Making your next move

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Think before acting

On Sunday, I had a brief conversation with a recent college grad who is pursuing her first full-time job post school. As someone who has recently been through a period of unemployment and recently taken a new position (10 years removed from college), I figured I could give her some advice, or at least my perspective.
We connected on a Hangout, and I was impressed with how she’s approaching her search. Here’s why:
  1. She’s Going for It — as a 22 year old female, she had the balls to move cross country from NC to SF solo. She’s not sitting around for an opportunity to find her but rather is out hustling to connect with the right people and companies, and I think she’s moved to the right place for her chosen industry music tech (though I really have no clue, maybe NYC or LA would work as well). She has clarity on the industry she wants to be in and the stage of company she wants to join, two determining factors that made SF the logical choice.
  2. Following Her Passion — Throughout the 20 minutes we spoke, it was clear to me that she was passionate about music and technology and is firmly focusing on the intersection of the two. This level of focus will suit her well as she’s out networking and talking to folks about what she’s aiming to do. She’ll be in a much stronger position relative to the 90% of other folks who want to “work at a startup”, and her passion will be palpable/inspiring. She has startup experience in the industry, and is certainly entrepreneurial by nature. In the course of our conversation, we were able to frame this as a strength that she will be able to bring to a later-stage business, one of which she is interviewing with this week!
  3. She is Engaging with Mentors — We ended up talking because she had actively engaged with someone who I consider to be a grade A mentor in the Valley. He is in my inbox daily, shared her story in one of his postings, and I reached out offering support. Basically, serendipity occurred because three proactive people became connected simply by engaging with each other.

I really only had two pieces of advice for her, both of which came from my recent experience of being on the job hunt:

  1. Focus on the People — I asked her what skills she wanted to develop in the near future. She struggled to answer this question, which was fine. My advice to her was to focus on the people she would be interacting with / learning from every day. These are the people that will be crucial in her development and who she may just end up working with for the next several years. Basically, she should seek out and cultivate this network as they will serve as her primary catalysts. Pascal Finette (the guy who is in my inbox and who intro’d us) pretty much sums it up here.
  2. Consider Company Stage — I have spent the past 3.5 years in really early stage startups (1st employee and Founder). As I was approaching my next position, I put a decent amount of thought into the stage of company I should join. One of my mentors put it pretty simply when he said “Failing is ok, but don’t make it a habit.” My takeaway from this piece of advice was that I should join a growth-stage company that had made it past hurdles I had not previously been able to clear at my previous companies. I put this out to this new job-seeker and her knee-jerk was “I’m entrepreneurial, how will they react to that?” I framed it as a strength she can bring to a later-stage organization. Even if resources are abundant, I personally think a scrappy approach is always warranted and valued.

If you’re looking for your next thing, I urge you to take some time to think through how it sets you up for your next next move and beyond. View it as a springboard that plays to your strengths and helps you develop new ones.

Be proactive. Be focused. Be networked.

The Numbers Just Don’t Add Up

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Session 1:

“Welcome Doctor.  Please take a seat and we’ll get our first session started.  Please try to be as forthcoming as possible.  No detail is too small.  I would like to focus on the last six months or so and talk about what has led to your visiting me today.”

“Well, as you aware, I was recommended to speak with you due to the incompetence of my former attorney and the presiding judge.”

“Yes, the court order calls for ten sessions.  I also believe the University has a right to increase it to twenty in regards to your situation with them.”

“I imagine ten will be sufficient.  Of course, as you know, I am on temporary leave from the University to pursue other research interests; in fact, I have been revisiting a multitude of theorems I developed long ago as a student and am, without doubt, on the cusp of…”

“I am glad to hear that you are keeping busy.  I am sure the past six months have been very trying for you and your family.  How about we go back to the day when your wife let you know she was seeking a divorce?”

“I have indeed been keeping busy.  Despite already having long ago established myself as the leading authority in the international differential calculus community, I am currently conducting multiple research projects that will completely transform the field.”

“That’s all well and good.  A busy brain is a healthy brain, in most cases.  Now, back to your learning of your wife’s decision to end the marriage, could you please give me a little more detail?”

“She lacks the mental fortitude and tenacity required to problem solve.  I am willing, to this day, and certainly more than able to solve this problem.  A rational, results-driven individual can clearly consult the supporting data and see that the solution is really quite simple.  She has let her emotions enter the equation.  I remain, as always, an objective researcher, whose solutions are not skewed by emotion.”

“While I respect your objectivity as a researcher in the mathematical arena, I would venture to say that emotion, rightfully so, is integral to a successful marriage.  Again, I would appreciate it if you could walk me through the conversation that you two had.”

“There was no conversation.  Of course, in her passive aggressive way, she used a letter to end our marriage, from what I remember it read.”

“I cannot and will not do this anymore.  Your participation in this marriage has been reduced to that of a silent partner.  I have given you ample opportunities to improve our marriage and you have failed.  I feel neglected, unloved, taken for granted, disrespected, undesired as a woman and generally INVISIBLE in your presence.  

These are divorce papers.  I have already signed them and trust that you will do the same and not draw this out.  All that is required to finalize the contract is your signature and the stamp of a notary public. The kids (remember our children?) and I are going to my parents’ house.  Don’t bother lecturing me on the mistake I am making.  I have run the numbers, and they just don’t work. I hope your trip to “Russia” was worth it.”

“Quite the welcome home from my 2-week trip to Russia, a trip she declined to attend despite her parents’ offer to watch the children.  I was being honored at the famed St. Petersburg Institute for Applied Mathematics for my latest breakthrough work.  One might think that my supposed “champion” would find this worthy of making the trip.  Well, anyways, I do not do my work for awards and honors, which have always come quite easily to me.  In brief, I was honored on this occasion for applying a set of my differential equations to artic crabbing to drastically increase fishing success rates while conterminously reducing the inherently high danger rate to the crew.  Don’t worry, I will send you a Lehman’s version, as I do for all of my friends outside of the field.  Of course, I don’t expect you to understand it, but perhaps it will be a nice piece of respected research to show to your colleagues.”

“Ok, I look forward to it, how about we continue on with how this letter made you feel?”

“Do you know the percentage of U.S marriages that result in divorce?”

“Yes, 56%.  I do not consider that to be a meaningful statistic though.  Every situation is different.  Statistics can serve as quite the convenient scapegoat.  I realize that may be blasphemous statement in the ears of a mathematician.”

“I happen to place full faith in statistics and empirical data.  I will share a personal creed of mine with you: “opinion is derivation of the present but data is the child of history and the father of the future.”  That being said, a lesser known statistic is that women file for 78% of these divorces.  Given their inherent emotional fragility, this is not surprising.  What is more interesting though is that women with children are seven times more likely to file for divorce than women without children, this data has been age and marriage tenure adjusted to negate any duration bias.  So you see my point, they take what they need from the man, primely his seed, reproduce, and then remain supported by seizing half of what is rightfully his, what he procured through the means of his own superior abilities and…”

“Ok, Doctor, those are some interesting theories.  I will say that I have not heard that data before in my 25 years in divorce therapy and would be interested in seeing the studies.”

“These are proprietary figures, but I will share them with you.  You can then share the research with your colleagues who are also unaware I suspect.  I could probably even carve out some time to make myself available for a lecture on the topic which would no doubt be highly beneficial for…”

“Doctor, let’s keep in mind that I am no longer a student and, in fact, keep quite busy with my own research projects.  Now, let’s revisit your emotional reaction to the letter, which must have been somewhat surprising despite your knowledge of the data.  I know this may be difficult to talk about as the emotions, no doubt, run quite deep, but please tell me what you can.”

“Knowing the data as I do, I cannot say that the letter I received was wholly unexpected; in fact, it was the statistically probable thing to happen.  It was the terseness and lack of quantitative mettle that was so surprising; it was as if it was written on a whim.  It seemed so emotional and lacking in empirical wherewithal, so very unlike her.   Although, I suppose I had noticed this gradual change in her since she had left the field to care for the children.  Nevertheless, it really struck me here, and I was taken aback.  This was not the mathematician I had married.”

“It was the last sentence that really stung.  “I have run the numbers, and they just don’t work”.  I had run the numbers too, far more rigorously I might add, and was aware of the situation.  This is what I get for marrying a fellow mathematician, well, realistically speaking, a former mathematician.  She has not published meaningful research since the birth of child one, approximately a decade ago now.  I suspect this was a driving factor in her growing envy towards me.”

“Let’s discuss the significance of the letter’s last sentence for a minute.  A non-mathematician may read it as being facetious in nature.  In effect, your wife telling you that she is done with the numbers.  Possibly her well being and happiness in life, and that of her family as well, depend on more than just numbers.”

“Are you aware that facetious is the only word in the English language with all five vowels in sequential order?  The spelling is F-A-C-E-T-IOU-S.”

“That is certainly an interesting piece of what many would deem useless information, but this is not my point.  It seems as if…”

“Well, actually most people just assume incorrectly that it is the only word with such a unique characteristic, a single point of tangency to lyrical genius if you will.  In fact, I have coined several words in my research that are equally substantially more impressive in their vowel linearity: ganterious, nalembivotun, and yaeiously, just to name a few.”

“Doctor, my point is that your wife was poking you in the eye with this statement.  To her, the statistical analysis is null and void.  To her, this was a marriage, not an equation.”

“Her filing was her way of one-upping me, asserting the superiority of her analysis of our marriage, her attempt to prove to me that she is still relevant in the field.  I can guarantee you that her divorce analysis will never be published.  Mine, on the other hand, is already well established, and I am currently in consultations with my new attorney on releasing the analysis I conducted on my prenuptial agreement.”

“I would certainly appreciate hearing how you arrived at this nonsensical conclusion.”

“Despite our being peers, so to speak, in the highly competitive field of differential calculus, we were always each others’ champions; at least we claimed we were, both to each other and to the outside world.  I was sincere in my wishes for her success and recognition.   I rewrote much of her research for her, without her even having to ask me.  Additionally, our matrimony itself and her concurrent privilege of assuming my last name gave a seal of credibility to her work.”

“I didn’t feel that she ever truly appreciated what I did for her professionally.  I now realize it as an inherent jealousy.  I am not one to employ hindsight bias, but all data guide me to the absolutely certain conclusion that she was jealous from day one.”  I have discussed this with colleagues and shown them my supporting analyses; they are all in agreement with me.”

“Hmmm, I see, so the key drivers of this divorce were her jealousy of your mathematical accomplishments and her ingratitude to your role in furthering her position in the field?”

“Primarily, but there were other intervening factors.”

“Ok, well I’m glad you acknowledge that.  Please expand on that for me.”

“As you are aware, mathematics needs me.  As such, I am a mathematician above all; it is my calling and, thus, my duty.  To her credit, she too realized this; of course, it would have been impossible not to.  Yet, realization and acceptance are not always complementary.  She could not accept it and it destroyed her marriage and frankly any chance she had of re-establishing herself in the field.”

“So, it sounds like your responsibilities as a husband and father took a back seat to your professional endeavors.  How do you think this made your wife and children feel?”

“Obviously her reaction was jealousy and an unwillingness to compromise.  The children are, as you would expect, very proud of their father.  They have been photographed in the newspaper with me, and I present them with a piece of my research on their birthdays each year.  I have already committed to each of them that I will assist in their University placements when they are of age.  I suspect that we will grow closer as they age and truly realize all that I have done for them.”

“Ok, Doctor, our time is up.  Given how we ended this session, I would like to talk some more about your relationship with your children next week.  We will also delve further into the relationship you and your wife used to share as well as the events that led to your dismissal from the University.”

1st-time CEO learnings (vol. 3)

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Me as Gumby, not all too relevant

a 3 part series detailing what I’ve learned as a 1st-timer

Volume 3 of 3

1. Do Shit that Matters

2. Define Success

3. Manage Like a Boss

Vol. 1 | Vol. 2

1. Do Shit that Matters

Macro

Shit that matters to you personally, to society at large, to a grouping of people/orgs. (your market, your contributors). Your vision must matter and must resonate across all of these, and it starts with you.

Be thoughtful here and generate answers for yourself. These answers are for you first and foremost. So, ask yourself what matters to you. Then ask why. Then prioritize them and select one to focus on solving. Then ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for it? Once you have your answers, get started doing something that matters. Note: this thought process is not time wasted. Better to know what matters to you out of the gates rather than 18 months down the road…

You do not found a startup to do something marginally better. You may start a small business or side business to do so. In a startup, you are out to disrupt and be massively/radically (1ox) better than what exists today. You exist to be big, bold, exciting, crazy and inspiring.

So, how much does what you’re doing with your business really matter to you? Are you attacking a BFP (big fucking problem), the mere existence of which you consider to be abhorrent?

Micro

Determine and do shit that matters to your business. This is how you execute daily, weekly, quarterly, annually, up until you are no longer running this business.

  1. Focus — Create strategic plans with goals and tactical action items so you can move the ball toward making your vision reality. Don’t waste your time with fake progress; don’t make up work because it feels good. Do the important things, the hard things, the things that matter.
  2. Accountability — You need to hold yourself and your team accountable so you don’t get sidetracked. You do not have the luxury of wasting time. Set and communicate goals. Work toward milestones along the way. Demand that others hold you accountable and don’t let you slip.
  3. Progress — Maintain an eye on and measure progress. Demand it. Celebrate it. Crave it. You and your team need measurable results that don’t lie.

2. Define Success

For Yourself

You control what kind of life you lead. Of course, external forces affect your course, but you control the roadmap. Relish that fact and expend the mental cycles required to chart your course. Do not let others define your life and what constitutes success for you. Find like-minded people that share your values and definition of success and connect with them to live a successful life, whatever that is for you.

For me, I know I want to have a meaningful impact much larger than myself. I’m good at connecting people and encouraging others in their pursuits, and I am energized by new experiences (much more so than new things). Success for me includes serving as a catalyst for others to fulfill their visions, including my family, my future family, those in my network, and just about anyone else I run across who is hustling to make things happen. For me, success is being instrumental in others’ success.

One exercise here is writing your obituary.

For Your Business

Defining success for your business before you start it gives you another decision-making filter for all the aspects of that business and the compromises you have to make along the way. It, along with your vision, constitute your North Star.

As I said earlier when I told you to take care of yourself, your business is not your life. It’s one piece, and it’s on you to fit it into the overall picture of the life you’re painting. If, for you, selling a company for $1 billion constitutes success, that’s all good! So, assuming that’s your measure of success, take the steps to create a company where that can be a realistic outcome.

That very well could mean running a smaller business as a first step if you’re focused on the outcome of selling that business and achieving a positive ROI for your investors to position yourself into a VC-fundable CEO for your big thing. That’s only one course. There are many others you can take, but there is only one measure of success. You should view it as if you don’t achieve that, you have failed, which is also just fine. It just means, you’ll probably be at it again with more learnings to build your $1 billion business.

3. Manage Like a Boss

You are the CEO, which means you are the boss of everyone involved in helping you build your business (team, advisors/mentors, investors). You have to manage up and down your support system, which involves a mix of:

Communicating

Strive to be an excellent communicator. You do not have to be a guru of interpersonal relationships; you do have to communicate with confidence and purpose. This entails being proactive, establishing a cadence, knowing your audience, being a good listener, being an engaging storyteller (this can come in many forms) and getting to the meat of/not clouding issues.

As you can probably realize from this post, I tend to over-communicate, which is both good and bad. I like to make sure everyone on my team has a clear picture of what’s going on and why we’re doing what we’re doing at any given point. I want my team members to be empowered, invigorated and accountable with clarity as to how I expect them to add value. I value transparency, but I have learned I must, at times, temper my gut reaction to overshare, as it can be counterproductive and even damaging.

We all know startups are hard but, as CEO, you must paint a positive picture for your business. Share your struggles for the purpose of getting help with solving them and always bring a solution to the table. Being overly negative (or even realistic) can be demoralizing for your team and sow doubt in the minds of your investors/advisors. So, be real with yourself and your team

Delegating

Delegation starts with trust. It’s the only way you can cede control of the reins and focus on the most important thing you can be doing at any given time. You cannot do it all forever. You are not the best at everything. You must rely on your team to GSD. Provide instruction, motivation, support, and get out of the way. Understanding what makes your team members tick, what gets them into a flow state, is very valuable here.

Pissing people off

As CEO, you have to have the hard conversations and make the unpopular decisions. So, put on your big boy pants, be diplomatic and act decisively knowing that you are only doing what you believe to be the best courses of action for your business. Then, have a beer with your team or go do some yoga and don’t beat yourself up.

That’s it for this series. You can visit my blog to check out my other writing and connect with me. Thanks for reading! -BP

1st-time CEO learnings (vol. 2)

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a 3 part series detailing what I’ve learned as a 1st-timer

Volume 2 of 3

1. This is War

2. Compromising as your craft

3. Take Care of Yourself

Volume 1 (in case you missed it)

1. This is War

Please bear with my hyperboles here, this is fucking war soldier!!! Approach it as such. Let’s see what you’re up against.

Your Problem — The Objective

Identify a problem, the existence of which you find to be so fucked up that you simply can’t stop yourself from acting. Inaction would be unconscionable. You’re bringing it up in every conversation, subjecting yourself to its awfulness, starving to connect with the people it’s preying upon to go deeper with it, and imagining/preaching/creating a world where nobody has to feel the pain it causes.

This is the level of irrational enthusiasm you need to have for your problem because that is what will catapult you out of bed every day to sustain your assault to ensure its demise and your business’ success.

Do not

Do yourself (or those you convince to join you) the disservice of solving a problem you’re only ho-hum about. I fell into this bucket, and, believe me, it’s an easy one to drown in. You have to keep pumping yourself up to stay afloat, which is no way to prosper. I want you to be standing on top of tables, screaming at people, over the top maniacal about the problem you’re solving. That level of crazy is infectious, intriguing and a mother to beat down (and you will get severely beat down along the way). Your problem, that leach of all that is good, is what keeps you getting up.

Here are some questions to run your problem through:

  1. What are the negative consequences of its existence?
  2. Who specifically is impacted by them?
  3. How big of a deal is it for those victims? How are they currently coping Are they screaming out for mercy or resolved to apathy?
  4. What does a problem-solved world look like? How much better is it in measurable terms?
  5. Are you creating a problem to fulfill a solution you want to create?
  6. How is your problem currently being addressed and by whom? Why is that not sufficient?

Your Market — The Arena

Know what market(s) you are participating in and all that it encompasses — the history, the players, the biggest challenges (your opportunities), the pecking order, the alliances, who’s sued who, how business gets done, give me some more…

I do not subscribe that you have to be in a market where you have domain expertise. It can certainly be beneficial and radically reduce your barriers to success, but being a wide-eyed noob can bring its own benefits. As a market noob (new entrant), you are starting in the basement and have a shitload to learn. It’s your responsibility to become a domain expert by throwing yourself in full-bore.

Study. Question. Participate. Connect. Impact. Evolve. If you felt your market were fine just the way it is, you likely wouldn’t be there in the first place. So, remember, you’re here to shake shit up!

Your Customers — The Citizens

The tribal elders, the women and children, the taxpayers — your customers are your key constituency. You must listen to them, you must serve and protect them and you must get paid by them.

They are the court of public opinion. Without them, you are nothing. They are bigger and stronger than you, but they are a victim of your problem. You, yes YOU, have taken the reins to be their savior. Act like it!

You must balance leading and following them. Be a benevolent and inspiring force for good in their life and recognize that, without them, your tour is up.

Your Competition — Propaganda

Competitors are mere distractions in your arena and by focusing on them, you only make them stronger. Be up to speed, aware and vigilant of the competition and the noise they’re spreading in your market. Collect intel on them, liaise with them and see how you can use them to your advantage, but do not obsess over them.

Remember, the problem is your ultimate objective. Maintain laser focus on eliminating it while being a hero for your customers. That is how you will shut down your competition.

2. Compromising as Your Craft

Obvious: you have to make compromises in business to manage your resources, your bandwidth, your priorities, your sanity. As a startup CEO, you are often resource-constrained across the board — human, financial, time. You need to be able to reach compromises to make the most of your limited resources. You also need to coach your team in the craft of compromising, on both an individual and aggregate basis (across roles and teams).

Be Methodical

At different stages, you will have to make the tough compromises regarding your team (human resources), product (IP), finances (lifeline) and time (planning vs. executing). Careful, efficient consideration and cost-benefit analysis are required before you select a compromise. This is not a zero-sum game and there is no arbitrage, so understand and articulate the trade-offs (sacrifices) you are making and have conviction in your decisions.

Team

I have to admit I didn’t fully buy in to the importance of team before running my own company. That now sounds ridiculous to me, but at one point, I questioned the need of Co-founders and top talent. I figured I could muscle through on my own. I figured everyone was coachable. I figured wrong. There is no such thing as a minimum viable team.

Let’s start with your founding team. Dev, design, sales | hustler & hacker | mouse-trap builder, biz ops, go-to-market. These are roles you need to have covered on your founding team in some combination, which vary dependent upon what kind of business you’re in. What doesn’t vary is the need to contemplate and construct an aligned founding team.

Noam Wasserman of Harvard Business School has been studying Founders for 15 years now. He got on this beat by questioning why companies with seemingly unfair advantages fail. They may have a kick-ass product in a big-ass market with a smart-ass team, yet things didn’t go as planned. Money was burned, products were sunsetted and companies shut down.

What gives? Noam has found that 2/3rd of these failures are directly attributable to broken team dynamics. Guess what — these dynamics are in your control and the onus is on you to consider them before and during the life of your business. Noam has put together a survey here, which goes beyond just building your team into what kind of company you are really out to build (and why).

Positively, he’s found that this failure can be mitigated by doing your work up-front by having the hard conversations and making the compromises that might contribute to setting your company up for success.

Beyond the founding team, you need to construct and execute a hiring plan that takes into account what you’re trying to accomplish, when, where the holes are in your team and what resources you have (or need to acquire) to execute your hiring plan.

“Hire Fast, Fire Faster.”

I’ve been stung by both sides of this mantra by doing one and not doing the other. Be careful with hiring fast. Don’t be pushed into adding resources you’re not comfortable with and do not hire out of fear “shit, we need a [fill in position]. I’ll take anyone”. Strive to develop a hiring process that fits for the culture you’re creating.

Do fire fast. Give resources the opportunity to improve. Communicate with them what improvement looks like. If they are not improving, cut the cord. It’s best for all parties involved. In an early-stage startup, I believe it’s important to acquire team members that have been in the early-stage startup game before.

Product

MVP is real. It’s how you productize an idea and get it in potential customers’ hands in a tangible form, maybe even one they’ll pay for, as efficiently as possible. Avoid bloat and hemming and hawing. Set a narrow scope and execute on it. This is where compromising on features and communication (and embracing) of the shitiness of this version of the product are crucial. You and your team must be comfortable with what you’re putting out and must explain to everyone outside the company why A-Z aren’t going into the product right now.

Don’t get stuck with it View your MVP solely as a learning platform, not a milestone, and work your ass off to move beyond it as quickly as possible to the next iteration, again using a narrow scope of improvement (you may even end up releasing a slimmed down product). The communication and compromises between sales and product within your organization are crucial here. Sales wants more from the product. Product/engineering wants less (generally). You must get them to meet in the middle to keep moving the ball forward. Keep doing this!

Financial Resources

The cash you have in your bank is a finite resource. You are merely a custodian of this resource, and you have a fiduciary duty to manage it with care. Summon your inner miser and always be pushing to do more with less.

I personally hate it when someone’s gut reaction is to throw money at a problem. To me, it’s lazy and symptomatic of big-company thinking, where the coffers are open. This is where resourcefulness comes into play, and you do the hard work to scrap out progress. For example, don’t blow $20k on stock legal docs. Write your own and/or tweak existing and have your attorney review them. It will take more of your time, but in my book, that’s worth the savings.

However, sometimes it does make sense to spend money to acquire other resources — people aren’t free, repeat with me, people aren’t free and distribution (getting customers) is often not free. If you need more manpower, budget for it. If you have a compelling ROI for acquiring and converting users, pay for them rather than expecting them to just show up.

Time

What is the most important thing you can be working on right now? Are you working on that thing or attacking less meaningful tasks because they’re less intimidating or sitting on your never-ending to do list?

The compromise here is learning to say “NO” to yourself and to others. Seriously, start saying “no”. Don’t go to that meetup. Don’t take that meeting. Instead, focus on your most important thing and see it through to completion. I definitely struggled with this in my last company and am certain I will continue to struggle with it going forward. The first step is having the self-awareness to admit you struggle with managing your time/priorities followed by developing having the self-discipline to focus.

It is paramount to utilize this framework for GSD while remaining nimble with your priorities. Do not downplay the importance of strategizing and do not overdo it to the point of not executing on your plans. There is a balance to be found here, and you have to bake it into your and your company’s DNA.

3. Take Care of Yourself

Take it from a workaholic who is striving for work-life balance. Your business is very, very important, and it demands just about all of you. And you probably demand too much from yourself most of the time.

That said, your business is not your life. Bottom line, it’s not. It’s not why people love you or why they’re friends with you or why you’re interesting or a good person. It’s just one thing you do, which happens to take up more of your time and energy than anything else.

It can only give you so much. You have to give yourself the rest. I will not wax on here. But prioritize exercise, disconnecting, dedicated time with the people that care about you (and who miss you, not your company, well yes your company, but hell you know what I’m getting at).

Lastly, HAVE SEX. Don’t let that slip. How you want to accomplish that, I’ll leave up to you. I’m in a committed relationship, so I have some latent demand if I can ramp the supply. However, I do need to be intentional about being around to provide the supply.

Be intentional about making these things happen and having a life outside of your business. Your business is a means to an end for what you want to accomplish in life.

That’s it for volume 2. I’ll be posting volume 3 in the next day or two. I’ve got the whole shebang in one long-ass post on my blog if you want to take down the whole thing in one sitting.

1st-time CEO learnings (vol. 1)

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a 3 part series detailing what I’ve learned as a 1st-timer

Volume 1 of 3 (9 minute read)

Volume 2: https://medium.com/denver-startup-community/1st-time-ceo-learnings-vol-2-beb11324a42c#.zaop18pnf (9 minute read)

Volume 3: https://medium.com/denver-startup-community/1st-time-ceo-learnings-vol-3-8c0e1b4b0f7f#.2ar9llxyp (5 minute read)

1. Why I’ve Written This

Ten weeks ago I transitioned out of the CEO role at a startup I co-founded 18 months ago. I am sharing my thoughts here in at attempt to distill what I have learned from my first term as a startup CEO. It’s a cathartic exercise for me, and I hope you can derive some value from it and add your 2 cents to this list of considerations.

Running a company is damn hard, often lonely and possibly the best way to learn about yourself if you so desire — the good, the bad and the ugly. Transitioning out has been humbling, liberating, confusing, exciting and probably some other “ings” and has provided me with the excess brain capacity (and time) to get introspective.

I am taking these learnings forward with me with the aim of coming not only a bit more seasoned but also substantially more prepared to all endeavors I choose to pursue from here on out.

So, here are some things I’ve learned…

2. Be the Expert, NOT the “yes man”

I landed on Ace Ventura as best Jim Carrey character to emulate as a CEO. He was driven by his passion, his insanity was alluring and he did not let anything stand in his way to get shit done.

ˈyes-ˌman: a person (especially a man) who agrees with everything that someone says; a person who supports the opinions or ideas of someone else in order to earn that person’s approval.


As a CEO, you have access to really smart people, some of whom serve as instrumental supporters for you and your business as investors, advisors or mentors. You also have the responsibility and difficult ongoing task of extracting maximum value from these resources. I failed to do this.

Set yourself up for success by being a proactive, vocal leader and an ever-striving expert on your business, not a yes man who is all ears and along for the ride.

What do your supporters offer you and your business?

  1. Value — Some combination of their valuable time, mental energy, networks, emotions, expertise, reputation and possibly money that they invest into you and your business.
  2. Risk — Their own wide-ranging opinions based on their experiences. With these come the potential for off-basis suggestions, inherent biases and unrealistic expectations. Protect yourself from whiplash.

Do your best to understand and communicate your situation and its similarities / differences as compared to your supporters’ experiences. It is human nature that we pull from what we know, it’s easier. That does not mean it’s appropriate or a sure-fire recipe for success.

At the end of the day, you are receiving data. You must decide how to apply it to your business.

Top 3 Things I did Wrong

  1. Played second fiddle (more like fourth fiddle) — By this, I mean I failed to lead my supporters at times given the lack of confidence I had in myself to do so. “They’ve been here before. Surely what they say is gold!”
  2. Felt the responsibility and pressure to satisfy/impress — I focused more on proving my worth rather than establishing myself as the expert leading them to provide maximum value.
  3. Got complacent and lost a predictable cadence — Sure, I would send email updates, but I got less pointed with my asks, did not proactively call meetings and sometimes found myself communicating reactively. Time between communication increased, frequency of interaction decreased and confidence in me ultimately deteriorated for some.

Bottom line — I did not set the stage or provide the playbook to foster maximize the valuable of my support network.

6 Takeaways for CEO’s

  1. Lead with passion — This is how you keep your supporters excited, engaged and on their toes. A little bit of crazy goes a long way. Don’t make supporting you another boring chore.
  2. Define and nurture these relationships — The expectations, roles & responsibilities, accountability. You must lead this and not let it slip. At the end of the day, your supporters are working for you, not the other way around.
  3. Be results-oriented — As CEO, you have not recruited your supporters so you can stroke their egos and be regaled. You have done so because you believe they can help you with your job, which is to achieve results for the business.
  4. Be the expert — No investor, advisor, mentor has as much knowledge of what you and your team are doing every day to build a successful business as you do as CEO. You do not look for them to provide vision. You leverage their expertise for fresh perspective and to tackle problems at hand.
  5. Over-communicate — Given that there is a knowledge disparity, as CEO, it is your responsibility (and only your responsibility) to close the knowledge gap by being an excellent, proactive communicator to the point of annoyance.
  6. Be your best supporter — Learn to listen to and trust the advisor who’s been with you the longest — your gut.

3. Be Reckless

If you are not part of the 4.7% of people on the planet who have access to internet and have watched this, do so (after finishing this piece) — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6DmHGYy_xk

ˈre-kləs: marked by lack of proper caution; careless of consequences

Do you view the above definition as positive or negative? If you have taken a startup CEO position, you likely have above average risk tolerance. Live up to it and throw caution to the wind!

Fail Fast

It’s not just a school of thought, it’s the mentality that you as CEO must embrace (and get your team to embrace) to execute on the business. Create your own urgency and use it to get shit done. Launch your product FAST, go after customers FAST, test distribution channels FAST and make your mark FAST (before someone else does).

Be Aggressive

Don’t be scared to try anything or reach out to anyone. Don’t wait around for others to notice you. Toot your own damn horn and know that there’s only upside in doing so!

Mistakes as an Asset

When you’re moving fast, you will make mistakes. These mistakes may be painful and costly at times, realize that. In the moment, they will, of course, seem more severe than they likely are. They also may be the best seedlings for learning fast and moving toward getting things right(er).

And, most importantly, do not just fail fast, fail forward. Leverage your mistakes, your failures, your pain as motivation for continuous growth and improvement. Do this and nothing can hold you down.

4. Raise with Caution

This one really needs volume to do it justice. Such a baller – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlrcAfheHqo

I know I just said to be reckless in, but when it comes to bringing outside capital inside your business, be completely dialed in. Here’s how…

Check Yourself

Oh Jean-Ralphio, oh many a startup CEO (including me). You get that first chunk of money into your bank account somehow (not always from selling to actual, paying customers), and you’re off to the races. But, hold up…

Have you trained enough on your own dimes and sweat to get you and your business ready for the race? What kind of race is it? Do you have a line of sight to the next stations at which your train will be arriving (and when), or are you on a pulsating rocket ship that just needs to be gassed up for it’s trip to the moon? Be contemplative and real here because the second you take that money (which likely is not customer money), the clock is ticking.

Get Yourself Comfortable First

I believe I raised money too early. Basically, I was uncomfortable (for a long time) with our not having any semblance of product-market fit prior to raising our first round and for several months after as we were burning investor cash (and not generating revenue). And, guess what, after you raise money, talking about looking for product-market fit is not something a lot of investors are all that interested in hearing from you. So, how could I have gotten myself comfortable?

By Determining What’s Meaningful

We had built an MVP and put it into private beta with a couple hundred unengaged users when we took our first slug of outside capital from friends and family and angels. That’s a pretty low hurdle to get over. How do I know our private beta users were unengaged? Because they were doing me a favor by signing up and giving feedback, not raving about how the product was solving a problem for them, and they weren’t paying me! In hindsight, that is not a recipe for proper demand validation or a compelling traction story.

Basically, I had shown that I could pull together the resources to get a product up and out the door, but I had bluffed on the level of demand and my understanding of and ability to acquire customers who would be drooling all over themselves to buy (or even sign up for) our offering.

We did not have any revenue. I had a quasi clear (read: unproven and loosely defined) path to it, but I was not aggressive enough in pursuing it. In short, I had not adequately validated real demand for our offering and had no sense for the unit economics of our business. Raising money too early (subjective) puts your company on a different course, maybe not one you even want to pursue and can actually make failing fast more difficult IMO.

This may be ok for some, but I’m a better truth-teller than shit-seller, and I operate with more confidence with a bird and real data in hand.

By not being solely focused on my (would be) customers, I missed out on a vital opportunity to:

  1. Really hone in on, adjust and communicate our value prop in a repeatable, compelling fashion
  2. Make customers delighted to pay me by living their pain and solving it the right way
  3. Have a clear path to world domination that would give investors wobbly knees and open checkbooks.

Empathize with Investors

Not all investors are created equal. It’s on you as CEO to understand what type of investors you want/do not want and why and what each investor you’re corresponding with truly wants from your business as one of their investments. Be clear on what type of business they believe they are investing in, and if it doesn’t jive with the type of business you are out to build, you may not belong in their portfolio.

It really does seem that there are some investors that are just in it for the fun and to be involved with something cool. Whether that’s true or not should not matter one iota to you. If you take money, you are in business to return it and then some. That’s both fun and cool for all investors!

My friend and fellow Startup CEO Adam Rentschler has put together this great deck that I hope will help you understand the investor-entrepreneur relationship from a different perspective and how you can approach it with empathy and intelligence.

Know Your Shit

Before bringing others along on this joy ride, be honest with yourself about where your business stands. Know both what you know and what you don’t know. Know what’s primarily responsible for keeping you up at night. It’s certainly okay (and possibly welcome) not to know things. It’s not okay to not be striving to figure them out as quickly as you can.

Investors love to ask questions and poke holes; they don’t just love it, it’s their duty as an investor. You should crave their inquiries and be confident that you are the expert on your business. Here’s a braindump of questions you should be asking yourself and formulating answers that you can articulate in your sleep:

  1. Learning — What hypotheses did you set out with? What have you proven/disproven? What have been your key learnings? What are your hypotheses now?
  2. Executing — How have you taken your learnings and acted upon them? What have you really accomplished to date? Have Real milestones that show you are a de-risking machine!
  3. Planning — Why are you raising money now? What are you planning to do with it? I suggest a financial model with hiring and marketing plans. I’m happy to help you build it if you’re struggling with this deliverable.

Now, go out and raise some money or don’t just yet (or ever).

That’s it for volume 1. I’ll be posting volume 2 in the next day or two. I’ve got the whole shebang in one long-ass post on my blog if you want to take down the whole thing in one sitting.

What I’ve learned as a first-time CEO

Standard

michelangelo-learning Reader beware: This is a beefy piece that spans my 18 months of experience as a first-time CEO. I’ve split this piece into a series of 3 published on Medium. Here are the links:

  1. Part 1 of 3
  2. Part 2 of 3
  3. Part 3 of 3

Why I’ve Written This

Ten weeks ago I transitioned out of the CEO role at a startup I co-founded 18 months ago. I am sharing my thoughts here in at attempt to distill what I have learned from my first term as a startup CEO. It’s a cathartic exercise for me, and I hope you can derive some value from it and add your 2 cents to this list of considerations. Running a company is damn hard, often lonely and possibly the best way to learn about yourself if you so desire – the good, the bad and the ugly. Transitioning out has been humbling, liberating, confusing, exciting and probably some other “ings” and has provided me with the excess brain capacity (and time) to get introspective. I am taking these learnings forward with me with the aim of coming not only a bit more seasoned but also substantially more prepared to all endeavors I choose to pursue from here on out. So, here are some things I’ve learned…

1. Be the Expert, NOT the “yes man”

I landed on Ace Ventura as best Jim Carrey character to emulate as a CEO. He was driven by his passion, his insanity was alluring and he did not let anything stand in his way to get shit done.

\ˈyes-ˌman\: a person (especially a man) who agrees with everything that someone says; a person who supports the opinions or ideas of someone else in order to earn that person’s approval. As a CEO, you have access to really smart people, some of whom serve as instrumental supporters for you and your business as investors, advisors or mentors. You also have the responsibility and difficult ongoing task of extracting maximum value from these resources. I failed to do this. Set yourself up for success by being a proactive, vocal leader and an ever-striving expert on your business, not a yes man who is all ears and along for the ride.

What do your supporters offer you and your business?

  1. Value — Some combination of their valuable time, mental energy, networks, emotions, expertise, reputation and possibly money that they invest into you and your business.
  2. Risk — Their own wide-ranging opinions based on their experiences. With these come the potential for off-basis suggestions, inherent biases and unrealistic expectations. Protect yourself from whiplash.

Do your best to understand and communicate your situation and its similarities / differences as compared to your supporters’ experiences. It is human nature that we pull from what we know, it’s easier. That does not mean it’s appropriate or a sure-fire recipe for success. At the end of the day, you are receiving data. You must decide how to apply it to your business.

Top 3 Things I did Wrong

  1. Played second fiddle (more like fourth fiddle) — By this, I mean I failed to lead my supporters at times given the lack of confidence I had in myself to do so. “They’ve been here before. Surely what they say is gold!”
  2. Felt the responsibility and pressure to satisfy/impress — I focused more on proving my worth rather than establishing myself as the expert leading them to provide maximum value.
  3. Got complacent and lost a predictable cadence — Sure, I would send email updates, but I got less pointed with my asks, did not proactively call meetings and sometimes found myself communicating reactively. Time between communication increased, frequency of interaction decreased and confidence in me ultimately deteriorated for some.

Bottom line — I did not set the stage or provide the playbook to foster maximize the valuable of my support network.

6 Takeaways for CEO’s

  1. Lead with passion — This is how you keep your supporters excited, engaged and on their toes. A little bit of crazy goes a long way. Don’t make supporting you another boring chore.
  2. Define and nurture these relationships — The expectations, roles & responsibilities, accountability. You must lead this and not let it slip. At the end of the day, your supporters are working for you, not the other way around.
  3. Be results-oriented — As CEO, you have not recruited your supporters so you can stroke their egos and be regaled. You have done so because you believe they can help you with your job, which is to achieve results for the business.
  4. Be the expert — No investor, advisor, mentor has as much knowledge of what you and your team are doing every day to build a successful business as you do as CEO. You do not look for them to provide vision. You leverage their expertise for fresh perspective and to tackle problems at hand.
  5. Over-communicate — Given that there is a knowledge disparity, as CEO, it is your responsibility (and only your responsibility) to close the knowledge gap by being an excellent, proactive communicator to the point of annoyance.
  6. Be your best supporter — Learn to listen to and trust the advisor who’s been with you the longest – your gut.

2. Be Reckless

If you are not part of the 4.7% of people on the planet who have access to internet and have watched this, do so (after finishing this piece) — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6DmHGYy_xk

If you are not part of the 4.7% of people on the planet who have access to internet and have watched this, do so (after finishing this piece) — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6DmHGYy_xk

\ˈre-kləs\: marked by lack of proper caution; careless of consequences Do you view the above definition as positive or negative? If you have taken a startup CEO position, you likely have above average risk tolerance. Live up to it and throw caution to the wind!

Fail Fast

It’s not just a school of thought, it’s the mentality that you as CEO must embrace (and get your team to embrace) to execute on the business. Create your own urgency and use it to get shit done. Launch your product FAST, go after customers FAST, test distribution channels FAST and make your mark FAST (before someone else does).

Be Aggressive

Don’t be scared to try anything or reach out to anyone. Don’t wait around for others to notice you. Toot your own damn horn and know that there’s only upside in doing so!

Mistakes as an Asset

When you’re moving fast, you will make mistakes. These mistakes may be painful and costly at times, realize that. In the moment, they will, of course, seem more severe than they likely are. They also may be the best seedlings for learning fast and moving toward getting things right(er). And, most importantly, do not just fail fast, fail forward. Leverage your mistakes, your failures, your pain as motivation for continuous growth and improvement. Do this and nothing can hold you down.

3. Raise with Caution

This one really needs volume to do it justice. Such a baller. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlrcAfheHqo

This one really needs volume to do it justice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlrcAfheHqo

I know I just said to be reckless, but when it comes to bringing outside capital inside your business, be completely dialed in. Here’s how…

Check Yourself

Oh Jean-Ralphio, oh many a startup CEO (including me). You get that first chunk of money into your bank account somehow (not always from selling to actual, paying customers), and you’re off to the races. But, hold up… Have you trained enough on your own dimes and sweat to get you and your business ready for the race? What kind of race is it? Do you have a line of sight to the next stations at which your train will be arriving (and when), or are you on a pulsating rocket ship that just needs to be gassed up for it’s trip to the moon? Be contemplative and real here because the second you take that money (which likely is not customer money), the clock is ticking.

Get Yourself Comfortable First

I believe I raised money too early. Basically, I was uncomfortable (for a long time) with our not having any semblance of product-market fit prior to raising our first round and for several months after as we were burning investor cash (and not generating revenue). And, guess what, after you raise money, talking about looking for product-market fit is not something a lot of investors are all that interested in hearing from you. So, how could I have gotten myself comfortable?

By Determining What’s Meaningful

We had built an MVP and put it into private beta with a couple hundred unengaged users when we took our first slug of outside capital from friends and family and angels. That’s a pretty low hurdle to get over. How do I know our private beta users were unengaged? Because they were doing me a favor by signing up and giving feedback, not raving about how the product was solving a problem for them, and they weren’t paying me! In hindsight, that is not a recipe for proper demand validation or a compelling traction story. Basically, I had shown that I could pull together the resources to get a product up and out the door, but I had bluffed on the level of demand and my understanding of and ability to acquire customers who would be drooling all over themselves to buy (or even sign up for) our offering. We did not have any revenue. I had a quasi clear (read: unproven and loosely defined) path to it, but I was not aggressive enough in pursuing it. In short, I had not adequately validated real demand for our offering and had no sense for the unit economics of our business. Raising money too early (subjective) puts your company on a different course, maybe not one you even want to pursue and can actually make failing fast more difficult IMO. This may be ok for some, but I’m a better truth-teller than shit-seller, and I operate with more confidence with a bird and real data in hand. By not being solely focused on my (would be) customers, I missed out on a vital opportunity to:

  1. Really hone in on, adjust and communicate our value prop in a repeatable, compelling fashion
  2. Make customers delighted to pay me by living their pain and solving it the right way
  3. Have a clear path to world domination that would give investors wobbly knees and open checkbooks.

Empathize with Investors

Not all investors are created equal. It’s on you as CEO to understand what type of investors you want/do not want and why and what each investor you’re corresponding with truly wants from your business as one of their investments. Be clear on what type of business they believe they are investing in, and if it doesn’t jive with the type of business you are out to build, you may not belong in their portfolio. It really does seem that there are some investors that are just in it for the fun and to be involved with something cool. Whether that’s true or not should not matter one iota to you. If you take money, you are in business to return it and then some. That’s both fun and cool for all investors! My friend and fellow Startup CEO Adam Rentschler has put together this great deck that I hope will help you understand the investor-entrepreneur relationship from a different perspective and how you can approach it with empathy and intelligence.

Know Your Shit

Before bringing others along on this joy ride, be honest with yourself about where your business stands. Know both what you know and what you don’t know. Know what’s primarily responsible for keeping you up at night. It’s certainly okay (and possibly welcome) not to know things. It’s not okay to not be striving to figure them out as quickly as you can. Investors love to ask questions and poke holes; they don’t just love it, it’s their duty as an investor. You should crave their inquiries and be confident that you are the expert on your business. Here’s a braindump of questions you should be asking yourself and formulating answers that you can articulate in your sleep:

  1. Learning — What hypotheses did you set out with? What have you proven/disproven? What have been your key learnings? What are your hypotheses now?
  2. Executing — How have you taken your learnings and acted upon them? What have you really accomplished to date? Have Real milestones that show you are a de-risking machine!
  3. Planning — Why are you raising money now? What are you planning to do with it? I suggest a financial model with hiring and marketing plans. I’m happy to help you build it if you’re struggling with this deliverable. 

Now, go out and raise some money or don’t just yet (or ever).

4. This is War

Please bear with my hyperboles here, this is fucking war soldier!!! Approach it as such. Let’s see what you’re up against.

Your Problem — The Objective

Identify a problem, the existence of which you find to be so fucked up that you simply can’t stop yourself from acting. Inaction would be unconscionable. You’re bringing it up in every conversation, subjecting yourself to its awfulness, starving to connect with the people it’s preying upon to go deeper with it, and imagining/preaching/creating a world where nobody has to feel the pain it causes. This is the level of irrational enthusiasm you need to have for your problem because that is what will catapult you out of bed every day to sustain your assault to ensure its demise and your business’ success.

Do not

Do yourself (or those you convince to join you) the disservice of solving a problem you’re only ho-hum about. I fell into this bucket, and, believe me, it’s an easy one to drown in. You have to keep pumping yourself up to stay afloat, which is no way to prosper. I want you to be standing on top of tables, screaming at people, over the top maniacal about the problem you’re solving. That level of crazy is infectious, intriguing and a mother to beat down (and you will get severely beat down along the way). Your problem, that leach of all that is good, is what keeps you getting up.

Here are some questions to run your problem through:

  1. What are the negative consequences of its existence?
  2. Who specifically is impacted by them?
  3. How big of a deal is it for those victims? How are they currently coping Are they screaming out for mercy or resolved to apathy?
  4. What does a problem-solved world look like? How much better is it in measurable terms?
  5. Are you creating a problem to fulfill a solution you want to create?
  6. How is your problem currently being addressed and by whom? Why is that not sufficient?

Your Market — The Arena

Know what market(s) you are participating in and all that it encompasses — the history, the players, the biggest challenges (your opportunities), the pecking order, the alliances, who’s sued who, how business gets done, give me some more… I do not subscribe that you have to be in a market where you have domain expertise. It can certainly be beneficial and radically reduce your barriers to success, but being a wide-eyed noob can bring its own benefits. As a market noob (new entrant), you are starting in the basement and have a shitload to learn. It’s your responsibility to become a domain expert by throwing yourself in full-bore. Study. Question. Participate. Connect. Impact. Evolve. If you felt your market were fine just the way it is, you likely wouldn’t be there in the first place. So, remember, you’re here to shake shit up!

Your Customers — The Citizens

The tribal elders, the women and children, the taxpayers – your customers are your key constituency. You must listen to them, you must serve and protect them and you must get paid by them. They are the court of public opinion. Without them, you are nothing. They are bigger and stronger than you, but they are a victim of your problem. You, yes YOU, have taken the reins to be their savior. Act like it! You must balance leading and following them. Be a benevolent and inspiring force for good in their life and recognize that, without them, your tour is up.

Your Competition — Propaganda

Competitors are mere distractions in your arena and by focusing on them, you only make them stronger. Be up to speed, aware and vigilant of the competition and the noise they’re spreading in your market. Collect intel on them, liaise with them and see how you can use them to your advantage, but do not obsess over them. Remember, the problem is your ultimate objective. Maintain laser focus on eliminating it while being a hero for your customers. That is how you will shut down your competition.

5. Compromising as Your Craft

Obvious: you have to make compromises in business to manage your resources, your bandwidth, your priorities, your sanity. As a startup CEO, you are often resource-constrained across the board — human, financial, time. You need to be able to reach compromises to make the most of your limited resources. You also need to coach your team in the craft of compromising, on both an individual and aggregate basis (across roles and teams).

Be Methodical

At different stages, you will have to make the tough compromises regarding your team (human resources), product (IP), finances (lifeline) and time (planning vs. executing). Careful, efficient consideration and cost-benefit analysis are required before you select a compromise. This is not a zero-sum game and there is no arbitrage, so understand and articulate the trade-offs (sacrifices) you are making and have conviction in your decisions.

Team

There is no such thing as a minimum viable team. I have to admit I didn’t fully buy in to the importance of team before running my own company. That now sounds ridiculous to me, but at one point, I questioned the need of Co-founders and top talent. I figured I could muscle through on my own. I figured everyone was coachable. I figured wrong. Let’s start with your founding team. Dev, design, sales | hustler & hacker | mouse-trap builder, biz ops, go-to-market. These are roles you need to have covered on your founding team in some combination, which vary dependent upon what kind of business you’re in. What doesn’t vary is the need to contemplate and construct an aligned founding team. Noam Wasserman of Harvard Business School has been studying Founders for 15 years now. He got on this beat by questioning why companies with seemingly unfair advantages fail. They may have a kick-ass product in a big-ass market with a smart-ass team, yet things didn’t go as planned. Money was burned, products were sunsetted and companies shut down. What gives? Noam has found that 2/3rd of these failures are directly attributable to broken team dynamics. Guess what – these dynamics are in your control and the onus is on you to consider them before and during the life of your business. Noam has put together a survey here, which goes beyond just building your team into what kind of company you are really out to build (and why). Positively, he’s found that this failure can be mitigated by doing your work up-front by having the hard conversations and making the compromises that might contribute to setting your company up for success. Beyond the founding team, you need to construct and execute a hiring plan that takes into account what you’re trying to accomplish, when, where the holes are in your team and what resources you have (or need to acquire) to do so.

“Hire Fast, Fire Faster.”

I’ve been stung by both sides of this mantra by doing one and not doing the other. Be careful with hiring fast. Don’t be pushed into adding resources you’re not comfortable with and do not hire out of fear “shit, we need a [fill in position]. I’ll take anyone”. Strive to develop a hiring process that fits for the culture you’re creating. Sidebar: that culture starts with you and your founding team. Do not neglect it or your company will lack identity and you will be lacking a hugely important filter. Do fire fast. It’s best for all parties involved. If you have people on your team that are underperforming, give them the opportunity to improve, but establish a rope that does not go on forever. Communicate with them what improvement looks like (this is on you). If they are not improving, you need to fire them. If they are not a culture fit, you need to fire them. Even if they are an A-plus performer. Cultural misfits can be toxic. One more point: In an early-stage startup, I believe it’s important that the early team members (first 10 maybe?) have been in the early-stage startup game before because it’s a different animal.

Product

MVP is real — It’s how you productize an idea and get it in potential customers’ hands in a tangible form, maybe even one they’ll pay for, as efficiently as possible. Avoid bloat and hemming and hawing. Set a narrow scope and execute on it. This is where compromising on features and communication (and embracing) of the shittiness of this version of the product are crucial. You and your team must be comfortable with what you’re putting out and must explain to everyone outside the company why A-Z aren’t going into the product right now. Don’t get stuck with it — View your MVP solely as a learning platform, not a milestone, and work your ass off to move beyond it as quickly as possible to the next iteration, again using a narrow scope of improvement (you may even end up releasing a slimmed down product). The communication and compromises between sales and product within your organization are crucial here. Sales wants more from the product. Product/engineering wants less (generally). You must get them to meet in the middle to keep moving the ball forward. Keep doing this!

Financial Resources

The cash you have in your bank is a finite resource. You are merely a custodian of this resource, and you have a fiduciary duty to manage it with care. Summon your inner miser and always be pushing to do more with less. I personally hate it when someone’s gut reaction is to throw money at a problem. To me, it’s the easy way out, signals the lack of scrappiness and creativity and is symptomatic of big-company thinking, where the coffers are open. This is where resourcefulness comes into play, and you do the hard, often unglamorous work to scrap out progress and protect your cash. For example, don’t blow $20k on stock legal docs. Write your own and/or tweak existing and have your attorney review them. It will take more of your time, but in my book, that’s worth the savings. Of course, sometimes it does make sense to spend money to acquire other resources – people aren’t free, repeat with me, people aren’t free and distribution (getting customers) is often not free. If you need more manpower, budget for it. If you have a compelling ROI for acquiring and converting users, pay for them rather than expecting them to just show up.

Time

What is the most important thing you can be working on right now? Are you working on that thing or attacking less meaningful tasks because they’re less intimidating or sitting on your never-ending to do list? The compromise here is learning to say “NO” to yourself and to others. Seriously, start saying “no”. Don’t go to that meetup. Don’t take that meeting. Instead, focus on your most important thing and see it through to completion. I definitely struggled with this in my last company and am certain I will continue to struggle with it going forward. The first step is having the self-awareness to admit you struggle with managing your time/priorities followed by developing having the self-discipline to focus. It is paramount to utilize this framework for GSD while remaining nimble with your priorities. Do not downplay the importance of strategizing and do not overdo it to the point of not executing on your plans. There is a balance to be found here, and you have to bake it into your and your company’s DNA.

6. Take Care of Yourself

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsABTmT1_M0 Take it from a workaholic who is striving for work-life balance. Your business is very, very important, and it demands just about all of you. And you probably demand too much from yourself most of the time. That said, your business is not your life. Bottom line, it’s not. It’s not why people love you or why they’re friends with you or why you’re interesting or a good person. It’s just one thing you do, which happens to take up more of your time and energy than anything else. It can only give you so much. You have to give yourself the rest. I will not wax on here. But prioritize exercise, disconnecting, dedicated time with the people that care about you (and who miss you, not your company, well yes your company, but hell you know what I’m getting at). Oh yeah and HAVE SEX. Don’t let it slip. How you want to accomplish that, I’ll leave up to you. I’m in a committed relationship, so I have some latent demand if I can ramp the supply. However, I do need to be intentional about being around and having enough energy to provide the supply. Commit yourself to making these things happen and having a life outside of your business, whatever that is for you. And remember, your business is a means to an end (not the end all-be all) for what you want to get out of life.

7. Do Shit that Matters

Macro

Shit that matters to you personally, to society at large, to a grouping of people/orgs. (your market, your contributors). Your vision must matter and must resonate across all of these, and it starts with you. Be thoughtful here and generate answers for yourself. These answers are for you first and foremost. So, ask yourself what matters to you. Then ask why. Then prioritize them and select one to focus on solving. Then ask yourself how far you’re willing to go for it? Once you have your answers, get started doing something that matters. Note: this thought process is not time wasted. Better to know what matters to you out of the gates rather than 18 months down the road… You do not found a startup to do something marginally better. You may start a small business or side business to do so. In a startup, you are out to disrupt and be massively/radically (10x) better than what exists today. You exist to be big, bold, exciting, crazy and inspiring. So, how much does what you’re doing with your business really matter to you? Are you attacking a BFP (big fucking problem – thank you Daniel Epstein), the mere existence of which you consider to be abhorrent?

Micro

Determine and do shit that matters to your business. This is how you execute daily, weekly, quarterly, annually, up until you are no longer running this business.

  1. Focus — Create strategic plans with goals and tactical action items so you can move the ball toward making your vision reality. Don’t waste your time with fake progress; don’t make up work because it feels good. Do the important things, the hard things, the things that matter.
  2. Accountability — You need to hold yourself and your team accountable so you don’t get sidetracked. You do not have the luxury of wasting time. Set and communicate goals. Work toward milestones along the way. Demand that others hold you accountable and don’t let you slip.
  3. Progress — Maintain an eye on and measure progress. Demand it. Celebrate it. Crave it. You and your team need measurable results that don’t lie.

8. Define Success

For Yourself

You control what kind of life you lead. Of course, external forces affect your course, but you control the roadmap. Relish that fact and expend the mental cycles required to chart your course. Do not let others define your life and what constitutes success for you. Find like-minded people who share your values and definition of success and connect with them to live a successful life, whatever that is for you. For me, I know I want to have a meaningful impact much larger than myself. I’m good at connecting people and encouraging others in their pursuits, and I am energized by new experiences (much more so than new things). Success for me includes serving as a catalyst for others to fulfill their visions, including my family, my future family, those in my network, and just about anyone else I run across who is hustling to make things happen. Boiled down: For me, success is being instrumental in others’ success(es). I reserve the right to add onto or completely change that and so should you for your definition.

For Your Business

Defining success for your business before you start it gives you another decision-making filter for all the aspects of that business and the compromises you have to make along the way. It, along with your vision, constitute your North Star. As I said earlier when I told you to take care of yourself, your business is not your life. It’s one piece, and it’s on you to fit it into the overall picture of the life you’re painting. If, for you, selling a company for $1 billion constitutes success, that’s all good! So, assuming that’s your measure of success, take the steps to create a company where that can be a realistic outcome. That very well could mean running a smaller business as a first step if you’re focused on the outcome of selling that business and achieving a positive ROI for your investors to position yourself into a VC-fundable CEO for your big thing. That’s only one course. There are many others you can take, but there is only one measure of success. You should view it as if you don’t achieve that, you have failed, which is also just fine. It just means, you’ll probably be at it again with more learnings to build your $1 billion business.

9. Manage Like a Boss

You are the CEO, which means you are the boss of everyone involved in helping you build your business (team, advisors/mentors, investors). You have to manage up and down your support system, which does not mean you have to be a prick, but does mean that you have to master:

Communicating

Strive to be an excellent communicator. You do not have to be a guru of interpersonal relationships; you do have to communicate with confidence and purpose. This entails being proactive, establishing a cadence, knowing your audience, being a good listener, being an engaging storyteller (this can come in many forms) and getting to the meat of/not clouding issues. As you can probably realize from this post, I tend to over-communicate, which is both good and bad. I like to make sure everyone on my team has a clear picture of what’s going on and why we’re doing what we’re doing at any given point. I want my team members to be empowered, invigorated and accountable with clarity as to how I expect them to add value. I value transparency, but I have learned I must, at times, temper my gut reaction to overshare, as it can be counterproductive and even damaging. We all know startups are hard but, as CEO, you must paint a positive picture for your business. Share your struggles for the purpose of getting help with solving them and always bring a solution to the table. Being overly negative (or even realistic) can be demoralizing for your team and sow doubt in the minds of your investors/advisors. So, find other CEO’s to be real with and just lie your ass of to everyone else (or don’t).

Delegating

Delegation starts with trust. It’s the only way you can cede control of the reins and focus on the most important thing you can be doing at any given time. You cannot do it all forever. You are not the best at everything. You must rely on your team to GSD. Provide instruction, motivation, support and get out of the way. Understanding what makes your team members tick, what gets them into a flow state, is very valuable here.

Inspiring

If you can’t inspire those who are helping you realize the vision for your business, you aren’t going to make it very far. Now, you don’t have to be the most dynamic person on planet Earth. What you must do is set/sell an exciting vision and rally everyone to buy into the absolute awesomeness of that vision to where they couldn’t be happier to be working their asses off to make it a reality. Bring the passion, the craziness, the “I don’t give a fuck” – this is the kool aid.

Pissing people off

As CEO, you must have the hard conversations and make the unpopular decisions. So, put on your big boy pants, be diplomatic and act decisively knowing that you are only doing what you believe to be the best courses of action for your business. Then, have a beer with your team or go do some yoga and don’t beat yourself up. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. Now, go focus on doing what matters. Keep moving, Brian

What have you learned?

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always-learning-never-failing1People have been asking me this question a lot lately.

Quick backstory: I recently stepped away from a startup, Brandfolder, I co-founded and served as CEO for the past 18 months.

By stepped away, I mean I am no longer the CEO and am not involved with the company in a full-time capacity. I remain an investor, advisor and general supporter of the team.

After 18 months in the trenches, I’m in a state of transition and uncertainty as I contemplate and search for “what’s next”.

The last 10 weeks have been primarily a time of self-reflection and exploration. I want to have concrete answers to “what have you learned?”, “what do you want to do?” and many other questions that both I and others have been asking me during this period of transition.

A big ‘ol, cathartic braindump feels like the best way to go about it. My next post is the (lengthy) beginning of that braindump.

I’m interested to see how it pans out and am open to anyone’s thoughts who may run across what I’ve got going on here.

If you’re interested in learning what I’ve learned and how I’m approaching “So, what’s next?”, you can follow my posts, comment, direct me to good reading (books preferred over articles) or do whatever else you want to do to interact and engage.

keep moving,
Brian

Oh, it’s on…

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So, I was telling some folks tonight how I was getting (back) into blogging.  I was asked directly, “what are you blogging about?”, to which my responses was “whatever I want”.  In writing, that sounds flippant, but when you are able to justify it verbally as in “I just want to write stuff down.  It’s cathartic and it helps me consider stuff more” I think that’s fine.  People get that and hopefully get it to the point that they too will just start typing away.

I inherently enjoy writing.  It’s a fun, rewarding process.  So, my brain goes to “why the hell don’t you do this more often?” .  Maybe b/c it’s hard, don’t know.  More likely b/c it takes time, however little.

I was talking to a new student at gSchool and he mentioned that he was blogging, mandated by the program I think.  To which, my response was “Awesome! They had us do that at DevBootCamp and then it fell off after like 3 weeks b/c people were overwhelmed, but keep with it!”.

I love to hear that Kareem is blogging and that he finds it difficult to execute b/c it is.  Hey, I’m here just trying to write a little bit and it’s damn freaking hard.  It really should not be, but it is.  It’s really a time allocation and persistence thing.  I bet money that, in the near-term, Kareem lets it lapse (understandable given the amount of learning he’s got going on).  I am doggedly determined not to let this happen to me again and to keep this going at at least 1x / week.

And yes I will post content other than about myself blogging, so check in often.

 

Getting back into the groove

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I once again am committing myself to regular writing.  I am not delusional enough to think that everything I put down here will be mind-blowing and exceedingly valuable for all who come across it.  What I’m aiming for is developing a consistent pattern of writing frequency.

I’m working a ton on launching a new company called Brandfolder, click that link, sign up for our private Beta, and you too can have a very useful brandfolder in the not so distant future.  I am thoroughly enjoying it, working with great people, learning as I go, and doing doing doing.  I can honestly say I would not rather be doing anything else, and I am completely confident in what we’re doing and who’s doing it.  But I digress, but not really b/c this is my blog and part of the point is to digress and occasionally plug my company.

The content I’lll be posting here will vary: business-related, personal-related, learning-related, observational, and the majority probably stream of consciousness b/c that’s what I skew toward.  Who knows?  I might even throw a little fiction on here.  My goal is to start out with 1 post per week and hopefully up that frequency as I get into the groove.

The layout and design will likely be quite ugly and under-cared for as that’s not my aim here.  This is all about content generation, developing a rhythm, clearing my brain and catharsis.

Allright, I’ve achieved some of that with this post, so time to wrap it up.  Feels good to put fingers to keyboard to create content outside of an inbox.

Getting down to it

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I had a great conversation with a great friend last night, one Ty Walrod, and we decided that we need to be writing on a daily basis.   Now, I have been doing some writing of late over at http://codesponge.tumblr.com/, but the regularity of my writing has been lacking.  I chalk this up to laziness and the fact that it can be easy to chalk writing up to a non-value add activity, which is the wrong perspective to have.  Writing is high-value add, prob. more so than most things I (you) spend your time doing.  It is easily avoidable because it is difficult to do. Creating content over any medium is difficult and time-consuming ad to get good at it, we must practice.  

So, I have made a commitment to myself and to Ty that I will write everyday about something, shit about anything.  Ty will be doing the same, so we have some nice accountability going on here that should lead to each of us being productive journalers.  At this point, I have no cohesive them to what my writing output will be, but I am excited to see how it progresses and grows and enables me to reflect on the life that I am living.