The Path of Our Lives

Some men see things as they are and say, why;
I dream things that never were and say, why not
?”
Robert Kennedy/George Bernard Shaw

I got a call that reminded me that most people live their life as if it’s predestined – but some live theirs fighting to change it.

At 19 I joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Out of electronics school my first assignment was to a fighter base in Florida. My roommate, Glen, would become my best friend in Florida and Thailand as we were sent to different air bases in Southeast Asia.

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

On the surface, Glen and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Nebraska, had a bucolic childhood that sounded like he was raised by parents from Leave it to Beaver. I didn’t, growing up in a New York City apartment that seemed more like an outpatient clinic. Yet somehow we connected on a level that only 19-year-olds can.  I introduced him to Richard Brautigan and together we puzzled through R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience. We explored the Everglades (and discovered first-hand that the then-new national park didn’t have any protective barriers on their new boardwalks into the swamps and that alligators sunning themselves on a boardwalk look exactly like stuffed ones – until you reach out to touch them.) In Thailand I even figured out how to sneak off base for a few days, cross Thailand via train, visit him in his airbase and convince everyone I had been assigned to do so (not that easy with a war on.) The chaos, the war, our age and our interests bonded us in a way that was deep and heartfelt.

steve in Thailand 2 ARL-46Yet when the Vietnam War wound down, we were both sent to bases in different parts of the U.S. And as these things happen, as we grew older, more people and places came between us, and we went on with our lives and lost touch.

Four Decades Later
Last week I got an email with a subject line that only someone who knew me in the Air Force could have sent. While that caught my attention, the brief note underneath stopped me in my tracks. It read, “You have crossed my thoughts through the years. The other night you appeared in my dreams. I actually remembered it in the morning and googled your name. By God, there you were. A bit overwhelming…”

You bet it was overwhelming, it’s been 40 years since I last heard from Glen.

On the phone together, I spent an hour with an ear-to-ear grin as both of us recounted, “when we were young, crazy and stupid” stories, stories I still won’t tell my children (which makes me grateful it was life before social media documented every youthful indiscretion.) Glen even reminded me of my nickname (which still makes me cringe.)  The feel of long forgotten camaraderie let me wallow in nostalgia for a while. But as Glen began to catch me up with the four decades of his life, it was clear that while we both had the same type of advanced electronics training, both had been on the same airbases, and essentially both had been given the same opportunities, our careers and lives had taken much different paths. As he talked, I puzzled over why our lives ended up so different. Listening to him, I realized I was hearing a word I would never use to describe my life. Glen used the word “predestined” multiple times to describe his choices in life. His job choices were “predestined,” where he lived was “predestined,” who he married and divorced had been “predestined.”  I realized that our world views and how we lived our lives differed on that one single word.

“Predestined.”

The path of our lives
While the call brought me back to when we were foolish and fearless, thinking about how Glen lived his life troubled me. It took me awhile to figure out why. I wasn’t bothered about anything that Glen did or didn’t accomplish. It was his life and he seemed happy with it. Hearing his voice brought back those days of enthusiasm, exploration, adventure and unlimited horizons. But listening to forty years of a life lived summed up as “preordained” felt like a sharp reminder of how most people live their lives.

Glen’s worldview wasn’t unique. Most people appear to live an unexamined life, cruising through the years without much reflection about what it means, and/or taking what life hands them and believing it’s all predestined.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to grips that the unexamined life is what works for most people. Most take what they learned in school, get a job, marry, buy a house, have a family, become a great parent, serve their god, community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And for them that’s great.stages of awareness

Some do want more out of life, but blame their circumstances on others – their parents or government or spouse or lack of opportunities, but almost never on their own lack of initiative. Initiative means change and change is hard for most. (Clearly there are still pockets in the world where opportunities and choice are limited but they are shrinking daily.)

Perhaps the most painful to watch are those who wake up later in life thinking, “I could have or I should have.”

Pushing the Human Race Forward
Whether we have free will or whether our lives are predestined has been argued since humans first pondered their purpose in life. The truth is we won’t know until the second coming or the solution to the many-worlds theory.

But what we know with certainty is that there is a small set of humans who don’t act like their lives are predestined. For better or worse, regardless of circumstances, country or culture they struggle their entire lives wanting to change the outcome. And a small percentage of these translate the “wanting to change” into acting on it. This small group is dissatisfied with waiting for life to hand them their path. They act, they do, they move, they change things.

Those born into poverty actively strive to change their own lives and that of their children. Those who want to start a company or join one quit their job and do it, while others try to change their political system or fight for social or environmental justice.

And the irony is while the individual stories are inspiring they are trying to tell a much bigger story. These misfits, rebels and troublemakers have been popping up in stories for thousands of years. Every culture has myths about larger than life heroes who rose from nothing. This archetype is a recessive gene common to all cultures. They are the ones that make things happen, they’re the ones that push the human race forward.

This is what makes and drives entrepreneurs. Our heads are just wired differently.

You Are Master of Your Own Fate
The world is much different then when Glen and I were young and foolish. In the past, even if you did feel this spirit of adventure, you had no idea how and where to apply it. Barriers of race, gender or location threw up roadblocks that seemed insurmountable.

The world is much smaller now. The obstacles aren’t gone but are greatly diminished. Everyone within reach of a smartphone, tablet or computer knows more about entrepreneurship and opportunity and where to get it then all of Silicon Valley did 40 years ago. There’s no longer an excuse not to grab it with both hands.

As far as we know, this life isn’t practice for the next one. For entrepreneurs the key to living this one to the fullest is the understanding that you can choose – that you do have a choice to effect the journey and change the rules, that you can decide to give it your best shot to do something, something extraordinary.

If your passion is startups and innovation, and your community, region or country doesn’t have an entrepreneurial culture and community – help start one. If there’s no funding for startups in your community – get up and move to where it is. If you’re in a company frustrated with the lack of opportunity – change jobs.

You are master of your own fate. Act like it.

Lessons Learned           

  • The same destiny overtakes us all
  • It’s what you choose to do with your life in between that makes the difference

Three Things I Learned on Commencement Day

In the last five years I’ve been at Commencement Day at universities around the world – a few times to receive awards and three times as the commencement speaker. But attending both my daughters’ college graduations this year helped me to see how things look from the other side of the podium.

——-

CommencementFirst, college graduations fall in the category of “life cycle” events. At some major events– your birth and death for example, while you may be the center of attention, the events are managed by others and are more important to the people around you. Other events, like coming of age celebrations, getting your driver’s license, getting married, the birth of your children – are more important to you, and those attending are the celebrants at your event.

While our daughters’ graduations felt important to us, on top of mind was that this day was about honoring their accomplishments not ours. We were there to celebrate with and for them. And we were incredibly proud of what they achieved – through their years as college students, they grew smarter, wiser and more prepared for the world in front of them.

Second, for most students, our kids included, college was a halfway house to independence. The morning they stepped onto campus as freshman it was the first day of their own life –they were no longer just a child of their parents. College was the first place they could taste the freedom of making their own independent decisions – and in some of those “mornings-after” – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

At school they had their first years of taking responsibility for themselves. While it may not be obvious to them yet, their college years were a transition from having their parents make decisions for them to making decisions for themselves. Through those years, we lived through a few crises, tried hard not to be helicopter parents and helped when we were needed.

But as independent as our kids and their classmates felt, going to college is still a known path for 21 million U.S. college students. Commencement Day has a sobering finality in that it’s the end of the prescribed path. From that day forward each of these 21 million students now has to search for his or her own path through life

That brings up my third and final observation. At the commencements I attended, graduates were classified by their academic rankings. Outstanding academic performance was noted in the programs and awarded with special honors. Schools reward their students for a combination of intelligence, perseverance and hard work, in the classroom and on the playing fields. But these metrics don’t help kids understand that great grades are not a pass for a great life.

How many of those “A” students will find that after their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript? In fact, in a decade or two, a good number of those “A” students may well be working for those supposed losers who barely graduated.

It’s at the back of the hall where there were a few who see things differently. Who have no fondness for rules or respect for the status quo—these are the kids who are more likely to grow up to create new companies and new industries and push the envelope in directions not visible to those who follow a more conventional path. Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades.

Colleges may not reward resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity. But as an entrepreneur, they matter a whole lot more than following directions, playing by the rules and getting top grades.

Congratulations to those in both the front and back of the room. Your lives are going to be interesting – through very different paths.

Lessons Learned

  • Graduation was their day. We were there to help them celebrate
  • Commencement Day is the end of the prescribed path. Now they have to find their own
  • Great grades are not a pass for a great life
  • After their first job, few employers care about grades and customers don’t ask for your transcript
  • Successful founders and technology entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation with great grades


Download the podcast here

ESADE Business School Commencement Speech

President Bieto, Dean Sauquet, members of the faculty, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen….Thank you for the kind introduction. I’m honored to be at a university noted for knowledge, and in a city with 2000 years of history –  home of Gaudí one of the 20th century’s greatest innovators.ESADE quote

I’d like to start with a request.

Everyone, hold your phone up in the air like this.

Now look around.  In this sea of phones do you see any Blackberries? How about any Nokia phones?

Ok you can put your phones down now but let’s keep exploring this a bit. Raise your hand if you rented a VHS tape last night? Or if you used a paper map to find your way here?

These questions and your answers lie at the heart of what I’d like to talk about with you today: the changing face of innovation and your role in it.

Let’s start with Joseph Schumpeter. I’m sure many of you have heard his name. Schumpeter was an economist who taught at Harvard in the 1930’s and 40’s.  I like the guy because he’s credited with coining the word entrepreneur. But you probably remember him as the one who proposed the theory of creative destruction.  According to Schumpeter, capitalism is an evolutionary process where new industries and new companies continually emerge to knock out the old.

Fifty years later another Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, developed his theory of disruptive innovation, which actually described how creative destruction worked.

Disruptive innovation leads to the creative destruction of businesses that once seemed pre-eminent and secure.

Which brings me back to your mobile phones.

Think about this; 7 years ago Nokia owned 50% of the handset market. Apple owned 0%.  In fact, it was only 7 years ago that Apple shipped its first iPhone and Google introduced its Android operating system.

Fast-forward to today—Apple is the most profitable Smartphone company in the world and in Spain Android commands a market share of more than 90%.  And Nokia?  Its worldwide market share of Smartphones has dwindled to 5%.

You’re witnessing creative destruction and disruptive innovation at work. It’s the paradox of progress in a capitalist economy.

So congratulations graduates – as you move forward in your careers, you’ll be face to face with innovation that’s relentless.

And that’s what I’d like to talk about today—how innovation will shape the business world of the next 50 years—and what it means for you.

——-

The Perfect Storm
Your time at ESADE has trained you to become a global business leader.

But the world you lead will be much different from the one your professors knew or your predecessors managed.

Just look at the disruptive challenges that businesses face today– globalization, China as a manufacturer, China as a consumer, the Internet, and a steady stream of new startups. Today’s workforce has radically different expectations, brands are losing their power, physical channels are being destroyed by virtual ones, market share is less important than market creation, and software is eating world.

Industries that we all grew up with, industries that enjoyed decades of market dominance – like newspapers, bookstores, video rentals, personal computers — are being swept away.

The convergence of digital trends along with the rise of China and globalization has upended the rules for almost every business in every corner of the globe. It’s worth noting that everything from the Internet, to electric cars, genomic sequencing, mobile apps, and social media — were pioneered by startups, not existing companies.

Perhaps that’s because where established companies might see risks or threats, startups see opportunity. As the venture capital business has come roaring back in the last 5 years, startups are awash in available capital. As a consequence, existing companies confront a tidal wave of competitors 100 times what they saw 25 years ago.

Efficiency over innovation
Yet in the face of all this change, traditional firms continue to embrace a management ethos that values efficiency over innovation. Companies horde cash and squeeze the most revenue and margin from the money they use. Instead of measuring success in dollars of profit, …firms focus on measuring capital efficiency. Metrics like Return on Net Assets, Return on Capital and Internal Rate of Return are the guiding stars of the board and CEO.

Cheered on by finance professors, Wall Street analysts, investors and hedge funds, companies have learned how to make metrics like Internal Rate of Return look great by one; outsourcing everything, two, getting assets off their balance sheet, and three only investing in things that pay off fast.

As Harvard professor Clayton Christensen noted, these efficiency metrics provided wise guidance for times when capital was scarce and raising money was hard. But they have also stacked the deck against investment in long-term innovation.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, policy makers have kept interest rates at near zero, flooding the market with cheap money in an attempt to restart growth. In spite of this, private equity funds have used the rallying cry of efficiency to hijack corporate strategy and loot the profits that historically would have been reinvested into research and development and new products. We legalized robbing the corporate treasury. Today billions of dollars that companies could have invested in innovation are sitting in the hands of private equity funds.

Unfortunately as we’ve learned from recent experience, using Return on Net Assets and IRR as proxies for efficiency and execution won’t save a company when their industry encounters creative disruption. Ask Sony about Samsung, ask any retailer about Amazon, any car company about Tesla, and any newspaper company about the web.

The stock market clearly values companies that can deliver disruptive innovation. Look at the valuations of companies like Tesla, Illumina, and Twitter.

In fact, I predict that over the next few decades, we will see two classes of public companies. The first will be commodity businesses that are valued for their ability to execute their current business model. Their lifetime as a market leader will be measured in years. The second class will be firms with a demonstrated ability to continually innovate and reinvent their business models. The companies that can show “startup-like” growth rates of 50% plus per year will get stratospheric market valuations.

So I hope you are thinking—“hey how can I lead a business with startup growth?” At least I hope you’re thinking that, rather than “oops I joined the wrong company.”The question for all of you is … “What will it take to inspire and manage this kind of innovation?”

Innovation
Before I answer that question, let’s take a minute to establish a common definition of innovation. At its most basic, innovation means to introduce something new. But in a business context, the meaning gets more nuanced. I’d like to describe the four types of innovation you can build inside a corporation:

The first type of corporate innovation is individual initiative. It’s exactly as it sounds – you build a corporate culture where anyone can suggest an idea and start a project. Some companies use a suggestion box, others like Google give employees 20% of their time to work on their own projects.

The second type of business innovation is called process improvement. This is the kind most of us are familiar with. Car companies introduce new models each year, running shoes grow ever lighter and more flexible, Coca-Cola offers a new version of Coke. Smart companies are always looking to make their current products better – and there are many ways to do this. For example they can reduce component cost, introduce a line extension or create new versions of the existing product. These innovations do not require change in a company’s existing business model.

This is what companies typically do to secure and defend their core business.

The third type of business innovation – continuous innovation – is much harder. Continuous innovation builds on a strength of the company’s current business model but requires that new elements be created. For example, Coke added snack foods, which could be distributed through its existing distribution channels. The Amazon Kindle played on Amazon’s strengths as a distributor of content but required developing expertise in electronics and manufacturing.

Fourth and finally is disruptive innovation – this is the innovation we associate with startups. This type of innovation creates new products or new services that did not exist before. It’s the automobile in the 1910’s, radio in the 1920’s, television in the 1950’s, the integrated circuit in the 1960’s, the fax machine in the 1970’s, personal computers in the 1980’s, the Internet in the 1990’s, and the Smartphone, human genome sequencing, and even fracking in this decade. These innovations are exactly what Schumpeter and Christensen were talking about. They create new industries and destroy existing ones. And interestingly, in spite of all their resources, large companies are responsible for very, very few disruptive innovations.

The first two types of innovation—individual and process innovation– are what good companies do well.  The third type—continuous innovation—is a hallmark of great companies like GE and Procter and Gamble.  But the fourth type of innovation – creating disruptive innovation– and doing it on a repeatable basis– is what extraordinary companies do. Apple with the iPod, iPhone and iPad; Amazon with Amazon Web Services and Kindle; Toyota with the Prius… these companies are extraordinary because, like startups, they create entirely new products and services.

ESADE and other great business schools have provided decades of advice and strategy for the first three types of innovation. But leading an existing firm to innovate like a startup is not business as usual.

Building Innovation Internally is Hard
Paradoxically, in spite of the seemingly endless resources, innovation inside of an existing company is much harder than inside a startup.  That’s because existing companies face a conundrum: Every policy and procedure that makes them efficient execution machines stifles innovation.

Think about this.  When it comes to innovation, public companies have two strikes against them.  First the markets favor capital efficiency over R&D.  And secondly, their sole purpose is to focus resources on the execution of their business model.

As a consequence, companies are optimized for execution over innovation. And to keep executing large organizations hire employees with a range of skills and competencies. To manage these employees companies create metrics to control, measure and reward execution.  But remember—in public companies financial metrics take precedence. As a result, staff functions and business units develop their own performance indicators and processes to ensure that every part of the organization marches in lock step to the corporate numbers.

These Key Performance Indicators and processes are what make a company efficient —but they are also the root cause of its inability to be agile and innovative. Every time another execution process is added, corporate innovation dies a little more.

Act Like a Startup
So how does a company act like a startup in search of new business models while still continuing to successfully execute?

First, management must understand that innovation happens not by exception but is integral to all parts of the firm. If they don’t, then the management team has simply become caretakers of the founders’ legacy. This never ends well.

Second and maybe the most difficult is the recognition that innovation is chaotic, messy and uncertain. Not everything will work out, but failure in innovation is not cause for firing but for learning. Managers need radically different tools to control and measure innovation. A company needs innovation policies, innovation processes and innovation incentives to match those it already has for execution. These will enable firms to embrace innovation by design not by exception.

Third, smart companies manage an innovation portfolio where they can pursue potential disruption in a variety of ways. To build innovation internally companies can adopt the practices of startups and accelerators.  To buy innovation companies can buy intellectual property, acquire great teams, buy-out another company’s product line or even buy entire companies. And if they’re particularly challenged in a market they can acquire and integrate disruptive innovation.  My favorite example is Exxon’s $35 billion purchase of XTO Energy in large part to get their fracking expertise.

Other smart companies are learning how to use Open Innovation pioneered by Henry Chesbrough who teaches here at ESADE. They can partner with suppliers, co-create with consumers, open-source key technologies, open their application programming interfaces, or run open incubators for customer ideas.

Everything I’ve been talking about smart companies have already figured out.  Many firms are creating the new role of Chief Innovation Officer to lead and manage these innovation activities. Ultimately this is not just another staff function. The Chief Innovation Officer is a c-level executive who runs the company’s entire innovation portfolio and oversees the integration of innovation metrics and initiatives across the entire organization.

Looking forward, all of you will play a role in the future of business innovation, whether you help to accelerate it or discourage it.
How can you kill innovation? Some companies have so lost the DNA for innovation they become “rent seekers”. Rent seekers fight to keep the status quo. Instead of offering better products or superior service, rent seekers hire lawyers and lobbyists to influence politicians to pass laws that block competition. The bad news here is that countries where bribes and corruption are the cost of doing business or that are dominated by organized interest groups, tend to be the economic losers. And as rent-seeking becomes more attractive than innovation, the economy falls into decline.

I know that’s not the path most of you want to take. Instead I think you want to be part of the innovation team.  And if you do you are in luck. Companies need your help.

They need your help in creating new metrics to manage measure disruptive innovation.  They need your help in creating new innovation incentive systems that reward creative innovation.

And they need your help as leaders who can run companies that can both execute and innovate.

Finally, remember Innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company  – it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.

So in closing, let me leave you with this final thought:

A pessimist sees danger in every opportunity but an optimist.. an optimist sees opportunity in every danger.

In the last 150 years only a few generations have had the opportunity to reshape the nature of business.

Be an optimist.

Congratulations class of 2014:

Embrace change and lead the way.

—-

Listen to someone else read my speech here

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How Do You Want to Spend Your Next 4 Years of Your Life?

As our Lean LaunchPad for Life Sciences class winds down, a good number of the 26 teams are trying to figure out whether they should go forward to turn their class project into a business.

Given that we’ve been emphasizing Evidence-based entrepreneurship and the Investment Readiness Level, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when someone asked, “After we figure all this data out, should we pursue our idea based on the numbers?”

Ouch.

I pointed out that the “data” you gather in 10 weeks (talking to 100+ customers, partners, payers, etc.,) are not the first thing you should look at. There are three more important things you should worry about.

(see 0:30 in the video below)

turning point

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1. Do you want to spend the next 3 or 4 years of your life doing this?

(See 1:03 in the video below)

Now that you’ve gotten to know your potential channel and customers, regardless of how much money you’re going to make, will you enjoy working with these customers for the next 3 or 4 years?

One of the largest mistakes in my career was getting this wrong. I used to be in startups where I was dealing with engineers designing our microprocessors or selling supercomputers to research scientists solving really interesting technical problems. But in my next to last company, I got into the video game business.

My customers were 14-year old boys. (see 1:30 in the video)  I hated them. It was a lifelong lesson that taught me to never start a business where you hate your customers. It never goes well. You don’t want to talk to them. You don’t want to do Customer Development with them. You just want them to go away.  And in my case they did – they didn’t buy anything.

So you and your team need to feel comfortable being in this business with these customers.

2. Is this a scalable business?  And if not, are you Ok with something small?

(See 2:03 in the video below)

Is it a lifestyle business while you’re keeping your other job?  Is it a small business that hits $4 million in revenue in four years and $8 million in ten years?  Or is it something that can grow to a size that will result in an acquisition or some liquidity event?

You need to decide what your personal goal is and how it matches what you think this business can grow into.  And you and your cofounders need to have that discussion to make sure that all the co-founders’ interests are aligned – before you make any decision to start the company.  If one of you are happy making $500K/year and the other has visions of selling the company to Roche for a billion dollars, you have very different goals. Without clear alignment, one or both of you will be really unhappy later when you try to make decisions.

3. If I Didn’t Make Any Money After 4 Years, Did I Still Have A Great Time?

(See 4:36 in the video below)

If your company fails, would you still say you had one hell of a ride? Founders don’t do startups because they’re searching for a huge financial windfall. They do it because it’s the greatest invention they can imagine. Most of the time you will fail. So if you’re not going to have a great time with your team and learn and build something you are truly excited about – don’t do it.

If you can’t see the video above, click here

Lessons Learned

  • Do you want to spend the next 3 or 4 years of your life doing this business?
  • Is this a scalable business?  And if not, are you Ok with something small?
  • If you didn’t make any money after 4 years, did you have a great time?

Listen to the podcast here

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How to get meetings with people too busy to see you

Asking, “Can I have coffee with you to pick your brain?” is probably the worst possible way to get a meeting with someone with a busy schedule.  Here’s a better approach.

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Jason, an entrepreneur I’ve known for over a decade, came out to the ranch today. He was celebrating selling his company and just beginning to think through his next moves. Since he wasn’t from Silicon Valley, he decided to use his time up here networking with other meetings with VC’s and company executives.

I get several hundred emails a day, and a good number of them are “I want to have coffee with you to bounce an idea off.” Or, “I just want to pick your brain.” I now have a filter for which emails get my attention, so I was curious in hearing what Jason, who I think of as pretty good at networking, was asking for when he was trying to set up meetings.

“Oh, I ask them if I can have coffee to bounce an idea off of them.”…Sigh.foot in the door

I realized most entrepreneurs don’t know how to get meetings with people too busy to see you.

Perfect World
Silicon Valley has a “pay-it-forward” culture where we try to help each other without asking for anything in return. It’s a culture that emerged in the 60’s semiconductor business when competitors would help each other solve bugs in their chip fabrication process. It continued in the 1970’s with the emergence of the Homebrew Computer Club, and it continues today.  Since I teach, I tend to prioritize my list of meetings with first my current students, then ex-students, then referrals from VC firms I’ve invested in, and then others.  But still with that list, and now with a thousand plus ex-students, I have more meeting requests than I possibly can handle. (One of the filters I thought would keep down the meetings is have meetings at the ranch; an hour from Stanford on the coast, but that hasn’t helped.)

So I’ve come up with is a method to sort out who I take meetings with.

What are you offering?
I’m not an investor, and I’m really not looking for meetings with entrepreneurs for deal flow. I’m having these meetings because someone is asking for something from me – my time – and they think I can offer them advice.

If I’d had infinite time I’d take every one of these “can I have coffee” meetings. But I don’t.  So I now prioritize meetings with a new filter: Who is offering me something in return.

No, not offering me money.  Not for stock.  But who is offering to teach me something I don’t know.

The meeting requests that now jump to the top of my list are the few, very smart entrepreneurs who say, “I’d like to have coffee to bounce an idea off of you and in exchange I’ll tell you all about what we learned about xx.”

get into my head

This offer of teaching me something changes the agenda of the meeting from a one-way, you’re learning from me, to a two-way, we’re learning from each other.

It has another interesting consequence for those who are asking for the meeting – it forces them to think about what is it they know and what is it they have learned – and whether they can explain it to others in a way that’s both coherent and compelling.

Irony – it’s Customer Discovery
While this might sound like a, “how to get a meeting with Steve” post, the irony is that this “ask for a two-way meeting” is how we teach entrepreneurs to get their first customer discovery meetings; don’t just ask for a potential customers time, instead offer to share what you’ve learned about a technology, market or industry.

It will increase your odds in any situation you’re asking for time from very busy people – whether they are VC’s, company executives or retired entrepreneurs.

  • Lessons Learned
  • Wanting to have coffee is an ask for a favor
  • Offering to share knowledge is a different game
  • Try it, your odds of getting a meeting will increase
  • And the meetings will be more productive

Listen to this post here: download the podcast here

Building Great Founding Teams

There’s been a lot written about the individual characteristics of what makes a great founder, but a lot less about what makes a great founding team and how that’s different from a great founding  CEO

founders

I think we’ve been imprecise in defining three different roles. In doing so we’ve failed to help founders understand what it takes to build a great founding team.

Here are my definitions.

Founders – the idea
A Founder is the one with the original idea, scientific discovery, technical breakthrough, insight, problem description, passion, etc. A founder typically recruits co-founders and then becomes part of the founding team involved in day-to-day company operations. (However, in some industries such as life sciences, founders may be tenured professors who are not going to give up their faculty positions, so they often become the head of a startup’s scientific advisory board, but aren’t part of the founding team.)

A couple of caveats about founders with “ideas.”  It’s important to differentiate between ideas that have been or can be patented and ideas thought up late night in a dorm-room. One of the hardest concepts for my students to grasp is that “an idea is not a company.”  The reality is that in most cases, without the company to commercialize it, the idea is worthless (except to a patent troll.)

Even if they become part of the founding team, it’s not a given that the founder, having come up with the idea has a “guaranteed” leadership role (CEO or VP) in the new company. For some entrepreneurs this idea that the founder is not necessarily the CEO, is a surprise. When I hear, “What do you mean I’m not CEO? It’s my idea!” I get nervous that the founder is clueless about what makes the founding CEO special, and what else it actually takes to build a company. (Read on to see the difference in the roles.)

Founding Team – the rock on which to build the company
The founding team includes the founder and a few other co-founders with complementary skills to the founder. This is the group who will build the company. Its goal is to take the original idea and search for a repeatable and scalable business model- first by finding product/market fit, then by testing all the parts of the business model (pricing, channel, acquisition/activation, partners, costs, etc.)

In web/mobile startups the canonical view is the founding team consists of a hacker, a hustler, and a designer. In other domains, the skill sets differ, but the key idea is that you want a team with complementary skills.Band of Brothers

There’s no magic number about the “right” number of founders for a founding team, but two to four seems to be the sweet spot. One of the biggest mistakes in assembling a founding team is not thinking through the need for skills but instead settling for who’s around. The two tests of whether someone belongs on a founding team are: “Do we have a company without them?” and, “Can we find someone else just like them?” If both answers are no, you’ve identified a co-founder.  If any of the answers are “Yes,” then hire them a bit later as an early employee.

Key attributes of an entrepreneur on a founding team are passion, determination, resilience, tenacity, agility and curiosity. It helps if the team has had a history of working together, but what is essential is mutual respect. And what is critical is trust. You need to be able to trust your co-founders to perform, to do what they say they will, and to have your back.

Most startups that fail over team issues fail because co-founders hadn’t dated first, (spent time together in a Startup Weekend, worked together in an incubator, etc.) but instead jumped into bed to start a company.

Everyone has ideas. It’s the courage, passion and tenacity of the founding team that turn ideas into businesses.

Founding CEO – Reality Distortion Field and Comfort in Chaos
Idealistic founders trying to run a venture with collective leadership, without a single person in charge, find that’s the fastest way to go out of business. Speed, tempo and fearless decision-making are a startups strategic advantage. More often than not, conditions on the ground will change so rapidly that the need for immediate decisions overwhelms a collective decision process.

The founding team CEO is the first among equals in the founding team. Ironically they are almost never the most intelligent or technically astute person on the team. What sets them apart from the rest of the team is that they can project a fearless reality distortion field that they use to recruit, fund raise, pivot and position the company. They are the ultimate true believers in the company and have the vision, passion and skill to communicate why this seemingly crazy idea will work and change the world.

In addition, the founding CEO thrives operating in chaos and uncertainty. They deal with the daily crisis of product development and acquiring early customers.  And as the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out product plan becomes irrelevant. While the rest of the team is focused on their specific jobs, the founding CEO is trying to solve a complicated equation where almost all the variables are unknown – unknown customers, unknown features that will make those customers buy, unknown pricing, unknown demand creation activities that will get them into your sales channel, etc.

They’re biased for action and they don’t wait around for someone else to tell them what to do. Great founding CEO’s live for these moments.

Henry V

FIgure out who you are
Many founding teams fail because they’ve never had the conversation about founder, founding team and founding CEO.  Spend the time and take stock of who’s on the journey with you.

Lessons Learned

  • Founder, Founding team, Founding CEO all have word “founder” in them but have different roles
  • Founder has the initial idea. May or may not be on the founding team or have a leadership role
  • Founding team – complementary skills – builds the company
  • Founding CEO – reality distortion field and comfort in chaos – leads the company

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University of Minnesota Commencement speech – May 10th 2013

Steve at PodiumI am honored to be with you as we gather to celebrate your graduation.

This school has a distinguished roster of graduates… Earl Bakken, the founder of Medtronic, was an Electrical Engineering grad, and Bob Gore of Gortex, and your current president are both alums of your Chemical Engineering program.

In fact, I feel very connected to another one your grads. I’m sure you’ve heard of Seymour Cray, he built a supercomputer company in Chippewa Falls that made the fastest computers in the world. These were very expensive supercomputers. They cost 10’s of millions of dollars and filled two tractor-trailers worth of space.

Back in Silicon Valley I co-founded a company that built desktop workstations powerful enough to compete against Cray. We bid against them in a sale to the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center… and lost. I never forgot that loss because instead of buying hundreds of our small computers they spent $35 Million on that Cray. My startup never recovered and soon after went out of business.

Fast-forward 15 years, Now retired I noticed that the Pittsburg Supercomputer Center had put their Cray for sale on Ebay.  Yep – the $35 Million machine was now for sale for $35,000 dollars.

I bought that Cray, … Honest… you can Google “Cray on eBay” and there I am… I had it shipped to my ranch and kept it in the barn next to the cows and manure.

It was closure.

But the story about Cray is also a story about success and failure.  If I can keep you awake, I’m going to tell you why – while you may have thought today was the end of your education – it’s really only the beginning. And while you might be moaning about that thought, pay attention because what I’m about to share could make a few of you very, very successful.

First day of your life
For most of you, college was the first day of your own life – the morning you stepped onto campus you were no longer just a child of your parents – college was the first place you could taste the freedom of making your own decisions – and in some of those mornings-after – learn the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

Here at school you had your first years of taking responsibility for yourself. While it may not be obvious to you yet, your college years were a transition from having your parents make decisions for you to making decisions for yourself.  But now you face a new chapter that -– if you’re not careful – could result in having companies make decisions for you.

UofM Commencement

Career Choices
It might turn out that graduating from college and getting a job may be just an illusion of independence. If you’re not careful you’ll simply end up having others tell you what to work on, how to spend your time, when to show up and when to go home.  In fact, working in a company could be the adult version of listening to your parents tell you what to do… Only the pay is usually a whole lot better than your allowance.

For some of you, that may be exactly what you are looking for. Many of you are going to take what you learned here, get a good job, get married, buy a house, have a family, be a great parent, serve your community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And that’s great. Minnesota is a wonderful place to hunt, fish, canoe, raise kids, and pursue lots of interests other than just your job.

All of you will ultimately make a choice… a choice about whether you “work to live” or you “live to work.” This should be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped into the daily routine of showing up and just getting by.

Diverging Interests
While you’re excited about your first “real” job, recognize that your interests and those of your employer are probably not the same. Having your employer tell you what a great job you’re doing and rewarding you for it is not the same as discovering your passion, and figuring out who you are, and what’s rewarding for you.

What I am saying is, “Don’t let a career just happen to you.”  And as much you love, respect and honor your parents, don’t live their lives. Your obligations to meet their expectations ended the day you became an adult.

At the end of the day, you can decide whether you want to be an employee with a great attendance record, getting promoted to ever better titles and working on interesting projects – or whether you want to attempt to do something spectacular – this be or do should be a question you never stop asking yourself — for the next 20 years, and beyond. Be? or Do?

Let me share with you the day I faced the Be or Do question.

Big Company versus Startup
Out of the military, my first job in Silicon Valley was with one of the most exciting companies you never heard of. By the time I joined it was a decade old, and no longer a startup. Our customers were the CIA, NSA, and National Reconnaissance Office. Our CEO, Bill Perry eventually became the Secretary of Defense.

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies allowed the U.S. to build weapons previously thought impossible or impractical.  The technology was amazing, and somehow in my 20’s I found myself in the middle of all of it.

Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company. A complete system had spacecraft and rockets and the resources of ten’s of thousands of people from multiple companies.

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from. It was geek heaven.

While I worked on these incredibly interesting intelligence systems, my friends in startups worked on new things called microprocessors.  They’d run around saying, “Hey look, I can program this chip to make this speaker go beep.” I’d roll my eyes, comparing the toy-like microprocessors to what I was working on – which was so advanced you would have thought we acquired it from aliens.

But before long I realized that at my company, I was just a cog in a very big wheel. A small team had already figured out how to solve the problem and ten’s of thousands of us worked to build the solution. Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look so hot.

In contrast, my friends at startups were living in their garages fueled with an energy and passion to use their talents to pursue their own ideas, however unexpected or crazy they sounded. “Really, you’re building a computer I can have in my house?”

For me, the light bulb went off when I realized that punching a time clock is not the way to change the world. I chose the path of entrepreneurship and never looked back.

Engineers Run the World
Engineers used to be the people who made other peoples ideas work. Today, they change the world.  We live in a time where scientists and engineers are synonymous with continuous innovation. We don’t think twice as our phones shrink, our computers fit in our pockets, our cars run on batteries, and our lives are extended as new medical devices are implanted in our bodies. Scientists and engineers no longer work anonymously in backrooms. Today we celebrate them for improving the quality of peoples’ lives.

George Bernard Shaw once said, Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” Engineers like you have the capacity to move the world forward by continually asking “why not?” It’s your special “doing” gene that empowers us to do better.

You invent. You imagine. You see things that others don’t. Where others see blank canvases, you’ll see finished paintings. You hear the music that’s not written, you see the bridges that have yet to be built.  You envision the products and companies that don’t exist yet.

DSC_5829

Only In America
University of Minnesota Science and Engineering alumni have founded more than 4,000 active companies, employing over ½ million people and generating annual revenues of $90 billion. These alums chose not to take the safe road but instead to push beyond their boundaries and DO.

At some time you might decide that you want to become the master of your own destiny – that you want to take an idea – and start your own company. And all of you sitting here just earned a degree that gives you choices that very few other professions have.

Entrepreneurship is not something foreign – it’s built into the DNA of this country. America was built by those who left the old behind. Not too many generations ago your family packed up what they had, got on boat and came to America. They struck out across the country and ended up here in Minnesota.

And what’s great about the United States… No other country embraces innovation and entrepreneurship quite like we do. You don’t have to stay in one job, and it’s really, really hard to starve to death.

Passion
I predict that 78% of all commencement speeches this year will have advice about “pursuing your passion and doing stuff you love.” But they don’t tell you why.  Well here’s the secret – if you’re going to spend your career in a company, doing stuff you enjoy will help you keep showing up..

But if you want to do something, something entrepreneurial, just loving what you do is isn’t enough. You’re pursuing ideas you can’t get out of your head. Ideas that you obsess about. That you work on in your spare time.

Because that fearless vision and relentless passion are what it takes to sustain an entrepreneur through the inevitable bad times - the times your co-founder quits, or when no one buys, or the product doesn’t work. The time when everyone you know thinks that what your doing is wrong and a waste of time. The time when people tell you that you ought to get a “real” job.

By the way, every year I remind my students that great grades and successful entrepreneurs have at best a zero correlation – and anecdotal evidence suggests that the correlation may actually be negative. There’s a big difference between being an employee at a great company and having the guts to start one.

You don’t get grades for resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition and tenacity.

You just get successful.

Failure
The downside of starting something new is that’s it’s tough, because unlike the movies – you fail a lot. For every Facebook and Google, thousands never make it.

Like Rocket Science Games, which was my biggest failure. 90 days after showing up on the cover of Wired Magazine I knew the game company where I raised 35 million dollars was headed for disaster.

We’d believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and built lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. Given the press we had garnered, it was a very public failure.

We let our customers, our investors, and our employees down. I thought my career and my life were over. But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience.

All of you will fail at some time in your career…or in love, or in life.

No one ever sets out to fail.

But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.  Playing it safe will get you nowhere.

As it turned out, rather than run me out of town, the two venture capital firms that had lost $12 million in my failed startup actually asked me to work with them again.

During the next couple years…and much humbler… I raised more money and started another company that we were ultimately able to take public, and those patient investors more than made up for their earlier loss – many times over.

Hypothesis Testing
As scientists and engineers, you know about failure. You know that virtually no experiment works the first time.  And in a new company all you have is a series of untested hypotheses. You learned something vital in school — to test your hypotheses by designing experiments, getting accurate data, analyzing the results, and then modifying your initial hypotheses based on those results. This is the scientific method, and surprisingly we found the exact same method works for startups.

Because failure is a part of the startup process. In Silicon Valley, we have a special word for a failed entrepreneur – it’s called experiencedOur country and our entrepreneurial culture is one of second and third chances. It’s what makes us great. You don’t have to change your name or leave town. Entrepreneurs in America know that they get multiple shots at the goal.

Be or Do
Someday several of you in this graduating class will be worth a $100 million dollars. And a few of you might change the way the world works.

I want you to look around you.  …Go ahead.  Take a few seconds and give it a look…

While most of you were looking around wondering who this was going to be, I hope a few of you were feeling sorry for the rest of your classmates, knowing that the most successful person in the audience is going to be you.

These days I write a blog about entrepreneurship.  At the end of each post, I conclude with “lessons learned”—a kind of Cliff Notes of my key takeaways.  So that’s how I’ll finish up today.

Here are the two lessons that I’d like to pass on to you

Your science or engineering degree gives you tremendous choices – you, and no one else gets to decide two things:

  • whether you choose to be or you choose to do
  • whether you “work to live” or whether you “live to work”

Remember… live your life with no regrets. There’s no undo button.

And Congratulations  — you’ve earned it!

Thank you very much.

Listen to the post here or download the podcast here

Failure and Redemption

“What’s gone and what’s past help
Should be past grief.”

William Shakespeare – The Winter’s Tale

We give abundant advice to founders about how to make startups succeed yet we offer few models about dealing with failure.

So here’s mine.
——–

In my experience, living through failure has 6 stages:

  • Stage 1: Shock and Surprise
  • Stage 2: Denial
  • Stage 3: Anger and Blame
  • Stage 4: Depression
  • Stage 5: Acceptance
  • Stage 6: Insight and Change

While I had been part of a few failed startups, none of them had fallen squarely on my shoulders until Rocket Science Games where my business card said CEO. It was there that I lived through all 6 stages and came out the other side a changed man.

Failure

Stage 1: Shock and Surprise
We raised $35 million and after 18 months made the cover of Wired magazine. Wired 2.11 CoverThe press called Rocket Science one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley and predicted that our games would be great because the storyboards and trailers were spectacular. 90 days later, I found out our games are terrible, no one is buying them, our best engineers started leaving, and with 120 people and a huge burn rate, we’re running out of money and about to crash. This can’t be happening to me.

Stage 2: Deny any of it was your fault
In my mind, I had done everything the investors asked me to do. I raised a ton of money and got a ton of press. We hired everyone according to our plan. It was everyone else who screwed up. I did everything right.

Stage 3: Get angry and blame everyone else
This was the fault of my cofounder since he was in charge of game development, it was the engineers who bailed on me, it was the sales and marketing people who didn’t tell me how bad the games were, it was the VC’s who refused to put any more money in the company, it was Sega’s fault for making a bad gaming platform…

State 4: Get depressed
When the inevitability and magnitude of the failure sunk in, I slept in a lot. There were days I’d get up late and go to bed again at 5 pm. I lost interest in anything associated with my past industry. (To this day I still can’t play a video game.)

Redemption

Step 5: Gradually accept your role in the failure
A few weeks after leaving, I began to think about what I should have done, could have done and pondered why I didn’t do it. (I didn’t listen, I didn’t act, I didn’t own my role as CEO, I wasn’t prepared to do what was right or leave.) This was hard and didn’t happen overnight. My wife was a great partner here. I often reverted to Stages 2 and 3, but over time I took ownership of my primary role in the debacle.

Stage 6: Gain insight and change your behavior
This was the hardest part. While I stopped blaming others, understanding what I could change in my behavior took long months. It would have been much easier to just move on, but I was looking for the lessons that would make my next startup successful. I looked at the patterns of behavior, not just at my last company but also across my entire career. I learned how to dial back the hubris, get other smart people to work with me – rather than just for me, listen better, and act and do what was right – regardless of what others thought I should do.

Epilogue
For my next startup I parked the behaviors that drove Rocket Science off the cliff. We established a team of founders who worked collaboratively. When my co-founders and I got the company scalable and repeatable, we hired an operating executive as the CEO and returned a billion dollars to each of our two lead investors.

Now when I listen to entrepreneurs who’ve cratered a company, I listen for their stories of failure and redemption.

Lessons Learned

  • Six stages of failure and redemption
  • Don’t get stuck in Stages 2, 3 or 4  – move forward
  • Don’t skip acceptance of your role
  • Get to insight so you can change your behavior—then commit to the challenge of doing it differently the next time

Listen to the post here or download the podcast here

Завзятість – Tenacity: How I Spent A Year One Night in Kiev

This July I thought I had set the record for tenacity in my age group. Go ahead and take a moment to read the post, it’s short. I reminded my Startup Owners Manual co-author Bob Dorf this is how entrepreneurs played the game, blah, blah, blah.

As usual Bob did one better. Here’s a guest post on what happened to him in the Ukraine.

—–

Usually when you teach entrepreneurship, one of the key things you teach is tenacity, a vital characteristic of great entrepreneurs.  Only rarely does the teaching itself require tenacity, as it did late last month in Kiev, Ukraine.

Following two days with a dozen startups at a brand-new incubator in Kiev called “Happy Farm,” it was time to head to my next stop: Skolkovo, the private Moscow business school formed to bring Silicon Valley-quality training to young Russian entrepreneurs.  I was headed to my second Lean LaunchPad launch, excited that the first one in June had led to four funded startups raising some $2-million from Russian VC’s.

Ukraine was magnificent. Kiev is a beautiful city and Happy Farm Training Director Elena Kalibaba led me on a walking tour. Then it was on to a series of workshops and one-on-one coaching sessions with ten terrific startup teams, plus a press conference with Forbes Ukraine and others. When it was over, Happy Farm CEO and founder (and serial entrepreneur) Anna Degtereva drove me to the airport and–for some strange reason–escorted me to the gate.

I Spent A Year One Night in Kiev
As I approached the check-in desk, a very gruff Ukrainian customs official looked at my visa to Russia and said, “You cannot travel.  Your visa to Russia has already been used.  No exceptions.” He said nothing else in English, and waved me out of the line.

A mad scramble uncovered the problem:  when I had changed planes for Kiev back in Moscow they stamped my visa as “entered” so that counted as “visiting” Russia. As far as Ukrainian customs was concerned I didn’t have a valid visa to enter Russia therefore I couldn’t get on my plane. No charm or magic worked at all with airport customs, and we were told in no uncertain terms that Bob Dorf would be living in Kiev for two weeks, absent miracles that seldom happen in government bureaucracies, at home or in Ukraine, for sure.

The problem was that I had 25 founders from all over the Russian republics expecting me to teach a Lean LaunchPad class 12 hours later in Moscow. And then I was heading to Paris and Bogota to teach as well.  Oops. Not if I had to spend two weeks in the Ukraine applying for a new Russian visa!

We dashed off from the Kiev airport to the Russian consulate in hopes of sorting it out in two hours rather than two weeks. While on the way, we called the embassy at 12:55 and found out that the Embassy closes at 13:00 on Fridays, and we were 30 minutes away. And I don’t even like borscht, a prime Ukrainian delicacy, nor did I know how the “Bob Dorf world tour” would continue.

Four entrepreneurs in a car
Was this time to give up?  Of course not. Four entrepreneurs in a car in Kiev means three cell phones buzzing in different directions in Russian and me as the non Russian-speaker on my iPad looking at travel sites for the next flight, just in case I could get a visa. We went to the consulate anyway, where two armed guards right out of your favorite spy movie (fat, grumpy, unshaven and did I say grumpy?) barred the door. After rapid-fire begging in Russian, a phone finally call got a functionary out to basically shoo us away. “Visa processing takes two weeks, and that would start Monday, since the visa office is now closed. The Professor can go home to America, but can not go from here to Russia.” Visions of stealth border crossings or—perhaps even worse—a ten-hour Skype talk with my Moscow students—played over and over again.Cossack Attack

While the thoughts of going back to the U.S. for a weekend at home with my long-lost wife Fran were lovely, the thought of disappointing 25 students the next day and 50 more two days later in Bogota weren’t fun. I immensely enjoyed my last lectures at Skolkovo and was eager to do it again. 

So we started an international incident of sorts
First, the truly entrepreneurial and unstoppable Happy Farmer, Anna, somehow in five phone calls got through to the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, told him the story, begged for his help. She did this through a friend (how everything happens in Ukraine, of course) who served as one of his deputies. “I will talk to him at four pm and he will call the Russians,” she said, which offered only nominal relief: the last flight out was at 7 pm, and there was no firm commitment that anything good would happen.

At the same time, on the Russian side of the border, Skolkovo’s equally tenacious Startups Project Director, Lawrence Wright, went to work, calling the Russian foreign office and imploring them to call the Ukrainian embassy and tell them “let Dorf out.” When they agreed to consider breaking every rule in the 40-pound Russian rulebook, the fun began.

The Ukrainian solution to all this, while we paced for two hours to see if anybody heard our cries: “lets go to lunch and have a drink.” In perhaps one of four times in my entire life, I was actually unable to eat. The thought of jumping barbed wire fences, pursued by Cossacks, was quickly looming as my only choice for an on-time performance launching the LaunchPad.  Meanwhile, something clicked. Somebody got to somebody, and suddenly the Russian Consul himself, boss of the entire place, headed back to—or was sent back to–the office himself to personally produce a visa for Bob Dorf in one hour, not two weeks.

We were given less than an hour to find wifi and download the 20-page visa application in the backseat of an SUV.  Needed to have the original, not a copy, of the new Skolkovo “invitation letter” physically in my hand. Scrambled to get a passport photo and a printer to print out the application. Done, back to the Consulate at Indy 500 speed!

Somehow it worked. If Anna and her team are as good at running over hot coals and through brick walls with their startups as they were with my visa, watch for lots of great companies emerging from the Happy Farm.  As for me, I was sure I was headed to the funny farm.  By nine I was heading to Moscow. Six hours of fun aggravation, five and a half of which had me absolutely sure we were opening a branch of K&S Ranch in Kiev.

But the best part of the adventure is that I now had a better tenacity story than Steve.  Beat this one!
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Careers Start by Peeling Potatoes

Listening to my the family talk about dividing up the cooking chores for this Thanksgiving dinner, including who would peel the potatoes, reminded me that most careers start by peeling potatoes.

KP – Kitchen Patrol
One of the iconic punishments in basic training in the military was being threatened by our drill instructors of being assigned to KP – Kitchen Patrol – as a penalty for breaking some rule. If you got assigned to KP you were sent to the base kitchen and had to peel potatoes all day for all the soldiers on the base.  It was tedious work but to my surprise I found that it wasn’t the dreadful experience our drill instructors made it out to be. But working in the mess hall, the real eye-opener was the inside look at the workings of something I took for granted – how do you cook three meals a day for 10,000 people at a time. Peeling potatoes was a small bit in the thousands of things that had to go right every day to keep 10,000 of us fed.

One my first career lessons: stop taking for granted finished goods and appreciate the complexity of the system that delivered them.

Solutions From Hands On
When I got to my first airbase my job was lugging electronics boxes on and off fighter planes under the broiling hot Thailand sun, to bring them into the technicians inside the air-conditioned shop, to troubleshoot and fix. The thing we dreaded hearing from the techs was, “this box checks out fine, it must be a wiring problem.” Which meant going back to the aircraft trying to find a bent pin in a connector or short in a cable or a bad antenna. It meant crawling over, under and inside an airplane fuselage the temperature of an oven. Depending on the type of aircraft (F-4’s, F-105’s or A-7’s – the worst) it could take hours or days to figure out where the problem was.

A few months later, I was now the guy in the air-conditioned shop telling my friends on the flight-line, “the box was fine, must be a cable.” Having just been on the other side I understood the amount of work that phrase meant. It took a few weeks of these interactions, but it dawned on me there was a gap between the repair manuals describing how to fix the electronics and the aircraft manuals telling you the pin-outs of the cables – there were no tools to simplify finding broken cables on the flightline. Now with a bit more understanding of the system problem, it didn’t take much thinking to look at the aircraft wiring diagrams and make up a series of dummy connectors with test points to simplify the troubleshooting process. I gave them to my friends, and while the job of finding busted aircraft cabling was still unpleasant it was measurably shorter.

My next career lesson: unless I had been doing the miserable, hot and frustrating job on the flightline, I would never have known this was a valuable problem to solve.

Up From the Bottom
My startup career started on the bottom, installing process control equipment inside auto assembly plants and steel mills (in awe of the complexity of the systems that delivered finished products.) Wrote technical manuals and taught microprocessor design (to customers who knew more than I did.) Worked weeks non-stop responding to customer Requests For Proposals (RFP’s.) Designed tradeshow booths, spent long nights at shows setting them up, and long days inside them during the shows.

Over ten long years I wrote corporate brochures (making legal, finance and sales happy), and sales presentations (treading the line between sales, marketing, truth, and competition), and data sheets, web sites and competitive analyses, press releases (getting a degree in creative writing without being an English major,) and flew to hundreds of customer meetings on red-eyes at a drop of a hat (making sales guys rich and gaining a huge appreciation for their skills.)

Partnered with engineering trying to understand what customers really wanted, needed and would pay for, versus what we could actually build and deliver (and learning the difference between a simply good engineer and working in the presence of sheer genius.) In the sprint to first customer ship, slept under the desk in my office the same nights my engineering team was doing the same.

Each of those crummy, tedious, exhausting jobs made me understand how hard they were. Each made me appreciate the complexity of the systems (with people being the most valuable) that make up successful companies. It made me understand that they were doable, solvable and winnable.

It took me a decade to work my way up to VP of Marketing and then CEO. By that time I knew what each job in my department meant because I had done every one of them. I knew what it took to get these jobs done (and screw them up) and I now pushed the people who worked for me as hard as I had worked.

Career Lessons Learned:

  • Winning at entrepreneurship is for practitioners not theorists.
  • Building a company in all its complexity is computationally unsolvable.
  • There’s no shortcut for getting your hands dirty. Reading stories about the success of Facebook or blogs about the secrets of SEO might make you feel smarter, but it’s not going to make you more skilled.
  • Unless you’ve had a ton of experience (which includes failing) in a broad range of areas you’re only guessing.
  • Great careers start by peeling potatoes.

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Entrepreneurs as Dissidents

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.


If you can’t see the video above click here.

Countries that put their artists and protesters in jail will never succeed in building a successful culture of entrepreneurship.  They will be relegated to creating better mousetraps or cloning other countries’ business models.

Entrepreneurs as Dissidents
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he ran the Think Different ads, a brilliant marketing campaign to make Apple’s core customers believe that Apple was still fighting for the brand.

But in hindsight, the ad captured something much more profound.

The crazy ones? The misfits? The rebels? The troublemakers? To celebrate those people as heroes requires a country and culture that tolerates and encourages dissent.

Because without dissent there is no creativity.

Countries that stifle dissent while attempting to encourage entrepreneurship will end up at a competitive disadvantage.

Pushing the boundaries
Most startups solve problems in existing markets – making something better than what existed before. Some startups choose to resegment a market – finding an underserved niche in an existing market or providing a good-enough low cost solution.  These are all good businesses, and there’s nothing wrong with founding one of these.

But some small segment of founders are truly artiststhey see something no one else does. These entrepreneurs are the ones who want to change “what is” and turn it into “what can be.“ These founders create new ideas and new markets by pushing the boundaries. This concept of creating something that few others see – and the reality distortion field necessary to recruit the team to build it – is at the heart of what these founders do.

The founders that make a dent in the universe are dissidents. They are not afraid to tell their bosses they are idiots or tell their schools they been teaching the wrong thing or to tell an entire industry to think different. And more importantly they are not afraid to tell their country it’s mistaken.

Freedom of Speech, Expression and Thought
Entrepreneurs in the United States take for granted our freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought. It’s enshrined in our constitution as the first amendment.

In the last few years I’ve traveled to lots of countries that understand that the rise of entrepreneurship will be an economic engine for the 21st century. In several of these countries, the government is pouring enormous sums into building entrepreneurship programs, faculties and even cities. Yet time and again when I ask the local entrepreneurs themselves what questions they have, most often the first question is, “How do I get a visa to the United States?’

For years I thought the reason hands were raised was simply an economic one. The same countries that repress dissent tend to have institutionalized corruption, meaning the quality of your idea isn’t sufficient enough to succeed by itself, you now need new “friends in the right places.” But I now see that these are all part of the same package. It’s hard to focus on being creative when a good part of your creative energies are spent trying to figure out how to work within a system that doesn’t tolerate dissent.

Lessons Learned

  • Entrepreneurs require the same creative freedom as artists and dissidents
  • Without that freedom, countries will be relegated to cloning others’ business models or creating better versions of existing products
  • History has shown that the most creative people leave repressive regimes and create elsewhere

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How We Fight – Cofounders in Love and War

I often get asked about finding cofounders and I usually give the standard list of characteristics of what I look for in a founder.  And I emphasize the value of a founding team with complementary skills sets – i.e. the hacker/hustler/designer cofounder archetype for web/mobile apps.  But Jessica Alter, Cofounder & CEO of FounderDating, pointed out that cofounders did not mean two founders in the same room.  She suggested that I was missing one of the key attributes of what makes successful startup teams powerful. She suggested that how cofounders fight was a key metric in predicting the success of a founding team.  So I asked her to write a guest post.

——————

I think about [cofounding] teams a lot – an insane amount.  And, not surprisingly, I frequently get asked what to look for or what to think about when starting the process of finding a cofounder – a true partner to start your next company with.

Like second nature, I start to recite a list of important attributes: complimentary skill sets, common visions, the notion of not trying to make someone fall in love with your idea (because the idea will likely change and then where are you?).  There are plenty more and they are important. But a few weeks ago after I sat on a panel about cofounders at Startup2Startup there was a small group dinner conversation to dig deeper on the topic.  Garry Tan (Posterous, YC), in recounting his personal experience said, “success can cover up a lot.”

And it clicked in my head – one of the key things to pay attention to in a search for a cofounder is how you fight.

Taking Time
How you fight with your potential cofounder(s) matters for a lot of reasons, the simplest of which is that you have time to fight – meaning you’ve worked together long enough to hit disagreements or bumps.  It’s one of the most common mistakes we see. I literally just received an email from someone (that I don’t know) asking to me to meet with them so that they can circumvent our regular process because, “I don’t feel like I have time for the regular FounderDating process.“  Quick advice to people that think finding a cofounder is a box to check and “don’t have time” – you won’t find someone and if you do the relationship is unlikely to last.  You’re looking for an employee, not a partner.

We tell all our FounderDating members that we’re a great starting point to connect with amazing people all with high intent to start something. But in order to figure out if you can work together you have to (wait for it…) actually work together.  That could be starting a side-project, heading over to a Startup Weekend or other hackathon, working full-time for a few months or some combination of those options.  However you do it, you need to build something together.  It doesn’t ultimately matter it if ends up being the right product, you will still have areas you disagree on throughout the process. Ask yourself: Have we had disagreements? If you haven’t, maybe you should consider a longer courtship period.

Simulating Real-Life
Consider what real startup life is going to be like.  For a long-time (longer than you plan) things are not going to work and you’ll have to figure out what to do – together.  If you do eventually reach a point where the company is making real progress, you’re still going hit crazy challenges on a regular basis that you’ll have to navigate together. This pressure – which is compounded by the sound of the ticking clock if you took money – will up the stress levels and hence the propensity to disagree.

If you don’t have at least a taste of what that’s going to be like, not only have you not done your homework, but also could be in for a rude awakening. So, let’s agree you’re going to fight. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it’s quite healthy. What matters in real life is what are the fights like? Do they escalate rapidly or become knock down, drag outs? Can you recover quickly and keep moving? Entrepreneurship and early stage companies are about moving fast; if you’re caught in a disagreement for days at a time it means decisions are not being made and/or people are walking around feeling resentful.  Either one will eventually lead to failure.  Ask yourself: When we fight do we get over it quickly and respectfully?

What Are You Fighting About?
Finally, and this is insanely important, it matters what the fights are about.  Are you fighting about whether a button should be green or blue or are you fighting about whether or not you want to raise money?

A lot of people approach finding cofounders as just a skill set need and believe once that box is checked, everything will be smooth sailing. Complimentary skill sets are important and if you’re fighting about one functional area  (e.g. design, product) it might be a sign you have too much skill set overlap. But if it were just about complimentary skill set matching it wouldn’t be very hard.

What’s difficult is making sure you’re aligned on the softer side: Why do you want to build a company? What kind of company you want to build? What are your working styles? What are your values?  What are your other priorities (family, etc.)?  We don’t care if entrepreneurs want to build lifestyle businesses or go for IPOs, if they are tethered to their email or check out at 7pm – that’s a personal decision. But you better make sure you’re on the same page as your potential cofounder about those topics. These are the issues that break up relationships, not button colors.

Ask yourself: What are we fighting about and why?

Make no mistake; I’m not suggesting you should manufacture a fight. But every relationship has ups and downs, the ones that last are able to bounce back from the downs quickly and respectfully and be better for it.  So give yourselves permission and time to fight and reflect on how you do it before you take the leap together.
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Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die

We Sleep Peaceably In Our Beds At Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf

Everyone has events that shape the rest of their lives.  This was one of mine.

——-

I’ve never been shot at. Much braver men I once worked with faced that every day. But for a year and a half I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day I realized some of the planes didn’t come back.

Life in a War Zone
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand, or from aircraft carriers (or for some B-52 bombers, in Guam.)  I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.

It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me a war zone was the first time all those skills of shutting out everything except what was important for survival came in handy. But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs (a pound of Thai marijuana for twenty dollars, heroin from the Golden Triangle that was so pure it was smoked, alcohol cheaper than soda.) I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some of them pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

What a great job
But I was really happy. What a great job – you work hard, party hard, get more responsibility and every once in awhile get to climb into fighter plane cockpits and turn them on. What could be better?

Near the beginning of the year when I was at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics (I used to love to play with the Head Up Display.) And it was painted with a shark’s mouth. This plane joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels (who went head-to-head with surface-to-air missiles,) and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft all on a very crowded fighter base.  While the electronics shop I worked in repaired electronic warfare equipment for all the fighter planes, I had just been assigned to 354th Fighter Wing so I took an interest in these relatively small A-7D Corsair’s (which had originally been designed for the Navy.)

He’s Not Coming Back
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians– some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”

We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party – it was more like a funeral.  The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia.  And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.

An empty place on the flight line
While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.

Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.

It’s Not a Game
I still remember that exact moment – standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners – when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop – like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job – and ours – was.

That day I began to think about the nature of war, the doctrine of just war, risk, and the value of National Service.

Epilogue
Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.

Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.

For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.

Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.
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Lying on your resume

It’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the coverup.
Richard Nixon and Watergate

Getting asked by reporter about where I went to school made me remember the day I had to choose whether to lie on my resume.

I Badly Want the Job
When I got my first job in Silicon Valley it was through serendipity (my part) and desperation (on the part of my first employer.)  I really didn’t have much of a resume – four years in the Air Force, building a scram system for a nuclear reactor, a startup in Ann Arbor Michigan but not much else.

It was at my second startup in Silicon Valley that my life and career took an interesting turn. A recruiter found me, now in product marketing and wanted to introduce me to a hot startup making something called a workstation. “This is a technology-driven company and your background sounds great. Why don’t you send me a resume and I’ll pass it on.” A few days later I got a call back from the recruiter. “Steve, you left off your education.  Where did you go to school?”

“I never finished college,” I said.

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. “Steve, the VP of Sales and Marketing previously ran their engineering department. He was a professor of computer science at Harvard and his last job was running the Advanced Systems Division at Xerox PARC. Most of the sales force were previously design engineers. I can’t present a candidate without a college degree. Why don’t you make something up.”

I still remember the exact instant of the conversation. In that moment I realized I had a choice. But I had no idea how profound, important and lasting it would be. It would have been really easy to lie, and what the heck the recruiter was telling me to do so. And he was telling me that, “no one checks education anyway.” (This is long before the days of the net.)

My Updated Resume
I told him I’d think about it. And I did for a long while. After a few days I sent him my updated resume and he passed it on to Convergent Technologies. Soon after I was called into an interview with the company. I can barely recall the other people I met, (my potential boss the VP of Marketing, interviews with various engineers, etc.) but I’ll never forget the interview with Ben Wegbreit, the VP of Sales and Marketing.

Ben held up my resume and said, “You know you’re here interviewing because I’ve never seen a resume like this.  You don’t have any college listed and there’s no education section.  You put “Mensa” here,” – pointing to the part where education normally goes. “Why?” I looked back at him and said, “I thought Mensa might get your attention.”

Ben just stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. Then he abruptly said, “Tell me what you did in your previous companies.” I thought this was going to be a story-telling interview like the others. But instead the minute I said, “my first startup used CATV coax to implement a local-area network for process control systems (which 35 years ago pre-Ethernet and TCP/IP was pretty cutting edge.) Ben said, “why don’t you go to the whiteboard and draw the system diagram for me.”  Do what? Draw it?? I dug deep and spent 30 minutes diagramming trying remember headend’s, upstream and downstream frequencies, amplifiers, etc.  With Ben peppering me with questions I could barely keep up. And there was a bunch of empty spaces where I couldn’t remember some of the detail. When I was done explaining it I headed for the chair, but Ben stopped me.

“As long as you’re a the whiteboard, why don’t we go through the other two companies you were at.”  I couldn’t believe it, I was already mentally exhausted but we spent another half hour with me drawing diagrams and Ben asking questions. First talking about what I had taught at ESL – (as carefully as I could.) Finally, we talked about Zilog microprocessors, making me draw the architecture (easy because I had taught it) and some sample system designs (harder.)

Finally I got to sit down.  Ben looked at me for a long while not saying a word. Then he stood up and opened the door signaling me to leave, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for coming in.” WTF? That’s it?? Did I get the job or not?

That evening I got a call from the recruiter. “Ben loved you. In fact he had to convince the VP of Marketing who didn’t want to hire you. Congratulations.”

Epilogue
Three and a half years later Convergent was now a public company and I was a Vice President of Marketing working for Ben. Ben ended up as my mentor at Convergent (and for the rest of my career), my peer at Ardent and my partner and co-founder at Epiphany.  I would never use Mensa again on my resume and my education section would always be empty.

But every time I read about an executive who got caught in a resume scandal I remember the moment I had to choose.

Lessons Learned

  • You will be faced with ethical dilemmas your entire career
  • Taking the wrong path is most often the easiest choice
  • These choices will seem like trivial and inconsequential shortcuts – at the time
  • Some of them will have lasting consequences
  • It’s not the lie that will catch up with you, it’s the coverup
  • Choose wisely

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Tenacious

TE·NA·CIOUS/TƏˈNĀSHƏS/

Adjective:

  1. Not readily letting go of, giving up, or separated from an object that one holds, a position, or a principle: “a tenacious grip”.
  2. Not easily dispelled or discouraged; persisting in existence or in a course of action.

When I was a entrepreneur I’d pursue a goal relentlessly. Everything in between me and my goal was simply an obstacle that needed to be removed.

This week I had another reminder of what it was like.

Plenty of Time
I was speaking at the National Governors Conference in Williamsburg Virginia and my talk ended Sunday at noon.  I knew I had to be in Chicago at 9:30Am Monday for a Congressional hearing (I was the lead witness) so I made sure I was on the next to last plane out of Richmond (just in case the last one got cancelled.)

My wife and I got to the airport for our 4:45pm plane and found it was delayed to 6pm. Ok, no problem. Oops now it’s delayed until 7:30pm.  Hmm, the last plane out looks like it’s leaving on-time at 8pm – can I get on that?  No, sold out.  So we sit around and watch our plane get delayed to 8pm, then 9pm then 10pm, then cancelled. Oh, oh this is looking a bit tight, but there’s a 6am from Richmond to Chicago. No problem. If we can get on that I can still make the hearing. The nice smiling United agent says “oh that’s sold out as well. Now I’m getting a bit concerned, “Well how about the American Airlines 6am?” “Sold out” she replied. The next flight is at 8am.” Ok put me on that one.  “Oh that’s sold out as well.”

We Have a Problem
I need to be in downtown Chicago by 9:30am.  Period.

So I ask, “where’s the nearest airport that has a 6am flight to Chicago?” Oh, that’s Dulles airport in Washington.”Ok, how far is that?” 120 miles.

We head back to the car rental booth, rent our second car of the day and head to Washington in pouring rain and drive in bumper to bumper traffic, crawling to our next airport. Three hours later we check into the airport hotel at 1:30am assured that all we needed to do is get 3 hours sleep and United would whisk  us on the way to Chicago.

Tenacious
Waking up at 4:15am I glance at my email and couldn’t believe it – United canceled our 6am from Dulles. The next flight they had would get us into Chicago at 10am – too late to testify in front of Congress.  It looked like there was simply no way to get where we needed to go.

My first instinct was to give up. Screw it. I tried hard, failed due to circumstances beyond my control.  Why don’t we just go back to bed and get a good nights sleep.

That thought lasted all of 30 seconds.

We quickly realized that Washington has two airports – the other one, National was 30 miles away. I looked up the flight schedule and realized that there was a 6am and 7am leaving from National. I booked the 7am online not believing we could make the earlier 6am flight.

The only problem is that there weren’t any taxi’s to be found at 4:30 in the morning – in front of the hotel or on Uber.  So I hiked over to the main road and flagged one down and had him drive me back to the hotel, pick up my wife and luggage and continued our adventure.

We got to Washington National Airport at 5am and walked directly into the longest security line I’ve seen in 10 years. Well, at least we can make the 7am plane (the one we’re ticketed on) and barely make the congressional hearing.

Getting through security the first gate we pass is the 6am for Chicago and they’re in the process of closing the door.  “Any chance you have any seats left?”  Oh, we have two seats in the back of the plane but we don’t have time to re-ticket you.

Trying to remember my reality distortion field skills from my entrepreneurial days I convinced her to let us on.

We made it to Chicago.  I actually got to sleep in our hotel for 45 minutes before the Congressional Field hearing.

Then I got to share this:

Lessons Learned

  • Your personal life and career will be full of things that block your way or hinder progress
  • Keep your eyes on the prize, not the obstacles
  • Remove obstacles one at a time
  • There’s almost always a path to your goal
  • Never, never  never give up

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