Vertical Markets 2: Customer/Market Risk versus Invention Risk

This post makes sense when you read the previous vertical markets post first.

Customer/Market Risk Versus Invention Risk
One day I was having lunch with a VC sharing what I learned from my students. “Steve,” he said, “you’re missing the most interesting part of vertical markets.  Our firm has a portfolio of companies across a broad range of markets and the way we look at it is pretty simple – the deals fall into two types: those with customer/market risk and those with invention risk.”

Markets with Invention Risk are those where it’s questionable whether the technology can ever be made to work – but if it does customers will beat a path to the company’s door. 

Markets with Customer/Market Risk are those where the unknown is whether customers will adopt the product.

Based on this insight, I updated my earlier diagram to look like this.  (The line is just a first approximation, nothing hard and fast about it.)

Invention Risk

Market Risk vs. Invention Risk - Click to Enlarge

For companies building web-based products, product development may be difficult, but with enough time and iteration engineering will eventually converge on a solution and ship a functional product – it’s engineering, not invention. The real risk in markets like Web 2.0 is whether there is a customer and market for the product as spec’d.  In these markets it’s all about customer/market risk.

There’s a whole other set of markets where the risk is truly invention. These are markets where it may take 5 or even 10 years to get a product out of the lab and into production. (Whether it will eventually work no one knows, but the payoff could be so large, investors will take the risk.)  If the product does work, and say we’ve developed a drug that cures a type of cancer, your only problem is how big is the licensing deal going to be – not about whether there will be customers. In these markets it’s all about invention risk.

A third type of market has both invention and market risk.  For example, complex new semiconductor architectures, (i.e. a new type of graphics architecture, or a new communications chip architecture) mean you may not know if the chip performs as well as you thought until you get first silicon.  But then, because there might be entrenched competitors and your concept is radically new, you still need to invest in the customer development process to learn how to get design wins from companies who may be happy with their existing vendors.

The implications for entrepreneurs is that each of these (market risk versus invention risk,) require radically different financing models, a different type of venture investor, different timing for hiring sales and marketing, etc.

I now advise entrepreneurs to add these questions to their checklist when they start a company:

  • Am I in a “customer/market risk” company?
  • Am I in a company with “invention risk?
  • Or does my company have both types of risk?
  • How would that change my company strategy?

We’ll talk about how to reduce risk in each type of market in the next post.

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Vertical Markets 1: Bad Advice – All Startups are the Same

In the past entrepreneurship was viewed (and taught) as a single process, with a single approach to creating a business plan and securing funding for a startup.  The best entrepreneurship textbooks and blogs assume that advice to startups is generalizable.  But as I learned from my students this “one-size-fits-all” approach does not work for all startups.  Different market opportunities present radically different startup risks and costs.

Capital Requirements
In my class students form teams and spend a semester building a detailed plan for a company. When I started teaching I launched project teams with this advice: All you need is a half a million dollars to start a company and at most a few million more to scale the company.” And the students nodded, OK, yes sir, and they wrote down, “a half a million bucks to start.”

The next week in class a project group raised their hands and said, “Hey, Professor Blank, we found out the common wisdom in the biotech business is that “we need $10-20 million just for the R&D phase and 100’s of million to get through clinical trials.”

“Of course,” I said, “Life science is completely different. The time to product and scale of investment is radically different than other startup markets.”

Intellectual Property
At the next class I said, “You all ought to get out and start talking to customers on day one, and get early feedback on your idea. You don’t need to worry about any Intellectual Property (IP) issues. Just get out of the building.”

The next week another team, working on a new type of solid oxide fuel cell, remarked, “Professor Blank, in our industry there’s a ton of patents and stuff and people tell us we shouldn’t be out there unless we start patent protecting all our IP.”

“Oops,” I said, “you’re right.  In clean tech nanomaterials you guys need to be talking to patent attorneys.  Don’t share the details of your manufacturing process with customers until you’ve locked up your intellectual property.”

Government Regulations
I turned to the class and said, “The rest of you can keep building your company and shipping your product because you don’t need to worry about government regulations. You’re a startup, just get your product out the door.”

The next week another group raised their hands, “Professor Blank, we’re building a medical device and there’s something called the 510K that the FDA requires, and that’s a two-year process.”

Verticals Are Different
I began to realize that entrepreneurs (and their professors) act like every vertical market and industry has the same set of rules. The guidelines I had originally proposed to my students worked for enterprise software or Web 2.0 startups, but medical device, biotech and cleantech startups required radically different approaches.

So the first heuristic is: do not assume the startup rules are the same for all vertical markets.

Now when my students begin their team projects, I list 13 vertical markets on the whiteboard.  Just for discussion, the markets I chose were:

  • Web 2.0,
  • enterprise software
  • enterprise hardware
  • communications software
  • communications hardware
  • consumer electronics
  • games software
Vertical Markets

Vertical Markets - Click to Enlarge

  • semiconductors
  • Electronic Design Automation (EDA)
  • clean tech
  • medical devices
  • life sciences
  • personalized medicine

There’s nothing special about this list other than it represents a diverse set of markets.  If your market is missing, just add it as we go through this discussion.

Entrepreneurs who have experience in the vertical market they’re entering do this analysis automatically. If you don’t have deep knowledge of the domain you are about to start a business in, you need to begin by understanding the answers to questions like these:

  • What vertical market are you in?
  • Do you have domain expertise in your market?
  • Do you have advisors who are domain experts in your market?
  • Do your potential investors understand your market?
  • What is it that’s unique about the market I’m in?

We’ll talk about the implications of what vertical market you’re entering in the next few posts. 

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Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters – Part 2

I wrote this “Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters” memo as a board member after I saw our company at a trade show. Part 1 of this post offered some suggestions on going to trade shows to generate awareness. This post offers suggestions if you are going to a trade show to generate leads.

Ignore This Post
The same caveat applies as in the first post; If you’re selling via the web, and trade shows seem hopelessly anachronistic, ignore this post.  If you’re in markets that still exhibit at them (semiconductors, communications, enterprise software, etc.,) this may be a useful read.

————

To: Marketing Department
From: Steve
Subject: Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters

Generating Leads

Ownership
If your company is going to a show to generate leads, then sales owns the showMarketing is at the trade show as a support organization. Marketing may be physically “staging” the booth, and may even it “man it,” but don’t be confused, this is the VP of Sales party.  While one could argue that a trade show is just another demand creation activity akin to advertising or PR, trade shows are the closest eyeball-to-eyeball contact you’re company is going to have with customers, competitors and partners.

While the industry average says only 20% of show leads are followed up, that only happens in other companies, not yours.  Going to a show to get leads is a sales function, if the leads aren’t followed up marketing won’t be supporting these kinds of trade shows out of their budgets.  Period.  This is worthy of an open and honest discussion with sales up front.  Just as marketing needed sales agreement that it was worth going to shows to generate awareness, sales needs to commit to marketing that leads will be followed up.

The Goal
Remember your goal is to get qualified leads into the sales pipeline. You want to maximize the number of people who give you their contact information, and gather enough information so a sales person can prioritize who to call first.  This can’t happen unless you sit down with your sales team before the show and agree on who are the likely prospects.  What companies should they booth team be looking for?  What titles? Will there be a salesperson manning the booth so important prospects can talk to them immediately?

Promoting Your Presence
The best trade show planning will fail if nobody knows you’re there. Three-quarters of show attendees know what exhibits they want to see before they get to the show. Strong pre-show promotion will let your customers and prospects know about your exhibit. Are you twittering your appearance at the show?  Did you create a Facebook page for the show? Are you buying Google adwords and adsense for the show? Direct email or snail mail to the pre-registered attendees is essential.  Companies that don’t do this are the same ones who would have a party without sending out any invitations.

Many people arrive at a show with a schedule of what they want to see and have little or no time for other booths, so it’s important to get on that schedule. If sales is committed to the show, they will be contacting prospects and suspects reminding them you will be there.  And inviting to the booth/dinner/private demo. While marketing can help, if sales isn’t fully engaged in this activity it’s a bad sign. 

Follow-up as a Priority
While 80% of show leads aren’t followed up in other companies, it doesn’t happen in yours. Lead follow-up is your number one priority after a show, taking precedence over just about everything else — including catching up on what you missed while you were out of the office. Rank your leads by level of importance and interest, and base your post-show efforts on these priorities. Make sure that sales is emailing/ phoning/ texting the hottest prospects within a week after the show ends — the longer you let them sit, the staler they’ll become. 

Send everyone else who gave you a lead some kind of follow-up email/paper mailing. Your post-show email or mailing can be as simple as a thank-you note or a brochure with a cover note. Write it before you leave for the show, so you can send the mailing immediately upon our return. Send PDF versions of brochures and product sheets as soon as you get back to the office. Have enough dead-tree brochures and product sheets on hand before the show so you can snail-mail out the information after you emailed it. You’d be surprised how effective sending a paper followup to a PDF can be.

Measurement
We measure everything.  Particularly leads.  It’s pretty simple.  a) How many overall leads did you generate, b) how many leads ended up in the sales pipeline, and c) how many leads ever turned into an order.

To close the loop between leads and orders, always offer a sales commission bonus for orders that came from leads followed up from a show. It’s amazing how effective how a bonus can be. If leads from this show do not turn into orders, why are we going again next year?

General Comments for both Awareness and Lead Generation
Demo’s
I don’t care how small the booth or trade show is, do a canned demo every 20 to 30 minutes regardless of whether anyone is at your booth or not.  The demo repeats the one or two key messages you decided were most important. Assume everything you’re showing will be seen by every one of your competitors, so this is not the place for showing the “secret new release.”  You can do that in a private hotel suite for important prospects.  

Demo’s are the heart of the booth. Without one, you’ll be having your booth staff standing in the aisles mournfully waiting for someone to walk up to them.  Or worse, your salespeople will be talking to each other looking like they’re too busy to be interrupted.  In both cases, that means you’re broadcasting “nothing interesting is in this booth folks, keep walking.”  A continual demo lets you act like you have something important to share. Your sales people can gather the crowd, work the crowd and use their sales skills to see if prospects in the audience have interest.  The difference between booths offering a demo and those without one is striking.  One of them is a loser.  It isn’t going to be your booth.

Competitive Analysis
Unless you are at the wrong show your competitors will be there as well. Someone from your company has to be designated the official competitive intelligence officer for this show.  They are in charge of coordinating collection of competitive data, and preparing a summary report which contains facts as well as analysis. Get competitors literature, press packets from the press room, sit through their demos, and don’t come home until you know everything they’re saying. At the same time keep an eye out for competitors at your booth, (they may not be wearing their own company’s badges.) Welcome them loudly and openly. Put your arm around them and walk them around your booth. Make sure the staff is trained to never disparage a competitor. (Either at the show or anywhere else.)  

Partnership Opportunities
At any show you are attending there has to be tons of opportunity for business to business relationships you hadn’t thought about.  Everyone should have a chance to walk the floor looking for deals, technology, distribution, customers, etc. Someone from your company has to be designated the opportunity monitor, responsible for coordinating potential partner information and disseminating it in writing after the show.

No Literature at the Booth
Fancy brochures are expense, and most trade show literature ends up on the hotel room floor.  Have sample literature under Lucite and chained to the booth.  Take imprints of badges in exchange for paper literature requests.  Each imprint is now a lead.  (Keep a stash of literature for real live prospects under the table, but they should be pulling out their wallet to buy before you let go of it.)

Booth Staffing
You can’t do it alone. Even if it’s a small 10-foot booth you will need at least one person to “spot” you when you leave the booth to take a break or to check out the competition. For bigger booths a good rule of thumb is to have two to four staffers for every 100 square feet of exhibit space.

Even for the smallest trade show, no one shows up without booth training. (Messages, themes, demo’s. Everyone should be articulate and agile in describing and demoing the products.) And if you don’t show up for booth training, work somewhere else. (I’ve always visibly sent someone home from a tradeshow for missing training or booth duty.  It makes the point and becomes company lore.  You’ll never have to do it again.) Everyone should understand your goals, your messages, your demos and your theme and know their role. If your don’t have enough employees on the payroll, hire relatives, friends, or part-timers and train them.

Trade Show Post Mortem
Evaluate the experience.

  • Physical booth: What worked? What didn’t?
  • Demos/Equipment: What worked? What didn’t?
  • Messages/theme: What worked? What didn’t?
  • Staffing: What worked? What didn’t?

Write it down and keep it in a tradeshow handbook for those who will follow.

Go to trade shows like it matters.

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Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters – Part 1

Ignore This Post
If you’re selling via the web and trade shows are something your grandfather told you about, ignore this post.  If you’re in markets that still exhibit at them (semiconductors, communications, enterprise software, medical devices, etc.,) you know they’re expensive in time, dollars and resources.

I wrote this “Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters” memo as a board member after I saw our company at a trade show. My observation was that they had the “Going to Trade Shows” part down, they just needed to add the “Like it Matters.”

————

To: Marketing Department
From: Steve
Subject: Going to Trade Shows Like it Matters

Setting Clear Trade Show Objectives
There’s no use going to a show if you don’t know why.  Answers like, “because our competitors are there,” or “because it’s on our calendar,” or even “because I think we should,” don’t cut it.  (Remember your department has a mission.) There’s a plethora of reasons why a company would want to exhibit at a show:

  • write sales orders
  • generate leads for future sales
  • research the competition
  • spot trends
  • generate awareness and visibility within the industry
  • build our mailing list with quality names
  • find better or cheaper suppliers
  • build rapport with current customers
  • get press
  • generate excitement around a new product introduction
  • get additional partners
  • recruit staff

The problem with this list is that every company can find at least five things they like on it.   For a small company this is like throwing your tradeshow money on the floor.  A company must pick the one or two top goals or nothing useful will happen. The number one reason a small company is going to a tradeshow is to generate awareness.  As the company gets larger and a large professional sales organization kicks in, its second priority is to generate qualified leads. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t tertiary goals, but they are just that – not the top one or two.

Before you go to a trade show sales and marketing need to agree to measurable goals. Everything you do before, during, and after the show should be evaluated in terms of whether it contributes toward reaching these goals.  While marketing can decide they are going to the show to generate awareness, marketing can’t decide they are going to a show to generate leads – unless the VP of Sales says that they believe those leads will be valuable and sales has a plan to follow up on those leads. 

If sales doesn’t think the show is worth going to for the leads, and marketing isn’t going to generate awareness, remind me – why are you going to this show?

Generating Awareness
Ownership
If your company is going to a show to a tradeshow to generate awareness, then marketing owns the show, and sales is there for support.  Do not assign any sales people to the show who feel they “have something better to do,” 1) they might actually do (like closing an order) and, 2) bad sales attitudes are contagious.

Budget
A test for whether a show is worth going to generate awareness, is to total up the show budget.  Then offer those budget dollars to the VP of Sales.  They have a choice; they can tell you not to go to this show and they can use your show budget for anything they want in sales; or they can let you go to the show to use those dollars to create awareness for them.  If the VP of Sales doesn’t think that generating end user awareness and ultimately demand for them is worthwhile, then one of you is an idiot.  Hope it’s not you.

Once you know which show you’re going to and what your goals are, draw up a budget. Without a budget, costs can quickly spiral out of control (last minute impulse purchases to jazz up your booth, for example) and defeat your best laid plans. A rule of thumb is that your space costs represent about a quarter of your total show budget. So when you know what you’ll be paying for space rental, multiply it by four, for a rough idea of your expenses.

The Message
Sitting around a conference room table brainstorming messages that might resonate with customers, or worse having a PR agency doing that for you, is a firing offense in a small company.  You should be brainstorming messages with current and potential customers.  Your messages should have been pre-tested with prospects and existing customers way before you go to a show.

Say it Loud
Attendees are looking at hundreds of booths each screaming messages at them.  Why are your messages going to stand out?  Show-goers can’t sort through a pile of inarticulate or barely whispered thoughts. 
Pick just one or two key ideas that you want to get across at the show and train yourself and your staff to “stay on message”.  Then that message needs to be translated into a theme for the booth, the staff and the show.

Then shout the messages out (virtually) at the top of your lungs. Visually, demo’s, wild colors, etc.  If you think you are going to offend your customers or embarrass your engineering organization, get out of the marketing department.  IBM doesn’t have to shout to get noticed, but you do.  Design your graphics, pre-show promotion, literature and show directory advertising around your focused message and theme.  However, scantly clad women, children and animals (in any combination) are still in bad taste.

Promotions attract booth traffic
Promotions and give-away’s drive traffic to your booth. Offer a free bestselling book in your industry (can you have the author there to autograph it?); Hold a contest, (If you’re giving away a big prize make sure your most valuable prospect wins.) Have a loud product demo; give away pieces of candy; hire a masseuse and offer free back rubs. While the promotion needs to fit your company’s image and the demeanor of the attendees, I’ll tell you that I’d be giving away dating-service T-shirts at the bereaved widows’ convention. 

Location, location, location
A small booth is no excuse for being stuck in the corner.  Don’t tell me “that’s where they put all the small booths.”  I know that, so why do I need you?  Get yourself into the booth selection meetings and get to know the manager.  Call often and early and try to upgrade your location.  Shoot for a high-traffic location.  Be sure to look at a floor plan before you choose your site. Foot traffic is heaviest in certain areas of a typical trade show floor. Look for locations near entrances, food concessions, rest rooms, seminar rooms, or close to major exhibitors. Try to avoid dead-end aisles, loading docks, obstructing columns, or other low-traffic regions.

Partners Booths
While your booth may be small, some of your potential or existing partners may have much larger ones, in much more visible locations. Figure out how to get your equipment into every other big booth we can. But it has to come with one of your people to talk about the product. If you tell me we can’t find any established exhibitor whose products or services complement ours to let us in, I question why you are going to this show.

Tradeshow Seminars           
Almost all tradeshows have conferences and seminar sessions; is your company keynoting any?  Leading or speaking at any? No is the wrong answer.  If there aren’t any that match your company, create some.  You ought to know who the conference or seminar chairman is a year a head of time, and they certainly ought to know you.  I can’t imagine your company going to a tradeshow to create awareness and not being a speaker.  (That means neither can you.)

Preshow Publicity
Does your company have any new announcements to make at the show?  Are you twittering your appearance at the show?  Did you create a Facebook page for the show?  Are you buying Google adwords and adsense for the show?  Did you issue any press releases targeted at the trade publications and local papers that will be covering the show?  Has the company talked to key industry analysts/press pre-show to ask them to stop by?  Did the company send out direct mail (email or postcards) to potential or pre-registered attendees reminding them to stop by the booth? Do you have press kits for the show, (electronic and paper) and have you posted them on-line and dropped them by the physical and on-line press room?

Key Influencers
Does the company have press/industry analysts scheduled for demos?  Does the company have demos or dinners/lunch scheduled for key industry influencers?  Is the company hosting/co-sponsoring some event?  Why not?  

Customer Discovery
Sitting inside of your company you’ve made a whole bunch of assumptions about who your customers are and why they will buy.  Now there are thousands of real live customers walking around the show floor with facts.  You need to get those facts back inside our building.  What are all the questions you’ve ever had about customers?  What do they read?  What other shows do they go to?  How would they reach them?  Have they ever heard of you?  Do they believe your key messages?  Do they believe the problem you are solving is important?  Who would buy your product? 

Measurement
How do you measure success at a tradeshow where the goal was generating awareness?  Ask the potential customers who actually came to your booth and call them after the show.  Take all the leads you got at the show (yes you are collecting leads even though you’re at the show to generate awareness) and follow up.  Ask them what they thought of your company/product before/after the show.  What message did they take away?  Did this help them to understand your company/product

Part 2 of the memo, to be posted tomorrow: using a trade show to generate leads. Plus tips on overall trade show strategy.

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Founders and dysfunctional families

Startup CEO Traits
I was having lunch with a friend who is a retired venture capitalist and we drifted into a discussion of the startups she funded. We agreed that all her founding CEOs seemed to have the same set of personality traits – tenacious, passionate, relentless, resilient, agile, and comfortable operating in chaos. I said, “well for me you’d have to add coming from a dysfunctional family.”  Her response was surprising, “Steve, almost all my CEO’s came from very tough childhoods.  It was one of the characteristics I specifically looked for. It’s why all of you operated so well in the unpredictable environment that all startups face.” 74HGZA3MZ6SV

I couldn’t figure out if I was more perturbed about how casual the comment was or how insightful it was.  What makes an individual a great startup founder (versus an employee) has been something I had been thinking about since I retired. My comfort in operating in chaos was something I first recognized when I was working in the Midwest.

The Rust Belt – (Skip this Section if I’m Boring You)
Out of the Air Force, my first job out of school was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the mid-1970’s installing broadband process control systems in automotive and manufacturing plants throughout the Midwest. I got to travel and see almost every type of Rust Belt factory – at the time, the heart and muscle of American manufacturing – GM, American Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel, Whirlpool.  Our equipment was installed in the manufacturing lines of these companies, and if it went down sometimes it brought the entire manufacturing line down.

I always made a habit of getting a tour of whatever manufacturing plant I was visiting. Most plant foremen were more than accommodating and flattered that someone actually was interested.  I was fascinated to learn how everyday objects (cars, washing machines, structural steel, etc.) that ended up on our shelves or driveways were assembled.

My favorite factory was the massive U.S. Steel plant by Lake Erie. On my first visit the foreman walked through this enormous building, not much more than a giant steel shed, where they had an open hearth furnace. We came in time to see the furnace being tapped, pouring steel out into giant buckets. (Years later I realized I watched the end of an era. The last open hearth furnaces closed in the 1980’s.)

We stood on a platform several stories up and light streamed diagonally through windows set high on top of the building cutting through the black soot particles created when the incandescent steel hit the bucket. It was too loud to talk so I just watched the steel pour through the clouds of soot backlit by the blinding bright liquid metal. It looked like an update of the iconic image of Penn Station writ large.

And as I stared through the billowing clouds of soot flashing between black and white took on fantastical shapes as tiny figures on the factory floor scurried around the bucket. I could have stayed there all day.

Automobile plants were equally fascinating. They were like being inside a pinball machine. At the Ford plant in Milpitas the plant foreman proudly took me down the line. I remember stopping at one station a little confused about its purpose. All the other stations on the assembly line had groups workers with power tools adding something to the car.

This station just had one guy with a 2×4 piece of lumber, a large rubber mallet and a folded blanket.  His spot was right after the station where they had dropped the hoods down on the cars, and had bolted them in. As I was watched, the next car rolled down the line, the station before attached the hood, and as the car approached this station, the worker took the 2×4, shoved it under one corner of the hood and put the blanket over the top of the hood and started pounding it with the rubber mallet while prying with the lumber.  “It’s our hood alignment station,” the plant manager said proudly.  These damn models weren’t designed right so we’re fixing them on the line.”

I had a queasy feeling that perhaps this wasn’t the way to solve the car quality problem.  Little did I know that I was watching the demise of the auto industry in front of my eyes.

Operating in Chaos
Repairing our equipment could be time critical. One day, I was at the Ford Wixom auto assembly plant training my replacement and I was at met at the door by an irate plant manager.  He welcomed us by screaming, “Do you know how much it costs every minute this line is down.” As I’m troubleshooting our equipment scattered across the plant, (in the computer room, above the steel, in NEMA cabinets next to line, etc.,) the manager followed us still yelling.  My understudy looked at me and said, “how can you deal with this chaos and still focus?”  And until that moment I had never thought about it before.  I realized that what others heard as chaos, I just shut out.

A Day in the Life of A Founder
For those of you who’ve never started a company, let me assure you that it never happens like the pleasant articles you read in business magazines or in case studies.  Founding a company is a sheer act of will and tenacity in the face of immense skepticism from everyone – investors, customers, friends, etc.  You literally have to take your vision of the opportunity and against all rational odds assemble financing, and a team to help you execute.  And that’s just to get started.

Next, you have to deal with the daily crisis of product development and acquiring early customers.  And here’s where life gets really interesting, as the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out business plan becomes irrelevant.

If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die.

Great founders live for these moments.

Creating the Entrepreneurial Personality – A Thought Experiment
Fast forward three decades back to today.  The lunch conversation was an interesting data point to add to a hypothesis I’ve had.

I’ve wondered, just as a thought experiment, how would we go about creating individuals who operate serenely in chaos, and have the skills we associate with one type of entrepreneurial founder/leader?

One possible path might be to raise children in an environment where parents are struggling in their own lives and they create an environment where fighting, abusive or drug/alcohol related behavior is the norm.

In this household nothing would be the same from day to day, the parents would constantly bombard their kids with dogmatic parenting, (harsh and inflexible discipline,) and they would control them by withholding love, praise, and attention. Finally we could make sure no child is allowed to express the “wrong” emotion. Children in these families would grow up thinking that this behavior is normal.

(If this seems unimaginably cruel to you, congratulations, you had a great set of parents.  On the other hand, if the description is making you uncomfortable remembering some of how you were raised – welcome to a fairly wide club.)

Over the last 5 years I’ve asked over 500 of my students how many of them grew up in a dysfunctional family (participation was voluntary.) I’ve been surprised at the data. In this admittedly very unscientific survey I’ve found that between a quarter and half of the students I consider “hard-core” entrepreneurs/founders (working passionately to found a company,) self-identified as coming from a less than benign upbringing.

Founders as Survivors
My hypothesis is that most children are emotionally damaged by this upbringing.  But a small percentage, whose brain chemistry and wiring is set for resilience, come out of this with a compulsive, relentless and tenacious drive to succeed.  They have learned to function in a permanent state of chaos.  And they have channeled all this into whatever activity they could find outside of their home – sports, business, or …entrepreneurship.

Therefore, I’ll posit one possible path for a startup founder – the dysfunctional family theory.

Throwing hand grenades in Your Own Company
One last thought. The dysfunctional family theory may explain why founders who excel in the chaotic early phases of a company throw organizational hand grenades into their own companies after they find a repeatable and scaleable business model and need to switch gears into execution.

The problem, I believe, is that repeatability represents the extreme discomfort zone of this class of entrepreneur. And I have seen entrepreneurs emotionally or organizationally try to create chaos — it’s too calm around here — and actually self-destruct.

So What?
Lets be clear, in no way am I suggesting that growing up in a dysfunctional family is the only path to becoming a founder of a startup.  Nor am I suggesting that everyone who does so turns out well. And in particular I’m not suggesting that every employee who joins a startup fits this profile, it just seems more prevalent in the founder(s).

And this hypothesis might be a good example of confusing cause and effect. Yet I am surprised given how much is written about the attributes of a startup founder, how little has been written about what “makes” a founder.

Let me know what you think.   Does any of this match your experience or people you know?

Comments and brickbats welcomed.

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The Curse of a New Building

At some point in my career as I began to ponder how/why startups morph from agile, “can do” companies to ones that have lost their edge. I didn’t need to look much further than the “new building” debacle I had a hand in.

Signs of Success
One of the things you do right in a startup, is you move from one cheap and cramped building to another as you grow, with desks, cubicles and engineers piled cheek to jowl.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

One of the signs of success is when you outgrow your last cramped quarters and can afford a “real” building. This happened to us at SuperMac when our sales skyrocketed.

That’s when things went south.

Lets Fix Everything that Was Broken
At SuperMac we were excited to finally get out of the crummy tiltup we had occupied since the company emerged from bankruptcy. Now with cash in hand, we wanted to fix everything that seemed broken and annoying about our office environment. We made what seemed to be a series of logical and rational decisions about what to do with our next office building.

  • Engineers were packed in cubicles or desks right on top of each other?
    Now every engineer can have their own office.
  • We can’t bring customers to this rundown building.
    The new building needs to reflect that we’re a successful and established company.
  • The lobby of the last building didn’t “represent” the company in a professional manner.
    Lets “do it right” and have a lobby and reception area that projects a professional image.
  • We had used, crummy and uncomfortable furniture.
    Lets get comfortable chairs and great new desks for everyone.  None of this used stuff.
  • The last building has stained carpets and walls that haven’t been painted in years.
    Now we can pick out carpets that look good and feel good and we can have clean walls with great artwork and murals.
  • We didn’t have enough conference rooms.
    Lets make sure that we have plenty of conference rooms.
  • Everyone left the building for lunch.
    We need our own cafeteria so employees don’t have to leave the building.

Designing the Perfect Building
Once the commitment to fix everything wrong was in place, we were off and running on the design phase. We hired an interior designer and a great facilities person to manage the process. The exec staff started meeting about the design of the new building.

The company decided that now engineers can have their own offices rather than cramped cubes. The staff got involved about what color the carpet and walls are. And there was lots of discussion of what style of furniture is appropriate.

Our exec staff spent time worrying about who had the corner office, and what departments had the “prime” location. (I was great at “office wars.”) There was lots of talk about the importance of natural lighting and maybe we needed our own cafeteria. And even better, marketing got to design the graphics for the lobby and hallway (bright and colorful neon) to better represent the color graphics business we were in.

We kept the board informed, but they didn’t have much to say since business was going so well, and a new building was needed to accommodate the growing company.

None of This is Good News
This is when things started to go downhill for SuperMac. The most obvious problem; the time we spent planning the building distracted the company from running the business. But there were three more insidious problems.

  1. While offices for everyone sound good on paper, moving everyone out of cubicles destroyed a culture of tight-knit interaction and communication. Individuals within departments were isolated, and the size and scale of the building isolated departments from each other.
  2. The new building telegraphed to our employees, “We’ve arrived. We’re no longer a small struggling startup. You can stop working like a startup and start working like a big company.”
  3. We started to believe that the new building was a reflection of the company’s (and our own) success. We took our eye off the business.  We thought that since we in such a fine building, we were geniuses, and the business would take care of itself.

While our competitors furiously worked on regaining market share, we were arguing about whether the carpets should be wool or nylon.  The result was not pretty.

The Curse of a New Building
If this was just a sad story about a single company, it would be interesting, but not instructive.  However, I’ve seen this story repeated time and again, and not just in Silicon Valley. There’s a mindset that says, “By the dint of our hard work, we are “entitled” to a building upgrade and this is our just reward.”  And on an emotional level it makes sense.  But if you are lucky you have a board of directors who have seen this before. (And they’ll take the CEO out for a trip to the woodshed.)

  1. An upgraded new building is a premature transition away from a startup culture.
  2. It’s a tipping point to a big company culture.
  3. This is a culture and values issue worth fighting over.

Letting this happen is a failure of a board. If the management team is thinking they’ve made it, the new building is just symptomatic of a company heading for a crash.  It’s a company that’s lost sight of the values that got it there.

Don’t let it happen to you.

Stay hungry, stay lean.

Lessons Learned

  • New buildings are a distraction. You should avoid them at all costs
  • Building upgrades can destroy a culture

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Gravity Will be Turned Off

Part of marketing is the ability to communicate a message to thousands of people and convince them to believe your version of reality. When I was 19 I accidentally had a test run of my ability to do so. I created havoc at an air force base by convincing thousands of airman that gravity would be turned off so that the Air Force could make repairs under their buildings. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Two Million Students
First some background. Ever since WWII U.S. Air Force aircraft have carried sophisticated avionics equipment – radar, navigation, electronic warfare, etc. While the sharp end of the stick were the pilot and/or crew, each of these systems required a cadre of technicians to maintain and repair the equipment. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was the Training Center responsible for teaching 10’s of thousands of students a year how to repair radar, communications, and electronics. Some 2 million students have trained there since it opened in 1942. Think of it as the ultimate vocational training school.

Trade School
At the height of the Vietnam War, I was at Keesler learning how to repair electronic warfare equipment, a skill which had gone from theory (our B-52 bombers might one day have to use this stuff –once – penetrating the Soviet Air Defense system) to practice (our fighter/bombers were encountering the murderously effective North Vietnamese air defense system every day.)

In hindsight the USAF did a damn good job. We spent the first five months learning basic electronics theory and the next months getting our hands dirty with the theory and practice of electronic warfare receivers and jammers. As it was a vocational school, I think the most math we had to do was to figure out whether we got a passing grade, and no one was in any danger of actually designing new equipment, but I left with an excellent education in troubleshooting, and solving complex problems in real-time.

Duality – Student Life – in the Military
Here we were, thousands of students with an average age of 19 going to school and living in barracks on the airbase. The barracks were like college dorms except we had to polish the brass doorknobs, wax and buff the hallway floors and make our beds.  We attended classes from 6am to noon – five days a week.  And we had to march to class (I’m convinced it was the only way they figured they were going to get us up and out of bed at that hour).

There was a duality to our existence.  On one hand, we were in a rigid command and control system where we had to follow orders, salute officers and understand the military hierarchy, yet on the other we were in an educational institution where we were encouraged to ask all the questions you wanted.  And we had afternoons and weekends off.  We could go off base and do anything a group of 19-year olds wanted to, like skydiving, but that’s another story.

Library Hours
I loved libraries since I was a kid. Growing up in New York, the library was the only calm and stable place in my life, a refuge from home. I read my way through our small neighborhood library.

My fondness for libraries and my reading habit carried through to the Air Force, and this technical school had an awesome technology library. One day I opened up a Scientific American magazine and read an article on a prank that had been pulled at CalTech the year before. And something about the story clicked for me. I thought that this practical joke would be even funnier in a military organization than it was at Caltech. (I’ll describe the actual prank in a bit.)

Alone with Letterhead
Every evening someone in the barracks had to serve as the “fire warden” for the night.  In hindsight, fire warden meant you were a manual smoke alarm. You walked around the barracks and made sure the building wasn’t on fire. (Anytime you put 10,000 19-year olds on a base you can bet one of them will go to sleep with a cigarette and burn his mattress, if not the building.)

The other minor duty of the fire warden was to update the squadron bulletin board. This was the one place you had to go daily to read all the official notices, and orders.  Reading official military notices and memos always seemed funny to me as they had the most verbose and obtuse ways of saying even the simplest things. You usually had to read two pages to realize the memo said, “No Smoking Indoors,” or “Mandatory meeting on Thursday.”

Following Orders
One night it was my turn on fire warden duty, and with way too much time on my hands, I was mulling over the philosophical contradictions of the literal interpretation that my fellow military students placed on even the most trivial orders.  Orders didn’t have to make sense, we were told, “an order is an order. Don’t think, just follow it.” I wondered how far that would really go.

Then I thought of the Caltech prank. If it worked on a college campus, I wonder what would happen on a military base?

So working into the wee hours of the morning I typed up a version of the Cal Tech prank (on official base letterhead,) translating it into military phraseology. I typed 30 copies, and using the master key I went into every squadron building bulletin board, and posted these orders from the base commander on all 30.

The memo I posted looked something like this:gravity 1gravity 2Friday Formation
I had posted my memo on Wednesday, got a good chuckle over it and promptly forget all about it. I thought it was very funny, a good one-time joke and people would laugh and then remove it from the bulletin board. But a few days had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought the joke had fallen flat on its face.

Every building/squadron had an officer in charge of us, and all 300 hundred or so would gather in the courtyard every Friday for our squadron meeting, where our lieutenant would give us orders for the weekend, (usually have a good time) and answer any questions.

We’re standing in the Friday squadron formation, and the lieutenant comes out, who is all of 22 years old. The sergeant calls, “Squadron a-ten hut,” we all snap to attention. The lieutenant reads the orders of the weekend, blah, blah, blah, and then says, “okay, any questions?”  And usually there weren’t any questions because everyone wants to go and be dismissed for the weekend.  But today was going to be a bit different.

I’m ready to run for the gate, but wait, there’s a raised hand.

“Sir, about the gravity being turned off, what if we have fish?  Should we cover their bowls?” I almost burst out laughing surprised there was at least one person in the squadron who believed the memo. The lieutenant is silent for a long minute, staring at the airman who asked the question, and calculating whether he heard it correctly or was being made fun of. But before he could respond, someone else raised his hand and says, “Sir, what if we have small children and they’re crawling, and we can’t get them off base, will they affected by the gravity?”

Ok, I think, maybe there were two.

But that was the cue for 10 more people simultaneously to burst out with questions, (“How about motorcycles will they be OK? Can we go to the bathroom when the gravity is turned off?”) And I started to panic as it dawns on me that this conversation is occurring 30 times the 300 people in each of the 30 squadrons on this airbase.

The lieutenant looks stunned.  Were we all on drugs?  What on earth were we talking about?  He sent the sergeant to get the memo from the bulletin board, reads it and he starts looking really confused.  It can’t be real, but yet… it does look like an official order from the base commander.

The lieutenant leaves to call the base commander,(about the same time 29 other lieutenants were doing the same.) “But sir, the order came from you.” An hour and a half later we finally get dismissed with a, “Ignore that order, it wasn’t really an order.”

Years later at different air bases, at the most unexpected times, I’d hear someone bring up, “Hey, were you at Keesler when they had those orders about the gravity being turned off?”  And I always say, “No, never heard of it, tell me about it.”  The story was even better when someone else told it.

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