20 Rules for rookies raising a round
1. Gear your mind
Understand that it will be a pretty intense process that will require more meetings than you’d like and more emails than you’d like. This is not going to be different for anyone. Raising a round is a full time job in and of itself. Get yourself prepared for exactly that and treat it like a side job that is correlated with your company.
2. Understand the game
Getting to your first term sheet is your one goal (leverage). That first term sheet is your building block for what comes after it. Ignore the ten or twenty no’s and get as fast as you can to your first yes.
3. Know why you are raising
Know and communicate clearly how much you are raising, at what valuation or valuation cap, and what that money will go towards (completing x part of the product that will help the product scale to Y, hiring X awesome sales person in your network that has Y relationships). Make sure that your goal of raising is not simply to spend money operationally, but for using money to create more. This seems like an obvious point, but I have had quite a few entrepreneurs come to me to discuss their round and explain that their round was about real estate, team morale spending, and marketing events. I can only imagine the investors they told this to cringing in their seats. Raise early to spend cash on making cash. The cash is always for something that will scale your reach and user acquisition and as such is a better path to a yes.
4. Approach cleanly
Never approach investors directly, unless you already know them very very well. Use your network and the network of your friends and advisors in order to be mentioned to investors as deal flow, then have your startup mentioned to them casually by people they trust, as a good deal with lots of interest from investors. When you do approach don’t ask initially for money. Ask for advice. The old adage is, ask for money you’ll get advice, ask for advice and you’ll get money.
5. Understand their process
You must know how slow or fast an investors diligence process is from day one so that your expectations are not out of line and so that you don’t expect to close while they are not ready to, as one investor can pause or worse jeopardize the commitments of the rest of the syndicate of investors
6. Avoid being VC research
Not all the investors are created equal. The guy you meet at the tech conference that works for the local big time VC according to their fancy card may not actually be an investor. Ask if they are a partner or at least a senior associate able to intro deals to the partnership at the firm with their own vote. Speak to, spend time with, but don’t waste an inordinate amount of time in lengthy meetings with junior associates hoping they will invest, as they usually have no such power and have little to no voice in deal review. If a senior associate tells you they are able to make investments (as can be true at times but rarely) test this by asking what investments they led and which boards they sit on. If possible ask other entrepreneurs they have invested in to confirm they have this input into deal flow and can indeed lead deals. I have met many associates that are extremely helpful and continue to be. If not for two in particular my latest round would not have happened. This advice isn’t to say that you should be dismissive to them, but to temper your expectations of their ability.
7. Investing is social science
Investors invest in people just as much as ideas. Avoid at all costs, your first meeting with an investor being a phone meeting, even if that means the meeting won’t happen for a few weeks later. Avoid this at all costs for your first meeting, because although I have had these meetings go well, they are by order of magnitude harder in every way when they are the first one and they are by phone. If at all possible have them at your office, if you have one, or on neutral ground, but if you have to do it at their office.
8. When convertible debt?
If you are raising without a market engaged product, and with light or no user or customer traction, raise with convertible notes. This will delay the valuation conversation, which invariably will not be good at such at an early stage
9. Your deck will speak in your absence
If someone doesn’t understand your business. That is your fault and not theirs. Make your deck simple, because it will likely be in front of more people than you will. You should model your deck after the simplicity of a children’s story book. Very little words, very obvious plan to win, very beautiful and enjoyable to read. It should be able to talk for you in the case that you aren’t there to explain your business. Trust me me, it will be sent around and in the race against time, can save your energy by rounding up investors for you that have seen it.
10. Make it easy to invest
Send interested investors due diligence before they even ask and have a full packet ready to send, typically you should send this immediately following the first meeting (deal term structure, advisor references, customer references, industry references, financial projections spreadsheet, investor deck, cap table, press clippings, access to a product demo, access to the code base, username and password to your google analytics/kiss metrics/etc.)
11. Create the investment window
Set an opening date and closing date for your round and state it openly with all of the investors you contact. I recommend eight weeks for rookie entrepreneurs (six if you are aggressive, three if you are a former entrepreneur that has already succeeded)
12. Get off the blocks well
Have as many meetings as you can within close proximity of each other during your opening week, with the goal of coming out of them with #2 above (one or more term sheets)
13. Avoid the “homework hole”
If an investor hasn’t committed firmly to investing if a stated criteria is met then do not go on wild goose chases and hours of homework, only to be told they need you to do more once that assignment is done. If you are going to do work, find out what for and what the rules of the game are. A failure to do this will more often than not end up in frustration. If the rules of the game are set, then it is great news and you should with all the energy you can muster go through the process they set for you. If those rules aren’t set up front, look out, you could be in for fruitless homework.
14. Get an answer!
If you can’t get a fast yes, get the next best thing, a fast no (this is a game of time, and attrition)
15. Who do you talk to?
Know who you are raising from before you even start. Every partner at a VC firm is different from each other, so it isn’t as simple as raising from XYZ Ventures just because they do deals in your space. It is knowing the exact partner, how active they are, how many boards they are on (bandwidth to do new deals) and as such is the same dynamic as meeting angel investors. You must also understand the stage that each investor is set up to invest in from seed to early to growth. The worst thing you can do is spin you wheels talking to investors that don’t invest in your space, stage, or are overdrawn and can no longer do your deal.
16. Good pass vs Bad Pass
Do not take a no personally. Some may find your idea to not be a fit with their ability or desire to fund but may have valuable advice and connections to share nonetheless. Some may not be valuable at all and may in fact be rude and down right dismissive. It is best to identify the difference between a good pass and a bad pass and to ignore the rude ones and engage the good ones
17. Coffee meeting? The death of time
Is the investor you are talking to actively investing? This seems like a ridiculous thing to have to ask. They want to meet with you and they are an investor right? You would assume they intend to invest if they like what they hear, but, you should ask if that’s really true. There are some that like to meet just to meet with no intention of investing and/or no cash free to invest. You do not need that waste of time.
18. The numbers game
Understand the ratios before getting discouraged. The rough math I use says that you will have to meet with at least five different investors for every $100k that you raise, and this is the best case scenario. In each of my rounds that I have raised more than $1m, I ended up meeting with at least and more than 50 different investors by count, and in over 100 total meetings. (AngelList and FundersClub are tools that can alleviate some of this sort of inefficiency)
19. Avoid being competitive scoop
Look at the portfolio of the firm, the twitter and linkedin of the angel to find out if they have invested in a competitor. It may very well be that they want to meet you in order to get educated for their next board meeting and to advise their company on how to outflank you or steal pieces of your model. Or it could mean that they love the space intensely and have no intent on harming you, but you must at least be aware of that there is conflict if this is the case.
20. Watch your health
Starting a company is already hard enough. Add to it raising a round and you essentially have almost physically impossible demands. Lessen your alcohol intake, tighten your schedule to ensure proper sleep and exercise, and find healthy hobbies to take your mind off of your startup. There are few things that I have done as an adult that have been more physically and mentally stressful than trying to run the company and raise a round. Both times I gained a few more grey hairs and ten pounds of excess weight that I have to end up working off afterwards.
The Lost Science: Sales Pipeline
"You got leads. Mitch & Murray paid good money. Get their names to sell them. You can’t close the leads you’re given, you can’t close shit, you are shit, hit the bricks pal, and beat it, ‘cause you are going out" - Blake, Glengarry Glen Ross
In this post I will explain why I believe old school sales is still important in this era of startup company building and I won’t stop there, I will also give a detailed response to the issue with next steps that include building a sales pipeline process that works.
So let’s start with the reason behind me writing this post. This is a response to the rise in popularity of marketing and sales automation tools. The tools are great, don’t get me wrong, but as maturity of these tools speeds up so has adoption and as such so has over-reliance. There is no doubt that the ability of these tools is immense, but has the resulting over reliance come with hubris? I think so. Has the combination of tools and sophisticated growth hacking methods created a sense in the startup community that sales as we once knew it, is dead? Again, I think this is happening. You will hear from some that lean is such a good methodology that we can even scale sales as a lean engineering process, right? … . Wrong!
The poor assumptions that undermine attention to proper relationship process:
1. There is an underlying and fundamental belief that the input engine of sales is too squishy and cannot be reliably measured or built in a scientific way. An area of obvious discomfort and subsequent devalue by an engineering dominated culture obviously.
2. The initial sales professional in a startup has a good chance of being weak, this is because they have likely been screened and hired by an engineer, who them self does not have a great grasp of what a sales professional should look like. As many believe regarding how to build teams of engineers, the first engineer in will very likely set the technical tone and the subsequent bar for technical talent for that company. It is the same with sales professionals, Ben Horowitz writes about this in his post here: http://bit.ly/104YZtV
Ben does a masterful job, as always, in explaining his points, and that post is no exception, so I won’t make this post a weak rehash. This post is more to get a little more tactical and to explain the very light science of the sales pipeline, my take on the process and methodology of managing the relationships and opportunities that makeup a companies revenue predictions, and then optimizing it. How do we measure, react, manage, and measure again what is happening to our business funnel.
If had my choice I would have titled this post, “Building the Startup Sales Machine for SMB and Enterprise focused startups: Part 1, Pipeline Programming”. But that title just simply will not work for obvious reasons.
So I write this post to help startups who are selling to SMB’s and enterprises and that are lead by very green sales people, and very few of them to boot (of which there are legion).
Beyond documentation and into action analysis
All startups that plan to go after SMB or enterprise accounts need good sales management, process, and talent. The false assumption mentioned in the opening produces a symptom. An organization driving sales via data, instead of using data as an output, a raw material to be fed back into a process. In this case, this underuse of data, of data, the kind of data that Google analytics, KISS metrics and other similar tools provide, may be one of the single biggest waste materials that a startup produces. Those are snap shots, and unless those snapshots are combined with sales science and re-fed into the system they are limited in their ability to help revenue engine develop, and as a matter of fact are harmful when used this way. Process is the Ferrari, and data is the high octane fuel.
The rule is, you can survive with great process and also-ran sales people, but you canot survive with great sales people and also-ran data or processes in place. With both in place? Well, let’s just say your odds for growth are going to be good. Nevertheless, the one thing that you can control is process, because every sales organization is going to have great sales people and stinkers. So let’s focus on pipeline first (or as some call it, the funnel)>
The first sign that you have a well conceived pipeline management program is that it forces critical inspection at every turn and begs questions like “what is missing here” and “what in the sales process could we have done differently that would have changed the negative outcomes?”
Have a core pipeline philosophy:
Mine has always been based on understanding who
is are the decision maker?No one really wins because of price. OK, I take that back, no one really wins because of value, or vision match to the objective. OK let me restate this again, it’s all of the above plus some. It’s consensus. It’s not the “silver bullet” that most sales people think wins deals. Sales processes don’t have a silver bullet even though managers tell you to look for one. The decision maker is rarely one person, it’s at least two, and some of the time three people. Yes I agree one person will ultimately sign your contract but not without the buy off of others they trust as they evaluate. Who ARE the decision maker? Stop trying to be the (cheapest/most technically sound/ easiest to use) because someone you trust in the sales process has told you that’s their goal. The truth is it’s a little of this this and little of that. If you don’t have two or three people or at least a strong case as to why there is only one person that you’ve pleased enough, then you’re likely to risk the sales process.
Despite common belief that there is a single decision maker that one must convince this is technically true but not practically true. Orient yourself via this process: *Understand that you are likely selling into a political and hierarchal environment, where business unit purchasing decisions are shared, due to the desire to deflect blame if that decision turns out to be a poor one. The process is here to account for some of the illogical and unpredictable nature of this environment’s decision process and to limit it’s negative impact on opportunities in play.
Your goal is not to be the cheapest vendor, but inexpensive enough. Enough so that person in the room that manages budgets and projects is willing to work with the other person in the room trying to deliver some sort of technical result. Enough so that this person also feels your product/service is technical enough or delivers the desired result. This is an overgeneralized example. So who
is are the decision maker then? Well, do the leg work and find out by building a process.
My methodology, explained below, is what I have used for over a decade to understand the health and subsequent prescription (vitamin vs asprin) for sales pipelines that I have managed. You do not need expensive SaleForce integrations to run this. As a matter of fact you could run a fairly large pipeline (by startup standards) by building a spreadsheets (I have a template if you would like, comment me and I will send it to you).
This system was devised to either avert a lost sale by being able to see missing pieces of the picture before they harm the sales cycle entirely or to provide intelligence on non sales related issues that have caused a lost sales cycle.
*Triangulate (CRM requirement) Open Cycle (OC)
Despite the popular thought that there is a single decision maker, the decision to buy technology from a new vendor in a large org making process in larger companies is usually to ensure that you have found the top three values and value holders in order to talk to the decision maker community. I use a formula that says OG*P + UC + I / IG =DM - the opportunity is not recognized as a legitimate pre pipeline opportunity until this triangulation formula is complete. You must understand the individual goals of all of the players in this political buying process.
Organizational Goal times Power Player plus User Champion plus Influencer divided by Individual Goals = Decision Maker.
Create fields in your CRM or spreadsheet that force you to answer all of these questions
Open Cycle (OC)
Propose and pose. The sales professional must be able to Individually summarize and confirm the desires of the triangle group verbally and give them a loose verbal proposal based on initial stated needs. Record this in your CRM or spreadsheet or where ever you’re documenting this and then go to work. Ask the tough questions as you put together your initial concept pitch. Once all are in agreement, this is an Open Cycle.
*Mature (CRM requirement) Benchmarks 1-6
Once the opportunity is active in the pipeline we must now drive it through the pipeline and understand it’s value and it’s needs while it matures. In order to rank how mature the sales cycle is you take the intelligence and knowledge about recent wins and losses and boil them down to the key questions. Wins = why and why you. Losses = the most key tough questions you asked yourself after these losses that you should ask yourself during a sales process. Write every single thing you know down and find the common themes for all of them and then find five to ten questions that are essential and make these your benchmarks. Put them in your CRM and then based on how much of the picture (or how many of the questions you have answered) rank the cycle higher and the probability of closing it stronger for each piece of the information you have. (for forecasting reasons)
Example of maturity benchmarks:
BM1 = Alignment (three fields) (Asked and answered: anxiety question / vision match / differentiators)
BM2 = Competitive intelligence information. The incumbent and the contenders. Strengths and weaknesses as specific to the changing needs of the organization you are selling. Documented in the stated and individual words of the decision group (never in context of your product)
BM3 = Buying process. You have attained complete understanding of the client purchasing process, that you are in it, are meeting it’s requirements, and understand the rules of engagement and finality.
BM4 = Client homework. Each in the client decision group has delivered at least one action item that was agreed upon at the conclusion of last meeting with that person. This item is a mutually agreed upon item that confirms product, goal fit.
BM5 = Proposal is delivered to decision group by sales. One for each person in the decision group and customized to their specific goal. Presentation date is set for same day or close to proposal delivery date.
BM6 = Presentation meetings with triangle group are successfully completed
BM7 = An answer is received and a mutually agreed upon contract is signed by client
Benchmark ranking of opportunity maturity to predictability of total revenue in forecast:
% Probability of closing sale
% Estimated predictable revenue in funnel
BenchMark completed = maturity = close
BM 1 completed = 15% (6 months)
BM 2 completed = 25% (3 months) revenue committed to quarter report
BM 3 completed = 50% (2 months)
BM 4 completed = 65% (6 weeks)
BM 5 completed = 75% (2 weeks)
BM 6 completed = 85% (1 week) revenue committed to monthly report
BM 7 completed = 100% of total estimated sale is closed
Formula: AP - C x BP + CP = WS
Aligned Prospect minus Competitor times Buying Process plus Closing Plan = Won Sale
Two final boxes to check off for later analysis of the historical funnel are:
This will be used later to diagnose why you are losing sales.
Next is a stupidly simple example of how this methodology works when trying to measure the pipelines revenue value by aggregate opportunity maturity:
Opportunity A: Acme Company: $100k - BM 3 completed
Opportunity B: ABC Corp: $100K - BM 5 completed
Opportunity C: Big Computers: $100K - BM 6 Completed
Total funnel is $300K,
Total pipeline value (by maturity) $190K
Aggregate forecastable revenue for this month: $85K
Aggregate forecastable revenue for this quarter: $135K
This is obviously a very high level over view of my methodology and not the fully fleshed out system, but if you take the principles and apply them to your culture and CRM then I’m confident there will be at very minimal some immediate marginal improvements to your sales closing ratios and general pipeline value.
If you have thoughts on this please let me know what you think in the AMA section below.
The Rookie Year
“It’s ok to think about what you want to do…until it’s time to start doing what you were meant to do.”
Dennis Quaid - “The Rookie”
I am currently the founder of a tech enabled business. I tend to periodically, if inconsistently, document my thoughts on the lessons I’m learning along the way. I also hope to potentially help those that may find my perspective worth reading.
I started AgLocal eighteen months ago. It has also now been a year since we closed our first round of financing, a seed round, and then opened our office and started hiring our first employees. Being that this is my first time running a company I’d like to share my impressions of what I consider my rookie year.
- An opportunity only
The first thing that I can say about my experience with technology is that I believe that it allows for a new accessibility in the economy that did not previously exist to such an extent. For reference, I cannot write a single line of code, I do not posses a single mark of academic achievement beyond high school, and I had not done this before, and prior to 2011 had never met a single person from Silicon Valley. Yet with an idea, and demonstrated courage to prove I believed in it, others in fact followed me. I was given a chance to become a we, and a company was born.
The moral authority to lead and provide the vision for what it is my company does is the most important thing that I do have to offer here. My knack for sales, and communication when translated into how the product works, is probably the most critical use of our time at the company. I would encourage all non technical founders to understand fully the value you provide in this area and to refine your ability to deliver a product roadmap that can win. The engineers that build our product rely on me for this.
Again, and back to the point of this post, what is in front of us at AgLocal is without a doubt an opportunity, but there is where the story begins. It is an opportunity only. The rest of the story, as they say, is up to me, and is up to us (the AgLocal team). A year ago, some of the brightest names in business saw something in this idea and believed in its ability to produce a win. We are today, still in active pursuit of such an outcome.
- The odds
Let’s take the bloom off of this rose that is the sexy fad of starting companies. For every Pinterest there are certainly a thousand Color’s. Well, maybe that’s a bit of a drastic example, but you will understand my point. I can take this point even further by taking a look at Bill Nguyen at Color himself. For instance, Bill has had a roller coaster ride of successes and failures. Many will remember him for the high profile nature of Color’s difficulties, but they may not remember him as much for the fact that he sold one of his first companies (OneBox) for $850m already, or that Bill has started eight companies in total, and that more than half of them were not considered homeruns. What isn’t discussed in this group of hits and misses is the roller coaster of a life that even Bill, by all accounts a successful entrepreneur has likely lived through. I think this illustrates that even the most experienced entrepreneurs matched with experienced and well connected investors still face odds considerably less favorable than an Alaskan salmon’s attempt to spawn.
The choice to start and grow a new business, or join the early team of one is a choice that comes with varying degrees of risk. Risk that is typically well above and beyond that which exists in the world of gainful employment at a well established business. To illustrate this point succinctly I had a conversation with one reasonably well known founder of a successful Silicon Valley tech company exactly one month before I decided to leave the comfort of my job at the Kauffman Foundation. He said to me "before I decided to start my company I had decided that I had to come to terms with the fact that I was making a profound decision about the future. I knew first of all above all else, Naithan, that my life would change dramatically, and that I could easily lose everything I have, including my current financial cushion, perhaps a friend or two, and even my family if things went poorly enough". His company went public in the early 2000’s, and he also separated from his family not long after that.
In what is perhaps the most valuable conversation I may ever have related to this subject, Ben Horowitz, who is known for his candid thoughts on startups and their genesis, explained to me that the job of the CEO is about as dangerous as it gets personally and professionally. He went on to explain that the good ones almost never allow the presence of this danger to get them psyched out personally, and that they are almost always on the offensive instead of on the defensive. Performance excellence in tough times defines the winners and that frankly, the performance demands placed on the founding executive leaves no time to contemplate failure very much at all. And there it is again. Time. The only way to win in the stopwatch timed jungle of a startup is to make good decisions, and to make these decisions very rapidly. Here are the facts. Things will get to be very difficult at times. Feeling sorry for yourself? Well you’ve lost already. This is the lesson of the rookie season. Ability alone isn’t going to cut it anymore. The ability to move mountains with the the sheer will of ones mind is what matters here. You have full responsibility of the outcome, without the full control of the variables or conditions around you. The variables that you can indeed control and will perhaps improve your odds the most are the ones around who you hire to work with you. A bad hire could cost company months of time in fixing things, and a good one add millions in value to the company.
Football is about as dangerous a game as there is. It gets no moreso dangerous than for the quarterback. This is where I like to draw a comparison. The CEO of a new company is very much in the same position as an NFL quarterback. You are pressured to perform from day one, and there is always the next upstart clamoring for your spot. When you choose to play you are, or at least should be, aware of the possible risks physically, mentally and emotionally, but as an entrepreneur you are drawn to the irresistible lure of building something that is yours and is important. The ability to build a legacy that lives beyond you, and in the case of businesses, the ability to make the world a place that is much easier to live in and generates a windfall of wealth for all involved. The bottom line.
- The speed of the game, rookie camp
If you are a first or even second time founder, the first rule of the game, is understanding that you are indeed playing in the game at all times. After the lights of draft day, signing your term sheet, or landing that first big customer you must now perform. Just like an NFL rookie, It starts with learning the plays, marketing strategy, dev roadmap, ops strategy, tweaking the sketch that is the businesses first modeling, etc. but it surely does not end there. If you have mentors or advisors they cannot run the plays for you, they can only give you the playbook and watch how you read the defense and throw, they cannot translate what you are seeing or how to react as a play unfolds. This is where companies win or sadly, and like most of them do, they also lose.
The important things on your to do list, are in fact, the enemy of focus your company needs from you. Almost every email, text, voice message, or knock on my door that I have received since day one of starting the company, and especially since, has come with some sense of importance. The most ridiculous thing I could have ever attempted was to treat all of them with the urgency that the senders all would have liked. There are truly only three things you should be working on. People, Product and Progress. The ability to set an agenda for the company’s people (hiring, motivating, directing), its model (product and business), and business development progress (sales, fund raising, critical partnerships) are the only things you should be focused on. If you are too much into the details in any given area you either need to hire in that area or to do a better job of hiring and training going forward.
- Choose your people carefully, a good huddle
The biggest impact is definitely in your choice of people. Employees, investors and partners. Your ability discern will be critical. Let’s talk about funding for example. Investors have the ability help you in a way that far exceeds their cash. Trust me here. One thing I did not consider is that I would spend a third of my time in the recruiting of good people and another third of my time in sourcing and building relationships with new investors in anticipation of the next round of financing. This leaves only a third of my time to actually run the company, guide the product’s direction, motivate and inspire the existing team. Add coast to coast travel for me, and lets just say that I really enjoy the luxury of a full night of sleep.
Investors are critical sources of help and should be chosen with caution. It may seem that you cannot afford the luxury of being choosy. In fact this is true if you are raising your first round, but you will have to set and hold the expectations for those investing if you would enjoy their ability to be helpful in your company building efforts. These are folks that should spend their time funneling their network to you, with deals and good people, not just cash. This is simply going to help as much even as the money they invest in many cases. I cannot stress this enough. There are two types of investors, ones that are concerned with creating work for you and ones that are concerned with taking the procedural part of the work away from you primarily. The problem is that except in rare cases, many seed investors (institutional or otherwise) simply cannot (due to their own time restraints) or just will not, do much work on behalf of their seed stage companies. This is simple human economics. They are spending time on the investments they have made that are starting to bloom versus the ones that are too early to determine. During the courting period, they all however claim to want to spend time helping. This, as you will soon realize, is rare in a seed stage investor and many times even a series A round investor. If you have a few of these investors around you, your odds will improve dramatically. It is also the one thing that entrepreneurs rarely do due diligence on, just happy to have closed their round and ended the pain of pitching (which actually never ends).
Test out the claim made by initial investors by talking to the CEO’s of other investments they have made. In our case we had twelve total investors in our initial financing, and though to some extent most of them were helpful, there were two or three that were not helpful at all for one reason or another. Only a core group of about four or five of those investors went to work for us. Sending candidates our way, vetting them for us, even interviewed them, sending deals our way, press our way, and potential partnerships our way. (the Andreessen Horowitz team and particularly Ben, Serious Change Ventures, Open Air Equity Partners, Marc Ecko, and Thad Langford deserve special recognition here). Finally, when the time comes to raise your next round of financing (and this will come sooner than you’d like) this group will play a critical role in sourcing any new investors you will need to complete your fund raising effort quickly and successfully. Their warm introductions to other investors who trust them and their follow on investment in the new round will speed up your time raising capital and get you back to work on the things you need to be doing, building product and partnerships. In all of these cases the value here is that your investors can give you back the one resource that is most important to your success. Time!
- Good management, and bad
The comparison of going from a good quarterback in college to a starting quarterback in the NFL is my mind the most apt comparison to the sales star, or product genius at a good company who then goes on to become the CEO of a venture backed high growth company. These are two different jobs. The focus needed during this very fast game, and the decisions required for success are completely different things. No past experience can indicate nor prepare for success. This is the moment where natural ability is vetted as to whether or not it can become good management or not.
The first thing that I have come to realize is that in early stage companies, companies very similar to ours, is that too often there is no way to know whether a good idea can materialize into a great company. There’s a bet being placed by investors, early employees and customers. This bet is placed on the raw intangibles, and this is done because frankly, and many times, that is all that we have to go on. The bet goes something like this, “The founders and management seem to posses the beginnings of a good idea and the natural ability to think very quickly and with courage”.
This is where the ability to see the future ends. Very similar to the NFL draft, and the ability to throw sixty yards from your knees like Jamarcus Russell did in his draft evaluation, it’s about as much information as the Wonderlic test and subsequent interviews will give you. The problem here is that even though you scored a passable score on the written test and physical test, no one could possibly tell whether or not you will have an issue with the In and Out Burger and the Purple Drank just yet, just as Jamarcus did. The moral here is that natural ability can get you only so far. It can in fact get you funded, get you press, and get you a few early wins, but at the highest levels natural ability can only get you so far, before it is time to compete with the other executives, that you are in fact competing against, for a future. As the saying goes, men lie, women lie, numbers do not. The demands are that measurable performance and numbers worth reporting have to be delivered very quickly. Do not let anyone tell you differently. Your cool idea and product will never overcome real traction, no matter how cool they are. Money and users are what is cool, not the technical or design prowess of your product.
At the end of the day the drank and weight gain was just a symptom of Jamarcus’s general inability to make good decisions under pressure, these were not the genesis of his downfall, but the omega. His failures ultimate signature. His overall inability to think clearly more than anything, doomed him as an NFL caliber quarterback. This is why quarterbacks are such a tricky draft pick for NFL owners, it’s because it’s hard to tell the mental make up of a player without seeing them in game action and under pressure. This is very similar to a startup CEO. There is no real test that can simulate game situations.
For instance, during our early days we had a management shift that resulted in a founder ultimately leaving the company a few months later because of it. Being my first company, this was a difficult time for me. I questioned whether I was selling out and doing the wrong thing by practically demoting a loyal guy and good friend who by all intents and purposes had done nothing inherently wrong. He wasn’t particularly suited for what I was asking him to do, which wasn’t fair to him or us. In retrospect this move allowed some other employees to exercise their talent in the vacated areas where they previously felt a little frustrated and limited, and in ways that the company benefitted from. We likely would have been three months behind in our development roadmap had we not made this shift. It ultimately exposed a vision split and subsequently a split of founders, but it was best for the company. This decision was made practically after our first one on ones, and with little deliberation or advisor input. I understood what was happening, and made the move that day. I was shocked by my ability to make this decision this way in the first place, but once I had, I became progressively better at it.
- In summary
What has been my experience as a rookie CEO? It has been very similar to that of the star QB from the division two school in a non major conference that is drafted in the early second round and rushed into a starting role in the NFL before he may be polished and ready. Early flashes of promise with that great throw that reminds some of why he was drafted so high but mixed with many moments of WTF, punctuated by getting the play in late, or choosing the wrong receiver. As the season goes on for me the game has started to slow down and decisions have become easier, but by this time the book is being written, just like in the NFL, it is a production business. The fans, coaches, ownership, and especially my team mates are not interested in a project, they are interested in making the playoffs. The key now is to finish the season strong and to make the playoffs, and then for most, you can rewrite history once that happens. Good management is what happens when, whether through a successful venture or a failed one, the entrepreneur learns how to lead her people and gain the trust of both her customers and stake holders. Eventually the entrepreneur will win.
1. Identify the best people, who can work on your behalf, and bring them in
2. Don’t wait on all of the data to make decisions, but enough data for your gut
3. Nurture a user and sales based culture
Caution: this post contains cussing and some consider that distasteful. You were warned.
This post isn’t about starting a software company, or selling products, this one has more to do with my personal operating system, and the way I live my life, and who I will live it with. I did not write this post to tell you, the reader, how you should live your life, but am choosing to share a simple articulation of how I’ve chosen to live mine.
These are the Ten Rules that have allowed me to outlive setbacks, find the right opportunities, and stay true to who I am in the process.
1. Break the rules
The rules are made to keep people and ideas organized and thus controlled. If you want to live an exceptional life, you will have to be willing to be unpopular to those that enjoy the safety of an ordered and predictable outcome. In the process of doing anything important, you will be told that the things you do break some rules or culturally acceptable norms. You will have to examine your life to find those rules you’re following simply because everyone else does. These are not those rules that bring order to potentially harmful chaos, but are the ones that have for one reason or another outlived their time or relevance, yet still are being adhered to out of tradition. Break them immediately and purposefully. (Caveat: always obey the law of the land, or those designed to keep you and others safe from harm)
2. Don’t be a pussy
Exactly what it says. If you’re scared, that’s OK, it isn’t the fear, it’s how you respond to that fear. Do you run from anxiety filled decisions and situations and get lost in the lights and wilt or worse, run and hide, or do you step up in the moment? Continuously and perpetually stepping up and beyond natural fears is maybe the biggest factor in living the life that you chose!
3. Be yourself (no matter what)
This dovetails from point two. The only way to reach your potential, is to reach YOUR potential. People who you are scared to be yourself around, are people you will eventually disappoint. Life is time. Don’t waste any of yours creating personas that you think people will like. Be who you are and this will allow you to build a network of friends, colleagues, and mentors that will stick for life and that you will be comfortable growing with. The opposite is also true, it will ward off assholes from becoming a part of your life.
4. No excuses
Excuses are the gateway to weakness and softness entering your life. The only way to reach your goals in your academics, business, family, morals, spiritually, and health is to eliminate weakness and softness. Excuses are like carbon monoxide poisoning. They sneak in with no odor and kill you by slowly putting you to sleep unawares. Work diligently to identify when you are making excuses for yourself and counter act it with honesty and counteractive measures. When you screw up and wrong someone (and you will) you must own it. Don’t lie to yourself, but keep it real. Your apology isn’t in words but the actions that follow.
5. Think big
If you don’t think big, and I mean really fucking big with everything you do, imagine or envision, then it’s hard to work towards creating the necessary conditions where exceptional opportunities and experiences can happen in your life. Mindset is always, most of the battle. The belief in very big things will change your odds. This is not motivational speaker bullshit.
6. Discipline yourself
As my mom said to me, there are no free lunches. Be hard enough and tough enough - Be willing to work harder, and endure tougher shit than anyone else. Do the extra rep in the gym, work the extra hour, take the meeting. Discipline your diet, your intellectual habits, your intentional relationship management, your exercise habits, your spiritual management etc. this discipline will produce a code, and this code will set you apart from your peers and create a moat around you and those you are building a future with.
7. Get yours
Understand what’s supposed to be yours and take it. if you have discipline, think big enough and are not scared, then this should produce healthy and balanced ambition in you. There is such a thing as unhealthy and misguided ambition, and you do not want that. Many times, when people are handed too much too early, they exhibit signs of being misguided and spoiled. In this case pigs get to eat, but hogs get slaughtered. It’s OK to be a pig, but don’t even hang out with hogs, once you recognize them. Hogs are dirty people with no code, and their ambition will turn on you. If you love right, and for the right reasons then it’s ok to go and get yours!
8. Give back
Again, there are no free lunches. If you’re doing the above, you will likely be successful. I do not measure success in dollars, but yes money is one of many well known byproducts of success. The fruits of success are however not success unto them-self, or we’d be living life as a means to an end, and of course, we aren’t. Your responsibility to success, whether your fruits are money, love, or power, is to give back and to give back in a way that seems to exceed where you are in each of the three aforementioned areas. giving back, also includes forgiveness. Be big enough to let it go. Some grudges actually need to be held onto, in cases of unmet justice, that’s for you to decide. In most cases this isn’t true, and giving back will include letting your beef go.
This is where your soul is! You are the how’s, who’s and where’s of where you come from. Even if you had to burn the boats that got you to shore for good reason, create balance and intentional tribute to those places and people. Keep where you come from at the forefront of your remembrance every day.
Never forget that no one will get out of this life alive, so don’t take it all too seriously and have fun. Make humor, practical jokes, and fun a focus of every day. You will live longer. If you’re loving right, you should be laughing a lot.
Where The Hell Are We Going?
“ride to it, ride to it
cause you never know
when the bullet might hit
and you die to it die to it
die to it, die to it
Live your life, live it right
be different, do different things
Don’t do it like, he did
cause he aint what you is
but we can win, wait
lets get straight to the point”
-Kush & Corinthians - by Kendrick Lamar
The opening quote is a shout out to my friend and mentor Ben Horowitz. I’m bitin’ his style here, quoting good music. It’s the most effective emotional device there is, and this post is laced with emotion.
To the question, where in the hell are we going? Starting a company is hard. It’s damn hard to avoid the high fail rate but not impossible with the right recipe. Uncertainty creates a zigged and zagged path. The fight is for clarity and it’s a ferocious fight. This aint for the weak hearted. Alot of advice for startups typically focuses on the technical and procedural rigur of building a small thing into something valuable and important, but a startup isn’t an assembly line, it’s an apple orchard. It’s not mechanical, it’s organic. Which is why I love the way Ben Horowitz explains startup skills and needs (reference his blog post on psychology here: http://bit.ly/f9ll2w)
It’s numbers and psychology, churning like a cyclone in a race against time. I always explain to the employees at AgLocal that a startup isn’t a business it’s a conversation about a business. A high stakes healthy argument for clarity. Everyone with sleeves rolled, brawling, fighting for what they believe in. Customers, employees, advisors, investors. Everyone has to be in the conversation, so we work together at AgLocal to intentionally build the most productive conversation we can have. To do this, the psychology inside of the conversation has to be managed and focused.
As of late we’ve had some leaps forward internally in gaining clarity about what AgLocal is going to be. In the fight to determine where we’re going, I first as the CEO have to know who I am and why I’m going where I’m going in the first place. There are three principles that drive this:
Bravery, Committment and Soul
Soul (Who The Hell Are We?)
Dr. Seuss , as everyone knows, wrote great books for children. His stories are now considered some of the most culturally important ever published. Overlooked as childrens stories only, and sometimes as statements on society in general, his books have helped me take emotionally complex management and leadership concepts and break them down into simple and concise terms. Clarity.
When I think about having a soul, it’s about my core. What will I stand for and what will I stand against. There’s a Seuss story about the Bippolo seed. A duck named McCluck finds the silver box of Bippolo seeds. The seeds can grant any wish when planted. McCluck decides on his wish but gets interrupted by business minded cat who has entrepreneurial ideas for the seed. McCluck even admits to the smart cat “I aint thought much about money until now”. The cat goes off on a tangient with suggestions until eventually McCluck joins in the madness and loses the seed due to his diverted attention. The duck meant well. McCluck just didn’t know what he stood for and who he wants to be. Thus he didn’t have any conviction or focus. All things were interesting but nothing was important to him most.
If you have a core mission that infects every part of your company, internally and externally, “ride to it, ride to it, die to it die to it”. You may change the plan and pivot, but your soul is more than just the plan, it’s the whole damn war. If this were a game of Risk, the plan is a single dice role, your soul is how you see yourself once the game is over. If you don’t know your final destination, you don’t have jack shit, and you and the smart cat should go hang out the startup networking event to get your next idea and leave the serious to their work.
Committment and Bravery (Why The Hell Are We Doing This?)
Horton Hatches The Egg, is a Seuss story about an elephant (Horton) that gets pitched by a bird to sit on his egg while the bird goes on vacation. Horton agrees and climbs up into the tree. The bird leaves on vacation to go have a good time. Horton stays, and does his part. He sits in the tree through danger, bad weather, etc. After months away the bird comes home to check on Horton coincidentally at the same time as the egg finally hatches. To everyones suprise a baby elephant with bird wings hatches. Horton feels a sense of purpose and relief that his work was worth it but the bird is pissed off. This story is the perfect illustration of what I’m talking about here. A startup team is unequipped to be doing what they do, but strangely more uniquely qualified to start the companies they start. CEO’s have to find and build a team of Hortons. Authentic love and courage, to a point that they can stomach climbing up a tree with the real risk of the branch breaking underneath them, for the irrational belief that they can hatch baby elephants from a bird egg. It’s committment that powers both the courage and conviction through any weather. Anyone can do what the bird did. It’s easy to pitch and then start an idea. Not easy to be Horton.
I mean, what the hell are we doing? It starts with the meaning of life for us. We have to own this, by defining it, articulating it and then connecting it to the higher purpose of AgLocal or our work will be soulless. AgLocal is building what will become the most important company in food in the world. I believe this. So do the employees and the investors. So do our family members and some of our friends. In Shogun Assasin, one of my favorite movies, a Samurai stands in front of his infant son asking him to make a choice that he couldn’t possibly comprehend. He asks the boy to choose between a ball or a sword that he has placed in front of him. He tells the child that if he chooses the ball he’ll have to join his mother in death. This is innovation in a messy environment. Making choices that could have wonderous or catastrophic effects with near ignorance and not enough time to build the literacy needed to make that decision. It’s a gut feel and some contextual matching to other emotionally difficult decisions you’ve made in your life. I’ve lived through some objectively difficult times and have a good size library to call on here.
These are the unending hard choices we will be forced to make. The employees and I face these choices continually and they test our committment to building the most important food related company in the world. This will not be easy for us or on us. The ball and sword dillemas will be presented in perpetual cycles. As the company meets it’s customers and as those customers get more comfortable being less polite we learn the truth and then the needs of the company change and so does its plan with it. Without reiteration of the emotional committment to the importance of each other, and our work jointly, we will lose our way. If you run a startup or a part of one and Samarai stands in front of the company, be prepared that some may not always choose the sword. You will have to continue the imprtant work, because there simply isn’t enough time to wait when this happens. The company must move on or be mired in confusion and apathy.
When these principles get transferred to a team it can build a culture and an operating system to do important work in my opinion. We’ve got a long way to go, but we know who are and where we’re going.
Innovacation -noun [in-uh-vah-cay-shuhn] -
1. The act of using unorthodox and counter intuitive ways of acquiring sources of insight and inspiration.
2. Using rest and diversion from the studied problem in order to solve the problem creatively
Ever hear the dumb term “you’re too close to the situation to see it clearly”, well, it does ring true in some cases.
Entrepreneurs, we love to read the latest hot book on innovation or startups to get inspiration on our model. We delude ourselves into thinking that if we would just follow these steps, and follow that new and fresh methodology that the secret sauce will appear in front of us. The truth is very opposite to our long held beliefs. Innovation doesn’t come from someone else, in the books about that very subject. It comes in the form of abstract and non related exterior and peripheral influence.
Well if that’s the case, why do we get burned out while working our hardest. Why doesn’t that mentors advice always resonate and cause add on ideas? Why don’t we always get this inspiration when we are “cranking” our hardest ? It’s usually because as entrepreneurs we’re working hard, burning the midnight oil from both ends and we’re looking for it instead of receiving it. Irony is that the very work that we’re doing is causing us to miss this inspiration.
I titled this post with the word I made up because I think it sums up the inspiration to innovation cycle that gets ignored. I have surmised that nurturing of the things you love outside of your work will ultimately feed purpose to the work and generate inspiration. When you get time to love what you love most something happens, you find yourself clear, able to see it. I’m currently in Florida vacationing with my family. I admit that I felt guilty about this at first, very guilty. I mean with the demand of funders, sales, product development, SXSW coming up, new employees, and the rest of the jazz that comes with starting up.
Right around the third day here, getting hugs from my little girls, laughs with the family, the beach, good meals that 18 hour startup days don’t afford, something strange happened… … . . I started getting more done. How is that possible? While separated from the family I had 16-18 straight hours a day to work, but yet being unplugged except for hour bursts here and there was suddenly providing much more meaning production.
I started to realize how important this awareness of what was happening was. Next time when it gets tough and I feel at an impasse, maybe the answer isn’t the stare at the screen like I’m waiting on the last train home. Maybe the best thing is to do is jump in the car and drive into the mountains, or to the beach, catch a flight to spend a couple of days with family. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating laziness. I’m fairly sure I’m headed right back to those 16-18 hour days, and rightfully so. But I will do so now with the full understanding of the important role that rest, and love plays in innovation and problem solving.
Are you grinding hard without an end in sight? Not getting anywhere except to regenerate items on a list of entered entry’s on a self healing check list that seems to never die? Unplug and go do something that speaks to your life away from your startup. Surprisingly, it will tell you a ton about your startup as well, and when you do plug back in, your understanding of meaning and your refreshed state will create solutions and advance your ideas in ways you didn’t quite see clearly.
Go take a innovacation
The Founders Challenge
This post is a little bit of a shape up or ship out post. Sort of a shrinks couch for founders type post. It may not help every founder, but it may help some, as I suspect it will. Let’s face it, the hyper dramatic and chaotic life of a founder can get murky and needs serious reflection. As I sit here my family’s hideaway in beautiful Florida refreshing with the kids before I travel back to the hustle of silicon valley, I’ve gained a little perspective and I thought I’d share this little bit of wisdom with some other founders out there.
As a first time or even second time founder there’s really nothing that can prepare you for the inevitable ups and downs, spins and turns that come along with your first venture. The volumous amount of academic papers, startup books, YouTube videos, scans of Tech Crunch and rewatches of “The Social Network” just won’t do it. This is mainly because starting an idea, any idea, is full of chaos that is uniquely and expressly yours.
There’s a challenge faced by founders, and that’s to learn how to filter information. Everything you read, see, hear and feel is telling you something. Don’t panic, it’s there to steer you, guide you, stop you, and start you again. The key is to maintain the proper perspective and to make decisions. Don’t freeze up. Not making a decision is still making a decision.
Start-Ups are just like the womb a baby rests in. What goes in the body of the mother will affect the baby’s development, and the environment around the mother will impact the personality and health of the baby, even if it’s in small incremental ways. The start-up is the baby and the eco-system around it (Funders, co-founders, friends, family, mentors, partners, buyers) is the womb.
It will at times seem that you’re on top of the world, and other times feel like the world is on top of you. Here’s the point I’m trying to make … . . neither are true. Ever! Everything you communicate will set off a chain reaction in the ecosystem that can have a lasting impact on the company you build and launch or even on whether you launch it at all.
Before hitting “send” on that email or text message. Before spilling the beans about something negative at a dinner with that influential person and before bragging about how awesome things are with those friends of yours that are also founders, remember, you’re feeding the eco-system of your start up something. Is it something that you want to be feeding it? Remember, you are the voice of this “baby” and anything you say will set off a chain reaction of falling dominoes, one way or the other. You have to say something as the voice of the company, just make sure that’s it’s filtered for the time, place and audience.
The challenge is to stay measured, even keeled and right in the middle of it all, cool and composed (even when your guts are churning). You want to go crazy in celebration, salute your team and those that helped and then move on and know that there’s work to do. There’s always work to do. You want to quit and go back to working for someone else at a safe job with a set of easy daily tasks … . . well, ya, just think about that for a second? If you’re an entrepreneur, the very thought of that should be enough to stop you in your tracks.
Take the challenge. Inventory your startup and everything around it. What do you have, what do you need, and importantly, where are you going? That my founder friend … . is vision, and this vision of yours is the only thing that will allow you to sail through the challenge with relative ease.
The Unicorn doesn’t exist!
Potential entrepreneurs, stop brain storming in search of the unicorn idea. Base your model on a derivative of the four basic human needs, food, shelter, love, cash (or the ability to generate some)
Founders, stop pivoting every five minutes in hopes of catching a Unicorn and just launch the damn thing : ) ! Let your market tell you what’s good and what isn’t and refine.
Stop looking for investors and look for customers. They are your best investors any way and they will likewise signal investors for you.
Create a kick ass user experience for whatever it is you do, because someone one else somewhere is doing it as well. Just do it better.
Death has its advantages
Being that this is my inaugural post, I’m going to smash the champagne bottle on the hull of this ship with a little bit of snark, but hopefully some substance as well. To be honest I wanted my first post here to be a boring little lesson to startups about the importance of consumer side economics in their model. However, being the rat I am, I couldn’t ignore this stinky little piece of cheese seen here: http://www.adweek.com/internet-week-blog/rip-apps-132406 . What set me off specifically? I’d say it is the “(native) mobile apps are dead” quote.
I’ll deal with two subjects briefly here. One, the ritual penchant and fad in tech circles to proclaim the death of things, which has come to almost be a right of passage for any piece of technology as it matures and second, to document if not archive my opinion in a time capsule in regards to the future of mobile and device specific native apps. My prediction: Mobile and device specific native apps will not only survive but eventually overtake HTTP as the primary presentation layer for all media consumed within the next ten years and will replace all old revenue models for content distribution. I’ll expand on that later but first to the article written on a panel discussion that inspired this post.
To paint the picture, the article linked quotes a panel which had Seth Sternberg on it. Seth is the CEO of a social media sharing company named Meebo (seen here: http://www.meebo.com/ ) Seth’s company has created a pretty cool tool which allows sharing of media in a very friendly and easy to use way. I love Meebo and love their startup story immensely. Seth however is also the person attributed to the “is dead” quote in the linked article.
Saying things are dead, … . . is dead. For the most part saying things are “dead” in technology is shorthand for signaling that the hype is over and that investors and paying users are very soon going to suddenly flee from the technology. That the market is going to become irrationally risk averse to the technology to the same degree that they are irrationally exuberant today. Sometimes it’s said so that the quote can become stinky bait for page hits (guilty here). In either case what it really means is that the technology is becoming mature, which is a good thing. As technology matures the early wide eyed adopters are disillusioned because it didn’t cure cancer right away as was promised by technology prophets from on high at their panels in conferences. They flee and serious development begins. Years later the initial claims will actually start to be met and we will add the ill advised “2.0” to the end of its name, signaling that it is again cool to be associated with and startup companies with said technology. What has really happened is that the technology has gone through development cycles that are stringently managed by real market demand and not hype, thus producing the original promise.
To document the things are dead movement, remember in late 2008 when Tech Crunches Steve Glimor claimed that RSS was then being replaced by Twitter and Facebook. Um, ya, that didn’t exactly happen now did it? The road is littered with “dead” proclamations. If true Apple would have been dead in the nineties, Google done in the early 2000’s. We all heard how desktops were supposed to be dead by now. The claims go on and on and on. So to startups considering a mobile app, take heart, because as history and tradition would have it you’re coming in at exactly the right time.
My prediction is thus. The trend of democratization of content will continue and accelerate (see HBO’s new mobile service HBOGO for a foreshadowing) and broken into consumable pieces. In the next five years most media electronics devices will deliver content specific to what that user wants specifically and only what that consumer will pay for, freeing us from the set top cartels, and old school model publishers. Brand will then become more important as content gets decoupled from distribution companies and content packages, then I believe the Apps will become the superior presentation layer to the HTTP presentation layer. This model will be adopted more and more as televisions become all in one connected computing devices along with the move to decouple content. With the margins on electronics and chips shrinking to sub 5% I believe the revenue model for device manufacturers will be exclusives on popular apps and hence apps will represent the dominant media experience for most consumers in the next ten years.
To say that mobile apps are going away is to say that mobile computing is going away, after-all, an app is merely an automated command with a graphic user interface for the less technical inclined. I think what our friends in the article are trying to say is that the ill conceived vaporware apps of today, the ones with empty business models that are receiving hype dollars from the private equity folks merely for having the word “social” or “gaming” in their title will go extinct along with the hype dollars funding their starts. In this case I agree. But to the broader point, Apps are not only here to stay but will become the primary presentation layer for all media and content in the next 10 years.
Hopefully my prediction doesn’t die.