Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA

Entrepreneurs tend to view adversity as opportunity.

You’re Hired, You’re Fired.
My first job in Silicon Valley: I was hired as a lab technician at ESL to support the training department. I packed up my life in Michigan and spent five days driving to California to start work. (Driving across the U.S. is an adventure everyone ought to do. It makes you appreciate that the Silicon Valley technology-centric culture-bubble has little to do with the majority of Americans.) With my offer letter in-hand I reported to ESL’s Human Resources (HR) department. I was met by a very apologetic manager who said, “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last week. The manager of the training department who hired you wasn’t authorized to do so – and he’s been fired. I am sorry there really isn’t a job for you.”

I was stunned. I had quit my job, given up my apartment, packed everything I owned in the back of my car, knew no one else in Silicon Valley and had about $200 in cash. This could be a bad day. I caught my breath and thought about it for a minute and said, “How about I go talk to the new training manager. Could I work here if he wanted to hire me?” Taking sympathy on me, the HR person made a few calls, and said, “Sure, but he doesn’t have the budget for a lab tech. He’s looking for a training instructor.”

You’re Hired Again
Three hours later and a few more meetings I discovered the training department was in shambles. The former manager had been fired because:

  1. ESL had a major military contract to deploy an intelligence gathering system to Korea
  2. they needed to train the Army Security Agency on maintenance of the system
  3. the 10 week training course (6-hours a day) hadn’t been written
  4. the class was supposed to start in 6 weeks.

As I talked to the head of training and his boss, I pointed out that the clock was ticking down for them, I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. I made them a pretty good offer – hire me as a training instructor at the salary they were going to pay me as a lab technician. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing. So I got hired for the second time at ESL, this time as a training instructor.

The good news is that I had just gotten my first promotion in Silicon Valley, and I hadn’t even started work.

The bad news is that I had 6 weeks to write a 10 week course on three 30-foot vans full of direction finding electronics plus a small airplane stuffed full of receivers. “And, oh by the way, can you write the manuals for the operators while you’re at it.” Since there was very little documentation my time was split between the design engineers who built the system and the test and deployment team getting the system ready to go overseas. As I poured over the system schematics, I figured out how to put together a course to teach system theory, operations and maintenance.

Are You Single?
After I was done teaching each the day, I continued to write the operations manuals and work with the test engineers. (I was living the dream – working 80 hour weeks and all the technology I could drink with a fire hose.) Two weeks before the class was over the head of the deployment team asked, “Steve are you single?” Yes. “Do you like to travel?” Sure. “Why don’t you come to Korea with us when we ship the system overseas.” Uh, I think I work for the training department. “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll get you temporarily assigned to us and then you can come back as a Test Engineer/Training Instructor and work on a much more interesting system.” More interesting than this? Sign me up.

You’re Not So Smart, You Just Show Up a Lot
While this was going on, my roommate (who I knew from Ann Arbor where he got his masters degree in computer science,) couldn’t figure out how I kept getting these increasingly more interesting jobs. His theory, he told me, was this: “You’re not so smart, you just show up a lot in a lot of places.” I wore it as a badge of honor.

But over the years I realized his comment was actually an astute observation about the mental mindset of an entrepreneur, and therein lies the purpose of this post.

Congratulations, You’re now in Charge of your Life
Growing up at home, our parents tell us what’s important and how to prioritize. In college we have a set of classes and grades needed to graduate. (Or in my case the military set the structure of what constituted success and failure.) In most cases until you’re in your early 20’s, someone else has planned a defined path of what you’re going to do next.

When you move out on your own, you don’t get a memo that says “Congratulations, you’re now in charge of your life.” Suddenly you are in charge of making up what you do next. You have to face dealing with uncertainly.

Most normal people (normal as defined as being someone other than an entrepreneur) seek to minimize uncertainty and risk and take a job with a defined career path like lawyer, teacher or fire fighter. A career path is a continuation of the direction you’ve gotten at home and school – do these things and you’ll get these rewards. (Even with a career path you’ll discover that you need to champion your own trajectory down that path. No one will tell you that you are in a dead end job. No one will say that it’s time to move on. No one will tell you that you are better qualified for something elsewhere. No one will say work less and go home and spend time with your partner and/or family.  And many end up near the end of their careers trapped, saying, “I wish I could have…, I think I should have…”)

Non-Linear Career Path
But entrepreneurs instinctually realize that the best advocate for their careers is themselves and that there is no such thing as a linear career path. They recognize they are going to have to follow their own internal compass and embrace the uncertainty as part of the journey.

In fact using uncertainty as your path is an advantage entrepreneurs share. Their journey will have them try more disconnected paths than someone on a traditional career track. And one day all the seemingly random data and experience they’ve acquired will end up as an insight in building something greater than the sum of the parts.

Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech still says it best -
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

Lessons Learned

  • Trust your instincts
  • Showing up a lot increases your odds
  • Trust that the dots in your career will connect
  • Have a passion for Doing something rather than Being a title on a business card.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Convergent Technologies: War Story 1 – Selling with Sports Scores

When I was a young marketer I learned how to listen to customers by making a fool of myself.

Twenty eight years ago I was the bright, young, eager product marketing manager called out to the field to support sales by explaining the technical details of Convergent Technologies products to potential customers.

The OEM Business
Convergent’s business was selling desktop computers (with our own operating system and office applications) to other computer manufacturers – most of them long gone: Burroughs, Prime, Monroe Data Systems, ADP, Mohawk, Gould, NCR, 4-Phase, AT&T.  These companies would take our computers and put their name on them and resell them to their customers.

Business customers were starting to ask for “office automation solutions” – word processing, spreadsheets, graphing software on a desktop.  This was just before the IBM PC hit the desktop so there were no “standard” operating systems or applications for desktop platforms. Computer hardware companies were faced with their customers asking for low-cost (relatively) desktop computers they had no experience in building. Their engineering teams didn’t have the expertise using off-the-shelf microprocessors (back then “real” computer companies designed their own instruction sets and operating systems.) They couldn’t keep up with the fast product development times that were enabled by using standard microprocessors. So their management teams were insisting that they OEM (buy from someone else) these products.  Convergent Technologies was one of those OEM suppliers.

Their engineers hated us.

I was traveling with the regional sales manager who had called on these companies, gotten them interested and now needed someone from the factory to provide technical details and answer questions about how the product could be configured and customized.

See How Smart I Am
As the eager young marketer on my first sales call, as soon as we shook hands I was in front of the room pitching our product and technical features. I knew everything about our operating system, hardware and applications – and I was going to prove it.  I talked all about how great the new products were and went into excruciating detail on our hardware and operating system and explained why no one other than our company could build something so brilliantly designed. (This being presented to another company’s proud engineering team who was being forced to buy product from us because they couldn’t build their own in time.)  After I sat down I was convinced the only logical conclusion was for the customer to tell us how many they wanted to buy.

The result wasn’t what I expected. The customers didn’t act particularly excited about the product and how brilliantly I presented it. I do believe some actually rolled their eyes.  They looked at their watches, gave our sales guy a quizzical look and left.

After the meeting our sale rep took me aside and asked if “perhaps I wouldn’t mind watching him on the next call.“

Sports Scores
The next day, as I drove to our next meeting the sales guy was intently reading the sports section of the newspaper and as I glanced over he seemed to be writing down the scores.  I wondered if he had a bookie.  When we got to the meeting he reminded me to be quiet and follow his lead.

We shook hands with the customers, but instead of launching into a product pitch (or better, letting me launch into the pitch) he started asking how their families were.  He even remembered the names of their wives and kids and some details about schools or events. (I couldn’t believe it, here we were wasting precious time and the dumb sales guy is talking about other stuff.)

Just as I thought we were going to talk about the product, he then mentioned the previous nights football game. (Damn, another five minutes down the tube as the whole room chimed in with an opinion as we talked about something else unimportant.)

The Customer is a Genius
Then instead of talking about our products he segued the conversation into their products. He complemented their elegantly designed minicomputers and made some astute comment about their architecture (now I’m rolling my eyes, their computers were dinosaurs) and asked who were the brilliant designers.  I was surprised to see that they were in the room.  And soon the conversation were about architectural tradeoffs and then how customers didn’t appreciate the elegant designs and how the world was going to hell in a handbasket because of these commodity microprocessors.  And our sales guy was agreeing and commiserating.  (And I’m thinking why is he doing all this, just tell these idiots that the world has passed them by and they need to buy our stuff and lets get an order.)

The engineers spoke about all the pressure they were getting from management to build desktop personal computers rather than their traditional minicomputers. And that their management wanted these new systems on a schedule that was impossible to meet. Then our sales guy says something that makes me stop breathing for a while.  “I bet if your management team would give you guys the resources you guys could build desktop computers better than anyone, even better than us.”  There’s a unanimous agreement around the table about how great they were and how bad management was.

The Consultative Sale
Our sales guy then quietly asked if there was any way we could help them.  (Help them?!! We’re here to sell them our stuff, why can’t we just present what we got and they’ll buy it.)  The VP of Engineering says, “well we don’t have the resources or time, and as long as you know we could build better computers then you guys, why don’t you tell us the details about your computers.”

I had just watched a master of the consultative sale.

Engineers as Salesmen
I thought (and still do) that this sales guy walked on water. He had spent 12 years at DEC, first as a hardware engineer designing part of the PDP-16, then as the marketing manager for the LSI-11 and then into sales.

Making sales calls with him taught me what a world class salesperson was like.  It also made me understand what kind of support sales people needed from marketing and what marketing programs were wasted motion.

It also made me realize that there are times you don’t want any sales people in your company.

Startups and Sales
If you read this post you can come away with the impression that every startup with a direct salesforce needs a consultative sales team.  Not true.

The answer depends on your answer to two questions:

  1. which step in the Customer Development process are you on?
  2. what Market Type is your startup?

Customer Development and Selling Strategy
If you’ve just started your company you are in customer discovery.  If you’ve tried to slog your way through my book on Customer Development you know that I’m insistent that the founders need to be the ones getting outside the building (physically or virtually) to validate all the initial hypotheses of the business model and product.  If you hire a VP of Sales with the idea that they can do customer discovery you violated the first principle of Customer Development – this isn’t a step the can be outsourced to a non-founder.

Customer Development DiagramHiring a VP of Sales in customer discovery typically sets a startup back. It’s only after you’re done with customer discovery and are in the final steps of customer validation (building a repeatable and scalable sales process) that you start hiring a sales executive.

The next thing you need to do is match your sales team with your market type.

Market Type and Sales Teams
If you remember from a previous post, startups fall into four Types of Markets. You need to hire the right type of sales people for the type of market.

market-typeIf you are in a New Market, (delivering what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive innovation) the market doesn’t even have a name and customers have no clue on how your product works or how it could help them.  This market cries out for a sales force that can help educate and guide the market to making the right choices.  Your sales team is an extension of your marketing department.  The same is true if you are in an existing marketing and trying to sell to a niche or a segment of the market based on your knowledge of their particular needs.  Both New Markets and Resegmented Niche Markets required a skilled consultative sales force.

This is very different from the sales team you would hire to sell in an existing market or a cheaper product.

If you’re in an existing market and you have a superior product, by all means tout your features and specifications.  However, your product itself will be doing a lot of the selling.  If it is demonstrably better as you claim your marketing department needs to communicate that competitive advantage and your sales curve should look linear as you take share from the existing incumbents.

If you are resegmenting an existing market a product with a cheaper alternative, by all means tout your price.  Your marketing department should be all over this.  In both cases you really don’t need a skilled/consultative sales force.  A sales team with a great rolodex will do.

Sales by Market Type

Sales by Market Type

Lessons Learned

  • Get out of the building (physically or virtually)
  • Sales calls aren’t your IQ test or PhD defense
  • Stop talking and listen to the customers problem
  • Hire a sales team at the Customer Validation step
  • Match the sales team to market type

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Elephants Can Dance – Reinventing HP

I was at the Stanford library going through the papers of Fred Terman and came across a memo from 1956 that probably hasn’t been seen or read in over 50 years. It had nothing to do with the subject I was looking for, so I read it, chuckled, put it back in the file and kept leafing through the other papers. About a minute later I did a double-take as it hit me what I had just read. (I’ll show you the memo in a second. But first some background.)

Things Change
In 1956 Hewlett Packard (HP) was a 17-year old company with $20 million in test equipment sales with 900 employees.  It was still a year away from its IPO.

Its latest product was an oscilloscope, the HP 150a.

HP 150a Oscilloscope 1956

HP 150a Oscilloscope 1956

In March of 1956, Fred Terman, the Stanford professor who encouraged Bill Hewlett and David Packard to start HP, wrote Bill Hewlett asking for help.

Terman, who now was the Provost of Stanford, had joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps advisory board, and the Army was going to acquire their first computer for research.  No one in the Army Signal Corps knew much about computers. (To be fair in 1956 not too many people in the world knew much either.) So the Army asked Terman for help.

Fred Terman wrote to Bill Hewlett asking if he or anyone at Hewlett Packard could help them figure out these “computers.”

Hewlett’s answer, in the memo I discovered in the Stanford library, is below.

HP Letter

I have no personal knowledge of computers nor does anyone in our organization have any appreciable knowledge.

We Changed Our Mind
In 1966, 10 years after Hewlett’s memo, Hewlett Packard’s revenue and headcount had grown ten fold; $200 million and 11,000 employees – all from test and measurement equipment.  That year HP introduced its first computer, the HP 2116A, as an instrument controller for HP’s test and measurement products. (Hewlett’s partner Dave Packard wanted to get into the computer business.)  It was priced at $22,000 – equivalent to about $140,000 in 2009 dollars.

HP2116B Computer

HP2116B Computer

Thirty-three years after introducing its first computer, Hewlett Packard split into two separate companies.  The original Hewlett Packard which made test and measurement products was spun-out and renamed Agilent.  The remaining company kept the Hewlett Packard name and focussed on computers.

  • Agilent is a $5.8 billion dollar test and measurement company.
  • Hewlett Packard (HP) at a $118 billion is the largest PC and notebook manufacturer in the world.

That’s a pretty long way from a company that admitted it knew nothing about computers.

Elephants Can Dance
HP’s complete makeover made me wonder about other large companies that reinvented themselves.

Intel was founded in 1968 to make memory chips (bipolar RAM) but 17 years later they got out of the memory business and become the leading microprocessor company.

IBM had a near death experience in 1993, and moved from a product-centric hardware company to selling a complete set of solutions and services.

After failing dismally at making disposable digital cameras in 2003 Pure Digital Technologies reinvented their company in 2007 to make the Flip line of camcorders.

Apple was a personal computer company but 25 years after it started, it began the transformation to the iPod and iPhone.

A few carriage makers in the early part of the 20th century made the transition to become car companies. A great example is William Durant’s Durant-Dort Carriage Company. Durant took over Buick, in 1904 and in 1908 he created General Motors by acquiring Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac.

Elephant Graveyard
Reinvention of large companies, while making for great case studies are rare.  For the first 25 years HP’s business model was static. It got bigger by inventing new test and measurement equipment and it hired people who knew how to execute that strategy. Of course HP did ship new products and innovate, but their center of innovation was sustaining innovation, around the core of their existing business. (Clayton Christensen describes this brilliantly in the Innovators Dilemma.)

However, no markets last forever. Technology changes, culture changes, customer needs change, more agile competitors emerge, etc.  So what causes some big companies to reinvent themselves and others to remain static?

Creative Destruction
Most established companies fall into the seductive trap of following short term profits all the way into the ground – leaving only their t-shirts and coffee cups. It’s not the executives are stupid it’s just that there are no incentives (or corporate DNA) for doing otherwise.  General managers of divisons are compensated on division P&L not long term innovation. CEO’s and the executive staff are watching the corporate bottom line and earnings per share. Wall Street wants quarterly earnings.

It’s a pretty safe bet that left to their own devices most large corporations wouldn’t last more than a generation without major reinvention.  And venture capital and entrepreneurship has made life even tougher for the modern corporation. Over the last 35 years venture capital has funded nimble new entrants (on a scale never imagined by Schumpeter) who exist to exploit discontinuities in technology or customer behavior. Startups have forced an accelerated cycle of creative destruction for large companies that didn’t exist in the first half of the 20th century.

Cultural Revolution at Large Corporations – the Founders Return
Of the companies that do reinvent themselves it’s interesting that often its the founder or an outsider that has the insight and makes the radical changes. At HP the founders were still at the company and still running the business. It was David Packard who wanted to get into the commercial computer business – over the objections of his co-founder Bill Hewlett and most of the company.  Packard had the stature and authority to encourage the shift and the internal political acumen to acquire a minicomputer company and label the first HP computer as a “instrument controller.”

At Apple the company reinvented itself on Steve Jobs return.  Howard Shultz came back at Starbucks, Michael Dell reengaging at Dell. Outsiders like Lou Gerstner at IBM and Jon Rubenstein at Palm were brought in to reinvent their companies.

Lessons Learned

  • It’s the founders that can reinvent a company by seeing market shifts that professional managers focused on execution can not
  • If the founders aren’t around, bring in outsiders with fresh insights

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Epitaph for an Entrepreneur

Raising our kids and being an entrepreneur wasn’t easy. Being in a startup and having a successful relationship and family was very hard work. But entrepreneurs can be great spouses and parents.

This post is not advice, nor is it recommendation of what you should do, it’s simply what my wife and I did to raise our kids in the middle of starting multiple companies. Our circumstances were unique and your mileage will vary. Read the previous post first for context.

Biological Clocks
After Convergent and now single again, I was a co-founder of my next two startups; MIPS and Ardent.  I threw myself into work and worked even more hours a day.  And while I had great adventures (stories to come in future posts,) by the time I was in my mid-30’s I knew I wanted a family. (My friends noticed that I was picking up other people’s babies a lot.) I didn’t know if I was ready, but I finally could see myself as a father.

I met my wife on a blind-date and we discovered that not only did we share the same interests but we were both ready for kids. My wife knew a bit about startups. Out of Stanford Business School she went to work for Apple as an evangelist and then joined Ansa Software, the developer of Paradox, a Mac-database.

Product Launch
Our first daughter was born about four months after I started at SuperMac. We ended up sleeping in the hospital lounge for 5 days as she ended up in intensive care.  Our second daughter followed 14½ months later.


Family Rules
My wife and I agreed to a few rules upfront and made up the rest as went along. We agreed I was still going to do startups, and probably more than most spouses she knew what that meant.  To her credit she also understood that meant that child raising wasn’t going to be a 50/50 split; I simply wasn’t going to be home at 5 pm every night.

In hindsight this list looks pretty organized but in reality we made it up as we went along, accompanied with all the husband and wife struggles of being married and trying to raise a family in Silicon Valley. Here are the some of the rules that evolved that seemed to work for our family.

  • We would have a family dinner at home most nights of the week.  Regardless of what I was doing I had to be home by 7pm.  (My kids still remember mom secretly feeding them when they were hungry at 5pm, but eating again with dad at 7pm.)  But we would use dinner time to talk about what they did at school, have family meetings etc.
  • Put the kids to bed.  Since I was already home for dinner it was fun to help give them their baths, read them stories and put them to bed.  I never understood how important the continuity of time between dinner through bedtime was until my kids mentioned it as teenagers.
  • Act and be engaged.  My kids and wife had better antenna than I thought.  If I was home but my head was elsewhere and not mentally engaged they would call me on it. So I figured out how to spit the flow of the day in half. I would work 10 hours a day in the office, come home and then…
  • Back to work after the kids were in bed.  What my kids never saw is that as soon as they were in bed I was back on the computer and back at work for another 4 or 5 hours until the wee hours of the morning.
  • Weekends were with and for my kids. There was always some adventure on the weekends. I think we must have went to the zoo, beach, museum, picnic, amusement park, etc. a 100 times.
  • Half a day work on Saturday.  While weekends were for my kids I did go to work on Saturday morning. But my kids would come with me. This had two unexpected consequences; my kids still remember that work was very cool. They liked going in with me and they said it helped them understand what dad did at “work.” Second, it set a cultural norm at my startups, first at Supermac as the VP of Marketing, then at Rocket Science as the CEO and at E.piphany as President. (Most Silicon Valley startups have great policies for having your dog at work but not your kids.)
  • Long vacations.  We would take at least a 3-week vacation every summer. Since my wife and I liked to hike we’d explore national parks around the U.S. (Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine.) When the kids got older our adventures took us to Mexico, Ecuador, India, Africa and Europe. The trips gave them a sense that the rest of the country and the world was not Silicon Valley and that their lives were not the norm.
  • Never miss an event.  As my kids got older there were class plays, soccer games, piano and dance performances, birthdays, etc. I never missed one if I was in town, sometimes even if it was in the middle of the day. (And I made sure I was in town for the major events.)
  • Engage your spouse.  I asked my wife to read and critique every major presentation and document I wrote. Everything she touched was much better for it. What my investors never knew is that they were getting two of us for the price of one.  (And one of us actually went to business school.)  It helped her understand what I was working on and what I was trying to accomplish.
  • Have a Date-Night.  We tried hard to set aside one evening a week when just the two of us went out to dinner and/or a movie.
  • Get your spouse help.  Early on in our marriage we didn’t have much money but we invested in childcare to help my wife. While it didn’t make up for my absences it offloaded a lot.
  • Traditions matter.  Holidays, both religious and secular, weekly and yearly, were important to us. The kids looked forward to them and we made them special.
  • Travel only if it needed me.  As an executive it was easy to think I had to get on a plane for every deal. But after I had kids I definitely thought long and hard before I would jump on a plane. When I ran Rocket Science our corporate partners were in Japan (Sega), Germany (Bertelsmann) and Italy (Mondadori) and some travel was unavoidable. But I probably traveled 20% of what I did when I was single.
  • Document every step.  Like most dads I took thousands of photos.  But I also filmed the girls once a week on the same couch, sitting in the same spot, for a few minutes – for 16 years. When my oldest graduated high school I gave her a timelapse movie of her life.

“Live to Work” or “Work to Live”?
When I was in my 20’s the two concepts that mattered were, “me” and “right now.” As I got older I began to understand the concept of “others” and “the future.” I began to realize that working 24/7 wasn’t my only goal in life.

As a single entrepreneur I had a philosophy of, “I live to work” – nothing was more exciting or important than my job. Now with kids it had become, “I work to live.” I still loved what I did as an entrepreneur but I wasn’t working only for the sheer joy of it, I was also working to provide for my family and a longer term goal of retirement and then doing something different. (The irony is when I was working insane hours it was to make someone else wealthy.  When I moderated my behavior it was when they were my startups.)

Work Smarter Not Harder
As I got older I began to realize that how effective you are is not necessarily correlated with how many hours you work. My ideas about Customer Development started evolving around these concepts. Eric Ries’s astute observations about engineering and Lean Startups make the same point.  I began to think how to be effective and strategic rather than just present and tactical.

Advice From Others
As my kids were growing up I got a piece of advice that stuck with me all these years.

The first was when our oldest daughter was 6 months old, and a friend was holding her.  She looked at the baby then looked at me and asked, “Steve do you know what your most important job with this baby is?” I guessed, “Take care of her?” No. “Love her?” No. “OK, I give up, what is my most important job.” She answered, “Steve, your job is teaching her how to leave.” This was one of the most unexpected things I ever heard. This baby could barely sit up and I have to teach her how to leave?

My friend explained, “your kids are only passing through. It will seem like forever but it will be gone in a blink of an eye. Love them and care for them but remember they will be leaving. What will they remember that you taught them?”

For the next 18 years that thought was never far from my mind.

What Will Your Epitaph Say?
At some point I had heard two aphorisms which sounded very trite when I was single but took on a lot more meaning with a family.

  • This life isn’t practice for the next one. I started to realize that some of the older guys who I had admired as role models at work had feet of clay at home. They had chose their company over family and had kids who felt abandoned by their dads for work – and some of these kids have turned out less than optimally. I met lots of other dads going through the “could-have, would-have, should-have” regrets and reflections of the tradeoffs they had made between fatherhood and company building. Their regrets were lessons for me.
  • What will your epitaph say? When our kids were babies I was still struggling to try to put the work/life balance in perspective. Someone gave me a thought that I tried to live my live my life around. He asked me, when you’re gone would you rather have your gravestone say, “He never missed a meeting.” Or one that said, “He was a great father.” Holding my two kids on my lap, it was a pretty easy decision.

I hope I did it right.

Know When to Hold Them, Know When to Fold Them, Know When to Walk Away
When my last startup, E.piphany went public in the dot.com boom, I was faced with a choice; start company number nine, or retire.

I looked at my kids and never went back.

Thanks to my wife for being a great partner.  It takes two.

Listen to the blog post here

http://steveblank.com/2009/06/18/epitaph-for-an-entrepreneur

Download the podcast here or here

Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves

Watching my oldest daughter graduate high school this week made me think about what it was like raising a family and being an entrepreneur.

Convergent Technologies
When I was in my 20’s I worked at Convergent Technologies, a company that was proud to be known as the “Marine Corps of Silicon Valley.”  It was a brawling “take no prisoners,” work hard, party hard, type of company. The founders coming out of the DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) and Intel culture of the 1960’s and ‘70’s. As an early employee I worked all hours of the day, never hesitated to jump on a “red-eye” plane to see a customer at the drop of a hat, and did what was necessary to make the company a winner.  I learned a lot at Convergent, going from product marketing manager in a small startup to VP of Marketing of the Unix Division as it became a public company.  Two of my role models for my career were in this company.  (And one would become my mentor and partner in later companies.) But this story is not about Convergent.  It’s about entrepreneurship and family.

Like most 20-somethings I modeled my behavior on the CEO in the company.  His marketing and sales instincts and skills seemed magical and he built the company into a $400 million OEM supplier, ultimately selling the company to Unisys.  But his work ethic was legendary. Convergent was a 6-day a week 12-hour day company. Not only didn’t I mind, but I couldn’t wait to go to work in the morning and would stay until I dropped at night.  If I did go to social events, all I would talk about was my new company. My company became the most important thing in my life.

But the problem was that I was married.

Uh oh.

What’s More Important – Me or Your Job?
If you’re are a startup founder or an early employee, there may come a time in your relationship that your significant other/spouse will ask you the “what’s more important?” question. It will come after you come home at 2 am in the morning after missing a dinner/movie date you promised to make. Or you’ll hear it after announcing one morning that weekend trip isn’t going to happen because you have a deadline at work. Or if you have kids, it will get asked when you’ve missed another one of their plays, soccer games or school events because you were too busy finishing that project or on yet another business trip.  At some point your significant other/spouse’s question will be, “What’s more important, me and your family or your job?

I remember getting the question after missing yet another event my wife had counted on me attending. When she asked it, I had to stand there and actually think about it.  And when I answered, it was “my job.”  We both then realized our marriage was over.  Luckily we had no kids, minimal assets and actually held hands when we used the same lawyer for the divorce, but it was sad.  If I had been older, wiser, or more honest with myself, I would have understood that my wife and family should have been the most important thing in my life.

Lies Entrepreneurs Tell Themselves
Part of my problem was that my reality distortion field encompassed my relationships. In hindsight I had convinced myself that throwing myself into work was the right thing to do because I succumbed to the four big lies entrepreneurs tell themselves about work and family:

  • I’m only doing it for my family
  • My spouse “understands”
  • All I need is one startup to “hit” and then I can slow down or retire
  • I’ll make it up by spending “quality time” with my wife/kids

None of these were true.  I had thrown myself into a startup because work was an exciting technical challenge with a fixed set of end points and rewards.  In contrast, relationships were messy, non deterministic (i.e. emotional rather than technical) and a lot harder to manage than a startup.

The Reality
If it was up to my wife she wouldn’t have had me working the hours I was working and would rather have me home.  She didn’t sign up for my startup, she had signed up for me.

While she stuck it out for seven years, she had no connection to the passion and excitement that was driving me; all she saw was a tired and stressed entrepreneur when I got home.

At this point in my career I had hit a couple of successful startups as a low level exec, making enough to remodel our kitchen, but not the big “hit” that made us so much money I could slow down or retire.  And even if it did, startups are like a gambling addiction – if I had been honest, I would have had to admit I would probably be doing many of them.

“Quality time” with the wife or kids is a phrase made up by guilty spouses.  My relationship wasn’t going to be saved by one great three-day weekend after 51 weekends at work.  A great vacation with my wife wasn’t going to make up for being AWOL from home the rest of the year.

Summary
For the next few years I licked my wounds and threw myself into two more startups.  Over time I began to recognize and regret the tradeoffs I had made between work and relationships.  I realized that if I ever wanted to get married again and raise a family that my life/work balance needed to radically change.

The next post describes what I have learned and observed in the following years about balancing my entrepreneurial drive with building a healthy relationship with my wife and kids.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Am I a Founder? The Adventure of a Lifetime.

When my students ask me about whether they should be a founder or cofounder of a startup I ask them to take a walk around the block and ask themselves:

Are you comfortable with:

  • Chaos – startups are disorganized
  • Uncertainty – startups never go per plan

Are you:

  • Resilient – at times you will fail – badly.  How quickly will you recover?
  • Agile – you may find the real opportunities for your company was somewhere else.  Can you recognize and capitalize on them?
  • Creative / Pattern Recognition – can you think “out of the box?”  Or if not, can you recognize patterns others miss?
  • Passionate – is the company/product/customers the most important thing in your life? 24/7?
  • Tenacious – can you keep going when everyone else gives up? Can you keep giving 200% despite all the naysayers who don’t believe in your idea?
  • Articulate – can you create a reality distortion field and have others see and share your vision and passion?

And I remind them that they should be bringing some type of domain expertise (technical or business) to the table.

This is the minimum feature set for founders.

Other Roles in a Startup
Generic advice given to entrepreneurs assumes that everyone is going to be the founder/co-founder. Yet for every founder there are 10-20 other employees who take the near-equivalent risks in joining an early-stage company.  If you’re not a founder (by choice, timing or temperament,) you may be an early employee or a later stage startup employee.

(And my advice to students who believe they want to do a startup but are unsure if they want to start one, is to join one that’s already raised their first round of funding. Founders know they want to start something.  If you’re unsure, you’ve just decided.)

I believe that founder, early and later stage employees require different risk/personality profile.

The Early Employee
If you’re a founder/co-founder all the attributes I mentioned above are needed in spades.  However, if you want to join a startup as an early employee (say in the first 25 employees,) you can modify the list above.

You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty, but by this time the major risk of where the first round of funding is coming from is gone.  However, you will be dealing with almost daily change, (new customer feedback/insights from a Customer Development process and technical roadblocks,) as the company searches for a repeatable and scalable business model. This means you still need to have a resilient personality, and be agile.

Early stage employees are “self-starters” and show initiative rather than waiting for other people to tell them what to do or how to do it. (You may be wearing multiple hats in one-day.) You have to be passionate about your work, the company and its mission to be working 24/7. But more than likely you don’t need to be as articulate or creative as the founders (they’re doing the talking, while you’re doing the work.)  And while you do need to be tenacious, you won’t need to be the last man standing if the ship goes down.

The Later Employee
If you want to join a startup as a later employee (say employee number 25-125, before the company is profitable) you can continue to modify the list above.

You still need to be comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  And you will be dealing with change, but it won’t be the constant daily change the early employees dealt with. By now the company may have found and settled on a repeatable business model. And at this stage of the company rather than everyone doing everything, actual departments may begin to form. However, job responsibilities  and organizations will change regularly and you need to feel comfortable in embracing those changes and taking responsibility and ownership.

And you’ll still need to have a resilient and agile personality, as new customer and product opportunities will appear and change your work.  But it won’t be happening daily.  And while you still need to love what you do your passion doesn’t have to extend to tattooing the company’s logo on your arm.

The Adventure of a Lifetime
Take the time and think through who you are and what level of challenge you are looking for.

You’re not joining a big company.  Startups are the adventure of a lifetime.  But make sure it fits who you are.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Vertical Markets 4: Putting it All Together

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

In the last three posts, we drew the relationship of market risk and invention risk with vertical markets and pointed out verticals where customer development would be useful.

Customer Development by Vertical - Click to Enlarge

Customer Development by Vertical - Click to Enlarge

(As a reminder, the Customer Development process says your business plan is just a series of untested hypothesis (unless you’re a domain expert.)  In contrast to simply executing your business plan, the Customer Development process is built on low-cost and continuous learning and iterating.  You take your product vision and get out of your building to turn your hypothesis into facts.  Ultimately you want to see if you can find customers and a market for the product as specified – as early as possible.

Execution by Vertical Market
As the class progressed, students asked how the activities/functions of a startup; (Sales, Marketing, Business Development, Product Development, etc.) would look in each of the verticals. For example, How does sales differ from one market to another?  Is marketing different if you’re in the cleantech business versus medical devices?  How does product development differ in communications hardware versus enterprise software, etc.

Startup activities/functions
So we started by listing the basic startup activities/functions we thought that might differ by vertical market.  Some of these are questions that would be addressed in a business plan.  Others you need to know when you execute the plan.

Here is the list of basic startupactivities/functions our class discussion generated:

  • Opportunity – How big? Where do the ideas come from?
  • Innovation Business Model?  Technology?
  • Customers – Who are the Users? Who are the economic buyers?
  • Market Type – Existing/Sustaining? Niche? Low Cost? New/Disruptive?
  • Competition – Who is the competitor?  Who is the Complementor?
  • Sales – What Channel to reach the customer?
  • Marketing – How do you create end user demand?  Brand?
  • Business Development – What type of partnership or whole product is needed?
  • Customer Development Steps – How do we iterate with customers?
  • Business and Revenue Model – How do we organize to make money?
  • Intellectual Property/Patents – Strategic or Tactical, timing?
  • Regulatory Issues – What are they?
  • Time to Market – How long? 
  • Product Development – How do you engineer it? Waterfall, Agile, Lean?
  • Manufacturing – How do you build it?  Where?
  • Seed and Follow-on Financing – How do your finance it? How much? When?
  • Liquidity – How?  M&A, IPO?

(These are just my checklist list items for students, your list doesn’t have to look like this.)

Building a Chart
We realized that if we wrote the names of the vertical markets across the top of the board, and then the startup functions on the left of the board, we could make a chart that could visually compare what differs across the vertical markets.  Then it would be to discuss the optimum strategy for each of these market segments.

Each week, as the students learned something new about their particular project (what sales channel they should use, who the customer were, what type of manufacturing was appropriate, etc.) we added what they learned to each cell under their market. (This chart is not complete, just representative of what I’m using to teach and will be filling in over time.)

Vertical Market Chart

Template Table 2But even with a partially filled-in chart, you can see what used to be disconnected information is now sorted by vertical market. At a glance, you can see how startup capital needs differ by markets, how distribution channels and demand creation activities differ by market, and even how VC’s assess risk and reward by market. 

It seem evident that success in a startup requires:

  • domain specific knowledge and/or hard won experience
  • and a methodology to acquire that knowledge or experience.

As an exercise, try filling in the chart for your market.

    Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 160,929 other followers