Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Stories of Margaret with Richard Branson

Richard Branson's Necker Island

Richard Branson’s Necker Island

As I shared recently, my wife Margaret had the opportunity to recently spend a week on Necker Island with a group of entrepreneurs and Sir Richard Branson.   As the wife of an entrepreneur (currently working on Voxa), she puts up with a lot, so the chance to give her a treat to relax and get to know one of the world’s most amazing entrepreneurs was exciting.  She came back transformed and full of life and ideas.    As you would expect, she brought home crazy stories of wild billionaire fun that usually had some impressive life lessons. 

Story #1- Kite surfing piggy back on Richard Branson.  Marg was trying to learn to kite surf and was frustrated at how much training time it takes to actually get to the point of being on the water.   So she decided to simply ask Richard: “will you take me kite surfing?”    Apparently, his first reaction was “Sure, on one condition: see this image [PG13].”   Funny enough, but my clever yet conservative wife was able to negotiate wearing a Cat Woman Costume instead of her birthday suit. He agreed.  Photos below.   It’s an outing she won’t soon forget. 

Lesson: Screw it. Be different.  Just ask. 

Sir Richard Branson

Cat Woman Margaret and Sir Richard (pre-kite surf)

Cat Woman rides piggy back

Cat Woman rides piggy back

Cat Woman Richard Branson Kite Surf

“It was fun to get you up.” – Richard Branson

Story #2- Dance on the tables.    From the photos that returned on the iPhones of the group, it was apparent that dinner on Necker Island involved frequent dancing on the tables.  Sir Richard Loves to dance. Especially on his table. 

- Lesson: Have fun, have fun, have fun. Life is short.

Table dancing Necker Island Dinner

Dinner on Necker Island is always an adventure.

Story #3- Unpredictable ass biting.    On the day of the Cat Woman Kite Surfing, there were pre-event photos of Margaret and Richard gearing up.  They posed nicely smiling, then Richard decides to pick her up, turn her upside down and bite her on the ass. No reason. Just fun. 

- Lesson: I have no idea.  Who cares. It’s hilarious. :)

Richard Branson

Unpredictable ass biting. “Because I can”

Seriously though, the best part about this whole trip is that it was last minute and unplanned.  We had 6 day notice that there was one spot for a female to join the group. Take it or leave it. We try to live spontaneously and be open for adventure when it pops up. This time, that way of living really paid off. 

Necker Island View - Richard Branson's Private Island

Awesome Views at Necker Island

Richard Branson's Lemurs on Necker Island

What? You don’t have lemurs on your private island? (Richard Branson’s Lemurs on Necker Island)

Now enough of this fun stuff, let’s get back to work.

Do me a favor, since you’re here, and go signup for Voxa’s new tool. It will help you do email smarter, spend list time, stop missing things… so you can be ready when the chance to go to Necker Island pops up.

Leaders, Manage Meeting Energy

As a leader of a team or company, you will likely be leading meetings of people. One of the valuable areas of training I received in EO is managing energy levels in meetings. Energy in meetings is not static. You won’t have an all high or all low meetings. Meeting energy ebbs and flows and can be managed by an effective moderator.

A good meeting leader will have his finger on the pulse of the energy in the room and be intentional about how it is managed.

Some ideas on energy management in meetings:

Establish rhythm early. One-word opens is my favorite. Each person says one word to describe where their head is right this minute.

Lighting rounds are a great tool for managing energy. Each person must answer a question in a short sentence. If it’s an intense business meeting, the lightning round can be related to the topic at hand like “What is the worst thing that can happen to us if we don’t resolve this soon?”

If it’s a weekly staff meeting, try fun lighting rounds like “What fun toy would you buy if you had $100mm today and why?” or “What is your favorite summer family tradition?”

Don’t always relieve tension. This is a tough one for me, but is especially important in peer-group / forum meetings or tight team meetings when dealing with a challenging situation. When something is uncomfortable or challenging, there will often be long periods of silence. As the meeting leader, use this silence and tension to your advantage. Don’t be the one to break it. Let it go. Let the team deal with it and see what happens.

End intentionally. I try to use One word close. We do a quick re-check of everyone in the room. If anyone uses a word like “Anxious” or “Stressed” and everyone else in the room feels resolved and at ease, then we may need to extend the meeting a little bit and deal with it, or more often step aside for a one-on-one to talk it out.

I’ll admit it, I’ve come to love well run meetings. They are productive, quick, and fun. After a good meeting you feel connected, accomplished, and healthy. If your meetings don’t feel this way, then it’s time to rethink the structure… or add some structure to begin with.

High C’s Aren’t All Cynics

If you know DISC, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. Ah, the old C.

The calculating, cautious, careful, smart types. The ones that analyze every situation, want to explore, evaluate, and then evaluate further. You’ve got to love them.

Although the thing is, they are hard to love. If you aren’t a person who thinks about people in terms of their DISC classification, then you may just label some of these people cynics. But don’t worry, they aren’t. They are just wired to question everything. Here are some examples of C behavior that could be seen as cynical:

Walk into restaurant. You say “This place is awesome.”
They say: “Wonder why the ceiling is painted black. Guess the ran out of budget on the furniture. Parking lot is laid out poorly.”

You say: “I love being an entrepreneur.”
They say: “How can you deal with all the land mines out there? Every day, something is just waiting to blow you up! Don’t you think about how risky your situation is? Have you heard about the debt crisis in Shubagostan and that latest BS in Congress!?! It’s going to bring our entire economy down.”

You say: “I want to build an invention that will cure cancer and make me invincible.”
They say: “That’s impossible because of the molecules and the sciencey reasons.”

Before I understood DISC, C’s would bring me down. Debbie downers we’d call them.

But now that I’ve learned to appreciate that this is how they are wired. They aren’t trying to bring us I’s and D’s down, they are just analyzing the world around them in a logical, scientific method kind of way. Just grin and keep moving, knowing it’s not personal.

Never Let it Bother You

When something bothers you, it brings your energy down. As someone who has decided to work hard to stay “up and to the right” in the energy quadrant. (Up is high energy vs. low energy and right is positive energy vs. negative energy), anything that is on your mind pulling you down needs to be dealt with.

The way I handle these things is my leaning on my core value of being Open and Direct. I just address it. Deal with it so you can move on.

You may need to accept that because of this, people think you have no filter and you say anything that comes to your mind even if it’s not the softest thing to say. This is true. But you have chosen to address things, rather than let them bother you.

This should be included in the “Memo about working with Me,” if I were to write one. It would include this line:

“Johnson is open and direct. If he notices something that he doesn’t care for, that bothers him, or causes him to have anxiety, he will say something about it. He won’t hold back. Don’t be offended. This is how he is wired.”

Hiring Opportunities are Everywhere

Jack Daly is the trainer who finally made it click for me.

For the key roles in your company (usually, this is sales and engineering), you should have a Top 15 recruits list at all times. The reasoning is that when (not if) you need to hire these key positions, you need to have named targets ready to go. “A” players don’t just wait for your job postings and then send in their resume. Top performers must be recruited.

Think of a pro sports team. When the Falcons (I hate to say it), are ready for a new quarterback (soon? maybe?), do you expect them to post a job on Craigslist?! Hell no. When you want a new engineer, do you want a guy waiting for posts to pop on craigslist or do you want the top guy at [Fill in Awesome Tech Co Here]?

When you get in the mindset of keeping a Top 15 list, you will find yourself always recruiting.

Some of the random places I’ve found myself recruiting:

  • Uber Drivers. Big time! These are folks who want some extra cash and are self-starting enough to use their car and sign up and start giving rides.
  • Kids selling stuff door-to-door. Not the sad Comcast guy who can’t get any other job. I mean the 14 year old neighborhood kid who decides he’s going to crush the class fundraiser and do it the hard way.
  • All fine arts and sports programs. Any hobby/sport/art that requires focus, practice, hard work, dedication, and a competitive edge is a great start.
  • Races. Runners are intense. I will give an interview to a runner over a non-runner any day of the week.

 

Long Distance [Professional] Relationships

One of my best decisions in 2014 was to start building my network in the Bay Area and as such it is also a 2015 “resolution” (even though I hate that word) to continue that effort. Building a tight network from 2000 miles away can be challenging.

Here are some ideas on how I am trying to be more involved in the tech capital of the universe:

  • Schedule 4-6 standing trips per year and just go. This is useful for me. Even if I go out for one day and back, I can always fill up a day with coffee meetings and lunches. There are potential clients in every city you will visit. Investors, especially in the Bay Area.
  • Give extra effort to provide introductions. I work hard to be sure that my friends and contacts in the Bay Area see me as a valuable connection to Atlanta.
  • Curate the outbound introductions carefully. Double opt in as the minimum standard. This one is unique: many times entrepreneurs in Atlanta see that I’m connected on LinkedIn to some well known Valley VC’s and ask for direct introductions. I normally just will politely decline unless I really believe there is potential value to be created. And even then, I always ask the VC first if they are ok with an intro by giving them a quick one liner about the entrepreneur.

Yes, the world is small and flat nowadays, but face-to-face meetings and serendipitous meetings still rule for building deep relationships. Getting on a plane is the only way to really make it happen long distance.

You’re Missing Out – Leverage Professional Associations

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

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

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

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

 

Core Values as Blog Categories

One of the things I’m trying to do in 2015 is rethink my blog topics (and write more). I’ve learned that the best use of this blog is a way to give smart advice to myself. Early in the morning, when I write is when I think clearly about life, about the day, about big challenges ahead.

One idea I’m trying is to create a WordPress category for each of my personal core values and write small topics regularly on each one. Yes, this is more about me than about you, the reader, so forgive me but follow along if you like. :)

My core values have been the same for about 4 years now and I don’t see any changes coming soon:

  • Self Aware and at Peace
  • Resourceful
  • Open and Direct
  • Financially Enabled Freedom
  • Engaged with Family and Friends
  • Laughter is Air
  • Intensity in Everything

This post goes in “Resourceful” category, as hopefully it is a tool to further develop myself in these areas.

Outsource Everything

Outsource Everything is a mantra that was told to me by the same mentor who likes to remind me that “time is not a limiting factor, you are the limiting factor.” In this case, it’s not just a business tip. It’s a life tip. I try to think about this whenever possible when I find myself doing time-consuming mundane tasks.

This can work for you too. First, you have to assume that your time is actually worth money. If it’s not, then you have other issues. Once you’ve made an agreement with yourself that your time is worth money, then you can start to hunt for big areas where you can reclaim large amounts of time by outsourcing life.

Here are some random ideas I’ve heard on outsourcing life.

  • Housecleaning. Duh.
  • Laundry. Duh.
  • Dry cleaning. I have a friend who realized that just going to and from cleaners was a massive inefficiency so found a cleaner who drops off and picks up at his house.
  • Car washes. Stacey at the Village is awesome.
  • Yard work… that’s a tricky one for me. Currently outsourced, but I have to admit I miss it. Mowing used to be good clear thinking time.

Outsourcing is a useful way to add more time to your life. If you think you’re busy, think again… look again for ways to create time for yourself… then look one more time.

Why Products Succeed

I recently read Relationship Marketing by the famous Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna. While the examples and stories from the book were [extremely] dated, there was still a great amount of value in the stories of basic business common sense on how to design your company to be focused on your customers. One of my favorite parts included a list of what makes products successful.

Regis made this list based on companies he had either invested in, worked with, or served on the board for. So it’s a list written from an internal perspective on how companies decided to build products.

1. Appeal to new markets or an expansion of existing market to bring in thousands of new potential customers. In other words, you aren’t just fighting for market share. You are creating a larger pie.

2. Rather than being new inventions, they are assemblages of interrelated technologies. Creators take advantage of existing technology and combining them into a unique package. “Product innovators are students of the market and the technology.”

3. Dependent on other newly developed technologies and market infrastructure. Having partners, platforms, consultants, vendors, buyers in an existing, connected ecosystem gives products a greater chance of success.

4. Time it right. Having one eye on cutting edge technology and one eye on the market is the way to spot opportunity to capitalize with a new product.

5. Products are adapted to market requirements, and then keep moving. As the first version comes out, it is important to make changes rapidly and keep moving with the market demands.

6. Successful products are developed by small teams. This added sense of purpose is visible in the products they create.

7. Key customers play a role in the design of the products.

8. The first users will determine success or failure of a new product.

9. Truly revolutionary products will create new jargon, new language. Tweet me. Google it. Uber home.

10. Successful products are used in educational programs, seminars, user groups, meetups as examples of a way to do something better.

I enjoyed reading the perspective of a technology guy in the early 90’s and finding where there are lessons from the microprocessor and early PC market that can be applied to the awesome startup land we operate in today.

My Favorite Productivity Tools

As we begin a new year, I love taking inventory of how I work and exploring new tools. I’ve done this post before, but it’s good for me to revisit.

My top tools that help me be more productive:

GMail Web Client. My keyboard shortcuts have me rocking and rolling. Not being attached to a single computer and always being web-based is the only way to live. I can’t imagine going back to a desktop mail client. I hear good things about the new Outlook.com, so I’m not saying I’m Gmail forever, just that I’m web-based for the mid-term future.

Salesforce.com (with an email connector). I spend a good bit of time each day reviewing the conversations with our team and our customers. I like to see what the customers are saying mostly. I just start by sorting our Open Opportunities by Last Activity and see the latest conversation on each one.

Evernote. Still my favorite tool for blogging and meeting note taking because I am always in sync with my laptop, phone, and cloud.

Google Docs. I’m finding the need to use Excel is going down as Spreadsheets has gotten better.

FullStory. Being a product focused company, it is important to me to see stats about how people are using our app. It’s now a regular part of my routine.

Personally: FitBit Aria… I love this little scale. I step on it every morning and it tracks my weight and body fat. I have the last 2 years of weight in my phone and always at my fingertips.

Agenday by PGi. I’ve [almost] stopped using the native iOS calendar for this amazing app. It helps me jump into conference calls, pull up Salesforce data, see LinkedIn profiles, even get maps to meetings or send notes to all the attendees. This little [free!] app is super powerful and worth checking out.

I love productivity apps, so if you have one, feel free to post it in the comments.

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!