the kids activities and community fellowship, is huge. It keeps our family positive and in a cadence of good energy with people making the world a better place.

#9.  Integrated personality profile into my daily thinking and re-tooling how I handle conflict.

I’ve normally been very bad at handling conflict. However, in 2014, I’ve found that with my understanding of DISC profiles and other personality assessments, I understand people better. By realizing now who is an S-I, or a C-D, I now can predict conflict before it happens. I also know how the other person thinks. I know why. And I also know my own D-I self to know why I don’t think the same way.  DISC has helped me stay calm and process interactions with friction with a level-head. Bonus for me: This even goes as far as understanding family members better. Who knew!?    Hat tip to my friend Matt Granados for helping me embrace the use of DISC. It only took me about 3 years to get it, Matt. 

#10. Finally discovered how to enjoy the ride.

Building a startup is hard.  Raising 3 kids is ridiculously hard. Keeping a marriage together after 14 years, not easy.  Staying healthy, a constant battle. But through all of this, in 2014, it clicked for me that these things are hard for everybody.   Brad Feld posted recently: Life Is Messy for Everyone … and he’s right. Once you realize that, you can make an intentional decision to just roll with it. Make the best decisions you can then focus on the little wins and things you’ve done right so far.  Keeping that energy in the “high” and “positive” quadrant is so important.

I hope you’ll go make your list of Top 10 Wins for 2014 and then reflect on it and enjoy it.

Merry Everything!

Are You Having Fun?

 

Last week I was talking to one of our Voxa team members about how we’re doing as a team.   We now have 7 full-time and with some extra hands helping out part time, it’s a very early-stage team of 9 high-energy Voxans.  It was a good dialog around finding the best role for everyone on the team and how and where each person adds value specifically. He wanted to be sure he was performing up to par.  Knowing how you’re doing can be tricky when the roles are so early and not yet clearly defined.  Of course I assured him that he’s doing a fantastic job and then it occurred to me to ask him a very important question:

“Are you having fun?”

At the time, that question even caught me a little off guard. In all my years leading small teams, I have asked many questions. Questions like:

  • On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you feeling this week about the company?
  • Are you satisfied with your job here?
  • Would you recommend to your best friend get a job here?

But for some reason, I have never thought to ask “Are you having fun?”

I’m not sure why I’ve never asked that question. Perhaps because work isn’t about having fun, it’s about making money, getting s**t done, making a mark. But isn’t doing something meaningful supposed to be fun? Isn’t pushing yourself to be better and to make a mark supposed to be FUN? If it’s not fun, then isn’t there something else you can be doing?

This question has been hanging in my mind since last week and I will continue to think about it. Even when it’s hard as hell, when we lose deals, when people quit, when competitors win… looking back, it should still be fun… I think. Don’t you?

Our parents never came home from work and answered the “How was your day at the office” question with “It was FUN!”   And looking at my own routine, I probably don’t say that enough either.  But as I sit here writing in the clear-thought and positivity of the morning with an objective outlook on the day, I’m wondering if I should start focusing more on the fact that what I do is a ton of fun.   What if my kids can grow up hearing me say repeatedly that when I was away from them, I was having fun.

Why not? What’s the downside?   If you look at the construction of success, I hardly think you would find that fun is a detractor.  Winning customers is fun. A productive team is fun. A hard day of meetings is even fun.    The challenge of a hard competitive battle over a big deal is fun… even when you lose (sometimes).

This is an energy boosting topic for me and I hope it will be for you as well. Ask your team if they are having fun and try to evaluate your day and verbalize to others that you’re having fun.   Who knows— maybe if you say it often enough, the next hard day that comes along won’t feel quite as hard and you might even squeeze out a grin.

 

A Common Mistake in Evaluating Success

 

Most of the uber-successful entrepreneurs you will encounter will have some distinctively unique personality traits.   They usually stand out and have extremes in at least one way, but often multiple.  Here are some examples of traits that I’ve observed and discussed:

  • Crazy outgoing … bold, brash, life of the party, always making people laugh…
  • Super chill … never get’s stressed, anxious, or worried…
  • Amazing listener … always asking great questions, able to make the conversation more about you than them…
  • Freakishly creative … able to think of a new idea on the fly any minute of the day…
  • Constantly competitive … #winning is their mantra, everything is a competition…

I enjoy speaking with young and first time entrepreneurs about these rockstars. It’s fun to analyze them and try to figure out how they were able to make it to the top level; these types of character traits always come up in the conversation.   But here’s a common mistake in those conversations that shows naivety on the part of anyone looking to learn from rockstars. It’s this comment:

Well yeah, if I had a gazillion dollars in the bank, I would be [fill in the blank from above] also…

#Wrong!

An example of another "wrong answer" ....

An example of another “wrong answer” ….

#No!    If you think these traits are created because of success, think again. These people have the same traits before they made it big and before you knew about them. Very likely it is these traits that helped them get there.   So the next time you notice that a rockstar is always [calm and collected,] don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s because she has less stress because of her bank account. Assume that it was being calm and collected (or competitive, or a good listener, or creative, etc..) all the way, and that’s what enabled the energy to fill up the bank account.

Bottom line: be who you are, and go all out in doing so.

 

 

Go Big or Don’t Go

This post goes out to those entrepreneurs who have been around the block once or twice and are actively seeking the next thing.  It’s not for the first time startup CEO.

Allen Nance is on a crusade to get Atlanta to GO BIG.   I’m in. I totally agree.

Here’s why it’s the only thing you should be considering if you are looking for your next thing…

Opportunities are everywhere.

Holy cow this is so true. There are really good ideas, smart people, great investment opportunities around every corner. They are everywhere! If you think there aren’t deals and good startups in Atlanta, then you aren’t spending enough time in Midtown at Spring and Fifth and Buckhead at Piedmont and Lenox.  There is an awe-inspiring amount of energy going into tech startups in Atlanta right now.  With so much quantity of opportunity, we have the unique luxury of waiting for a big one.  Take your time– you will find one.

It’s too easy to go small.

Everybody is starting something these days. Doing another one that fits in with the crowd doesn’t get me going, nor will it fire up a proven entrepreneur.  You know from the last one that this shit is hard. Really, really freaking hard.  You don’t need to be going into your next company thinking “money ball”… getting on base isn’t enough for the fire that you need to build a giant team, raise a ton of money, and create a world-changing product.

You owe it to the community.

You are in possession of the most expensive education an entrepreneur can posses. You’ve already been there. You know what is ahead of you.   You are the equivalent of a physician with a license to practice medicine and an MD after your name.  Put that education to work and do something bigger this time around.

But Johnson, why is this only going out to proven entrepreneurs? Are you saying I can’t go big the first time out?  What about (fill in the blank)?

Of course there are tons of companies that are successful from the first time. But this post is not about the reality of the success, size, or scope of the company: it’s about the MENTALITY OF THE ENTREPRENEUR.    Remember, my goal is to create entrepreneurial inspiration as fuel for entrepreneurs.  We should all be so lucky as Steve Jobs to have our own personal Reality-Distortion Field around us. Proven entrepreneurs have the self-awareness to engage this RDF and still get cool stuff done.

 

 

 

No Friction? No Progress!

 

In my experience, I’ve started detecting a pattern:   the more friction and resistance I have, the more forward progress I make.   I’ve seen the same for organizations and startups as well.

Mine started as an undergrad at Georgia Tech. I realized around my senior year that each time I registered for 18-21 hours per semester, I made the best grades. My worst semesters were the ones when I took 1 or 2 classes and wasn’t even registered full time.

The same goes for my entrepreneurial experiences. The more friction against my desired direction, the farther and faster I seemed to go. When I felt like resistance was less, meaning, things were on cruise control and I felt good about where I was and didn’t feel the urge to go farther, faster, higher… that’s when both my momentum and my satisfaction waned.

This lesson has so many applications for startups and entrepreneurs: 

1. If you have a 100% close rate, you either aren’t charging enough or aren’t putting enough deals in the top of the funnel.

2. If your innovation pipeline is empty with no “wishes and wants” for your product, you are on the path to irrelevance.

3. If your schedule is open (unintentionally), then you aren’t working your network to its maximum potential.

4. If you hire every person you interview, then you aren’t interviewing enough people.

5. If your workout doesn’t make you hurt (at least once in a while), you aren’t getting stronger.

6. If your run or swim isn’t longer than you thought you could do, then it wasn’t long enough. There’s no such thing as feeling great while in “maintenance mode” as a runner, I’m learning.

7. If balancing work and family time come easy, then you aren’t pushing hard enough forward on one side or another.  I will ALWAYS want more family time and ALWAYS want more work time. I know I’m at the sweet spot and making progress when they are both maxed out.  (Note: to be at this point, you must learn the art of not being stressed when you are at full throttle.  Being intentional means knowing that your situation is what you want it to be, and you should be able to relax with a smile every evening knowing you accomplished what you intended to that day.)

 

Don’t shy away from friction. Go find it. It will make you better!

 

 

Inspiration is for Amateurs

 

Recently in a great post on AVC, Fred Wilson talked about the days he feels like “mailing it in” and had (what I thought) was a very inspirational post about his energy level and vision for his role as a VC.    Down in the comments, Arnold Waldstein shared this comment:

Favorite quote of all time:

“Inspiration is for amateurs.”

Chuck Close

This threw me off!  At first it bothered me.   I started to question my own motivation for this blog. Check my own personal tag line, right up top: “seeking perpetual inspiration as entrepreneurial fuel.”   But I realized after some thought that this quote doesn’t conflict with how I believe inspiration works for entrepreneurs.

Energy from being inspired comes in bursts. There are highs and lows. Inspired days never last longer than a week or two at best. There will be low energy days for any super motivated entrepreneur. It’s important to accept this and have habits and awareness enough to know that you will have another inspired burst of energy soon and you must keep pressing forward until it finds you.

Here are some tips that can help manage the highs and lows of your energy.

  • Have a good co-founder.   This is so huge for entrepreneurs. Co-founders are critical when your inspiration and energy is low. Sometimes you will be low together, but most of the time you will have someone to lean on. Or even better, when your partner is feeling down, you can experience the great feeling of lifting him up out of the funk.
  • Have healthy habits. Even when you’re low on inspiration, it’s important to keep your rituals going. Keep reading. Keep exercising. Keep listening to music. Keep relaxing. Keep balancing family intentionally.  Habits are an extremely valuable stabilizer for dramatic swings in inspiration.
  • Have disciplined work goals. Aside from the habits, it can also be helpful to have hard metrics that you’re working to achieve. Number of customer calls per week. Cold e-mails per day. Blog posts per week. Whatever the number, never give up pursuing it. This will press you forward. Rely on the external numbers to hit when the intrinsic motivation is low and your forward progress will continue. It may feel like a lot more effort to move a shorter distance when you aren’t feeling inspired, but the important thing is that you keep moving.
  • Have self-awareness tools.  For me self-awareness comes most frequently from two things: (1) writing this blog and (2) my monthly EO Forum meetings.   On the blog side, it’s not that I write something and then immediately figure something out. It’s that I’ve not got almost a couple hundred posts of things I’ve figured out, and the act of writing, publishing, and often discussing means they are a little more burned into my psyche. In the lulls, so many times I think back and realize that I’m going against something I wrote. That helps me keep it together and press forward.     Second, my EO Forum meetings provide a nice slow and relentless rhythm. My wife can always tell when it’s getting towards the end of the month long period between meetings. Every meeting I leave recharged, with a new perspective on my so-called problems and the energy that comes from focusing on how I can help my peers through their challenges.  It’s mandatory rhythm for me.

There are plenty of other tips and tools, but the important thing is that I agree with Arnold. Inspiration isn’t a reliable enough tool to reach the levels you want to reach. We need to embrace the more mechanical necessities to be sure that constant forward motion is the norm.

 

 

Start with Why – Simon Sinek TED Talk Transcript by TranscriptsHQ

 

We recently made an investment in Atlanta tech startup TranscriptsHQ.   The founder, Eugene Yukin is one of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve met in a long time and I’m already enjoying working with him.   Having a background as a reporter who was constantly purchasing transcripts for audio files, phone calls, and videos, Eugene believes that transcripts and summaries can be purchased a better way.   The service is super simple and very affordable. They still use humans to power the transcription which allows them to do summaries and notes– along with great quality.   Since I love the service, and since I have tons of traffic to this site for the Simon Sinek Ted Talk “Start with Why,” I thought it appropriate to provide a transcript of that popular video here.   

Videos through blogs are great, but personally, I prefer to just read. I like going at my own pace (faster than the video) and having the option to skim, highlight, copy, paste and more.   With all that background, here is the transcript of Simon Sinek’s TED talk, mandatory content for every startup entrepreneur in Atlanta and the Atlanta Tech Village. 

 

 

Transcript — Simon Sinek TED Talk: Start With Why (Original Video Here and Here)

We assume that we know why we do what we do, but then how do you explain when things don’t go as we assume. Or better, how do you explain when others are able to achieve things that seem to defy all the assumptions. For example, why is Apple so innovative year after year after year? They are more innovative than all their competition and yet, they are just a computer company. They are just like everyone else. They have the same access to the same talent, the same agencies, the same consultants and the same media. Why is it that they seem to have something different? Why is that Martin Luther King led the Civil Rights Movement? He wasn’t the only man who suffered in pre civil rights America and he certainly wasn’t the only great orator of the day. Why him? And why is it that the Wright brothers were able to figure out control powered manned flight when there were certainly other teams who were better qualified and funded, and they didn’t achieve powered manned flight. The Wright brothers beat them to it. There’s something else at play here.

About three and a half years ago, I made a discovery and this discovery profoundly changed my view on how I thought the world worked and it even profoundly changed the way in which I operate in it. As it turns out there’s a pattern. All the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright brothers – they all think, act, and communicate the exact same way and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else. All I did was codify it. It’s probably the world’s simplest idea and I call it the Golden Circle. Why? How? What?

This little idea explains why some organizations and some leaders are able to inspire where others are not. Let me define the terms very quickly.

Every single person and organization in the planet knows what they do 100%. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating proposition or proprietary process or USP. But very very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean to make a profit – that’s a result. It’s always a result. By why I mean, what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?

As a result, the way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in. It’s obvious; we go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and organizations, regardless of their size or industry, all think, act, and communicate from the inside out. Let me give you an example.

I use Apple because they are easy to understand and everybody gets it. If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them may sound like this: We make great computers. They are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. Want to buy one?

Meh.

And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing and sales are done and that’s how most of us communicate interpersonally. We say what we do, we say how we are different or how we are better, and we expect some sort of behavior – a purchase or vote or something like that. “Here’s our new law firm. We have the best lawyers with the biggest clients. We always perform for our clients – do business with us.” “Here’s our new car – it gets great gas mileage, it has leather seats – buy our car.” But this is uninspiring.

Here’s how Apple actually communicates – Everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

Totally different, right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. This explains why every single person in this room is perfectly comfortable buying a computer from Apple. But we are also perfectly comfortable buying an MP3 player from Apple, or a phone from Apple or a DVR from Apple. But as I said before, Apple is just a computer company. There’s nothing that distinguishes them structurally from any of their competitors. Their competitors are all equally qualified to make all of these products. In fact they tried. A few years ago Gateway came out with flat screen TVs. They are imminently qualified to make flat screen TVs, they have been making flat screen monitors for years. Nobody bought one.

Dell came out with MP3 players and PDAs and they make great quality products and they can make perfectly well designed products and nobody bought one. In fact, talking about it now we can’t even imagine buying an MP3 player from Dell. Why would you buy an MP3 player from a computer company? But we do it everyday. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. Here’s the best part. None of what I’m telling you is my opinion. It’s all grounded in the tenants of biology. Not psychology – biology.

If you look at a cross section of the human brain, looking from the top down, what you see is that the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the Golden Circle. Our newest brain – our homosapien brain, our neocortex corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought and language.

The middle two sections make up our limbic brains and our limbic brain is responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for all human behavior and decision making, and it has no capacity for language. In other words, when we communicate from the outside in then yes, people can understand vast amount of complicated information like features, benefits, facts, and figures, just doesn’t drive behavior. When we communicate from the inside out, we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do. This is where gut decisions come from.

You know, sometimes, you can give somebody all the facts and figures and they say, “I know what all the facts and details are but it just doesn’t feel right.” Why do we use that verb? It doesn’t feel right. Because the part of the brain that controls the decision-making, doesn’t control language and the best we can muster up is, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Or sometimes you say you’re leading with your heart or you’re leading with your soul. Well, I hate to break it to you, those aren’t other body parts controlling your behavior, that’s all happening here in your limbic brain. The part of the brain that controls decision-making and not language. But if you don’t know why you do what you do and people respond to why you do what you do, then how will you ever get someone to vote for you, buy something from you, or more importantly be loyal and want to be a part of what it is that you do. Again, the goal is not just to sell to people who need what you have, the goal is to sell to people who believe what you believe. The goal is not just to hire people who need a job, it is to hire people who believe what you believe.

I always say that if you hire people just because they can do a job, they will work for your money. But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they will work for you with blood, sweat, and tears. And nowhere else is there a better example of this than with the Wright brothers.

Most people don’t know about Samuel Pierpont Langley and back in the early 20th century, the pursuit of powered manned flight was like the dotcom of the day. Everybody was trying it. Samuel Pierpont Langley had what we assume to be the recipe for success. I mean, even now when we ask, “Why did your product or company fail?” People always give you the same permutations of the same three things. Undercapitalized, the wrong people, bad market conditions. It’s always the same three things. So let’s explore that. Samuel Pierpont Langley was given $50,000 by the War Department to figure out this flying machine. Money was no problem. He held a seat at Harvard and worked at the Smithsonian and was extremely well connected. He knew all the big minds of the day. He hired the best minds money could find and the market conditions were fantastic. The New York Times followed him around everywhere and everyone was rooting for Langley. Then how come we have never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? A few hundred miles away in Dayton, Ohio lived Orville and Wilbur Wright. They had none of what we consider to be the recipe for success.

They had no money, they paid for their dream with the proceeds from their bicycle shop. Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education. Not even Orville or Wilbur. And the New York Times followed them around nowhere. The difference was that Orville and Wilbur were driven by a cause, a purpose, a belief. They believed that if they could figure out this flying machine, it will change the course of the world.

Samuel Pierpont Langley was different. He wanted to be rich and he wanted to be famous. He was in pursuit of the result, he was in pursuit of the riches and lo and behold look what happened. The people who believed in the Wright brothers’ dream worked with them with blood, sweat, and tears. The others just worked for the paycheck. And they tell stories about how every time the Wright brothers’ went out, they would have to take five sets of parts because that’s how many times they would crash before they came in for supper. And eventually on December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers took flight and no one was there to even experience it. We found out about it a few days later.

And further proof that Langley was motivated by the wrong thing – the day the Wright brothers took flight, he quit. He could have said, “That’s an amazing discovery guys and I will improve upon your technology.” But he didn’t. He wasn’t first, he didn’t get rich, he didn’t get famous, so he quit. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. Well, why is important to attract those who believe what you believe?

Something called the law of diffusion of innovation. And if you don’t know the law, then you definitely know the terminology. The first two and half percent of our population are our innovators. The next 13.5 percent of our population are our early adopters, the next 34% are your early majority, the late majority, and your laggards. The only reason these people buy touchtone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore. We all sit at various places at various times on this scale but what the law of diffusion of innovation tells us is that if you want mass market success or mass market acceptance of an idea, you cannot have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration and then the system tips.

I love asking businesses what’s your conversion on new business and they love to tell you proudly, “Oh, it’s about ten percent.” Well you can trip over ten percent of the customers. We all have ten percent who just “get it”. That’s how we describe them. That’s like that gut feeling. “Oh, they just get it.” The problem is how do you find the ones who just get it before you are doing business with them versus the ones who don’t get it. So, it’s this here, this little gap that you have to close as Geoffrey Moore calls it, “Closing the Chasm.” You see, the early majority will not try something until someone else has tried it first and these guys, the innovators and the early adopters, they are comfortable making those gut decisions. They are more comfortable making those intuitive decisions that are driven by what they believe about the world and not just what product is available. These are the people who stood in line for six hours to buy an iPhone when they first came out. When you could have just walked into a store the next week and bought one off the shelf. These are the people who spent $40,000 on flat screen TVs when they first came out even though the technology was substandard. And by the way, they didn’t do it because the technology was so great. They did it for themselves, it’s because they wanted to be first. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do simply proves what you believe. In fact, people will do the things that prove what they believe. The reason the person bought the iPhone in the first six hours was because of what they believed about the world and how they wanted everybody to see them. They were first.

So let me give you a famous example – a famous failure and a famous success of the law of diffusion of innovation. First the famous failure. It’s a commercial example. As we said before a second ago, the recipe for success is money, and the right people and the right marketing conditions, and you should have success then. Look at TIVO. From the time TIVO came out about eight or nine years ago to this current day, they are the single, highest quality product on the market. Hands down there is no dispute. They are extremely well funded, market conditions were fantastic. I mean we used TIVO as a word, “I love TIVO stuff on my piece of junk Time Warner DVR all the time.” But TIVO is a commercial failure, they never made money. And when they went IPO their stock was about $30 or $40 dollars and then plummeted and it’s never traded above $10. In fact, I don’t think it’s traded above $6 except a couple of little spikes. Because you see, when TIVO launched their product, they told us all what they had. They said, “We have a product that pauses live TV, skips commercials, rewinds live TV and memorizes your viewing habits without you even asking.” And the cynical majority said, “We don’t believe you. We don’t need it. We don’t like it. You’re scaring us.” What if they had said, “If you are the kind of person who likes to have total control over every aspect of your life, boy do we have a product for you. It pauses live TV, skips commercials, memorizes your viewing habits etc.” People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and what you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe.

Now let me give you a successful example of the law of diffusion of innovation. In the summer of 1963, 250,000 people showed up on the Mall of Washington, DC. to hear Dr. King speak. They sent out no invitations and there was no website to check the date. How do you do that? Well, Dr. King wasn’t the only man in America who was a great orator. He wasn’t the only man in America who suffered in pre civil rights America. In fact some of his ideas were bad but he had a gift. He didn’t go around telling people what needed to change in America. He went around and told people what he believed. “I believe, I believe, I believe,” he told people. And people who believed what he believed took his cause and made it their own and they told people. And some of those people created structures to get the word out to even more people. And lo and behold, 250,000 people showed up on the right day, at the right time to hear him speak. How many of them showed up for him? Zero. They showed up for themselves. It’s what they believed about America that got them to travel in a bus for eight hours to stand in the sun in Washington in the middle of August. It’s what they believed. And it wasn’t about black versus white. Twenty five percent of the audience was white.

Dr. King believed that there were two types of laws in this world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by man and not until all the laws that are made by man are consistent with the laws that are made by a higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the Civil Rights Movement was the perfect thing to help him bring his cause to life. We follow him not for him, but for ourselves. And by the way, he gave the I Have a Dream speech not the I Have a Plan speech. Listen to politicians now with their comprehensive 12 point plans, they don’t inspire anybody. Because there are leaders and then there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority but those who lead inspire us, whether they are individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why?” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them. Thank you.

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No Trophies

 

Last week, David Cummings won the prestigious Ernst & Young’s 2012 Deal of the Year Award. Very cool! We are all proud of David and excited for story that led to the award. The morning after the award when I congratulated him, I asked “So you going to put the trophy right here in the lobby of the Atlanta Ventures suite?

His response is a lesson for all of us:  “Nope. Trophies are about the past, so I don’t care for or display them.  We need to focus on the present and the future.”

Boom.

Simple yet profound point! Whether your past includes selling a company for $95mm, or a whole list of failed attempts to do so… it doesn’t matter.   None of it matters. What matters is today, and what you do today– and you should think about tomorrow too.

There’s a ton of freedom in that.

 

Cure the Destination Disease – Tips for Enjoying the Ride

 

At the recent EO NERVE Conference, in Charlotte, NC, there were some great speakers on life balance and things that matter. My favorites were Steve Gilliland and Gary Kunath.  Steve and Gary are both great speakers with successful careers, inspirational stories, and invaluable lessons. I wanted to share with you some of the big points I took from their talks.

  • Lessons in serial entrepreneurship. One entrepreneur once told Steve that he wanted to build another business after he sold his first because this time around he wanted to enjoy the process of building it this time.  Having started my first business in my late teens / early twenties, I can admit openly that I had no idea how cool it was to be doing what I was doing. Each new business I am involved with now, my goal is to savor the exhilaration and stress that it takes to go from idea to team to customers to company.  Enjoy!
  • The grass will grow back.  Gary spoke of his father and how he would be frustrated with his grandkids (Gary’s kids) for running on the grass and damaging his perfect lawn.   I can relate to this, being a lover of my lawn. I often find myself barking at the kids to stop destroying some plant or part of our lawn with their antics.    Gary said that his kids are now grown and gone and his father stares at a perfect lawn, with no kids, wishing only that they would come back; but that time has passed.   It is a reminder to me that the grass will grow back, but I only have one shot at having crazy fun in the backyard with my 5 and 7 year old boys.
  • Study of Happiness.    One of the speakers described a study comparing lottery winners to individuals who had an accident and became paraplegics. The bottom line is that those winning $200,000,000 in the lottery are less happy after a couple of years than people who had an accident and became paraplegics! It’s about appreciating life around us. Appreciating what we have and savoring every minute.
  • The big deals at death. Consider that you’re in the last few minutes of your life.   When you write out the bulleted list of “big deals” in your life, what will they be?   Now compare that to the list that today you are working through.   Work to constantly put your daily routines and todo list in perspective of what will matter in the end.  Do this activity in your head with some sincerity on a regular basis and your stress level will drop by 50%.  Here’s a video from Gary to demonstrate.

I may not be able to cure my “Destination Disease,” but with events and reminders like this, I hope to work harder to enjoy the ride. Relax. There isn’t a destination.  We’re living it right now, today.

The ironic thing about this conference is that 24 hours before departure I was just about to cancel because I just “have too many things to do.” Wow. Powerful stuff.

 

 

Startups: A Surprising Place to Find Spiritual Satisfaction

 

I find a ton of spirituality in tech startups.

What!?  Yep, you heard me.

Let’s start from a basic question. Where do you find God and spiritual satisfaction?

For me, deep spiritual satisfaction comes from being in motion. In pursuit of something better. It’s not about the what you’re making better, it’s just about movement towards better. As an example, I believe Christianity is all about the pursuit of being better at serving others and making the world a better place to live. It’s that simple, to me.

When stagnation takes hold, that’s the “devil” (or whatever bad news label you want to give it). That’s the lack of presence of good spiritual stuff. Ironically there is a book about the thoughts of Napoleon Hill called Outwitting the Devil.    In his research and writing for Think and Grow Rich, Hill not only explores why successful people succeed, but also why unsuccessful people don’t find their groove.   Doubt. Lack of self-confidence. Laziness. Fear. These are all things that lead to not moving.  It totally supports the idea that real meaning comes from motion.

With this understanding of my view of faith, religion, and spirituality, you can understand why the world of startups and entrepreneurs provides crazy good spiritual satisfaction for me.

  • Entrepreneurs who decide to do a startup are working to make themselves better as people. We all know that to build a good business, you have to build a good entrepreneur at the heart of that business.  Fundamentals are just as true here as in any other discipline. Fundamentals of life balance, a burning passion, and healthy living are key. As the business grows, so must the entrepreneur.   The spiritual energy that took a business from start to go isn’t the same energy that will get the business to the next level. Everything must move.
  • Startups are about making some tiny corner of the world better.   Whether their passion is about making something easier, cheaper, or better, it’s always about movement. It’s about helping a customer move their needle.
  • Over the top generosity and giving is a fundamental success factor for startups, just as it is in anything else. Giving of your time to others helps grow your network, which in turn helps you move. You change trajectories.

This idea is also perhaps what pulls me to technology. Technology is in constant motion. It’s not going to change any time soon. The rate of innovation is exhilarating.  Technology + Startups = More movement towards better than you’ll find in many other disciplines.

This idea is at the core of the reason I encourage “lifestyle entrepreneurs” to take it to the next level. I won’t say that these guys frustrate me, just that I feel like they are leaving tons of fulfillment on the table.   These are entrepreneurs who had the glory of going from 0-60, but then set the cruise control and relax. That’s a nice way to live for some, but for me, I see that the acceleration has slowed or stopped and the juicy satisfaction is going away.  Swinging for the fences doesn’t have to mean taking stupid risks, but it just means persistently moving from where you are today to somewhere else. Keep going! Keep moving!