Fireside Chat with Sebastian Thrun

I did a fun fireside chat with one of my most favorite people –  Sebastian Thrun – at the Udacity conference. Sebastian is the embodiment of a renaissance person. I first heard about him when his driverless car won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. He founded Google X and led the development of the Google self-driving car. He was a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford and before that at Carnegie Mellon University.

And he asks great questions.

If you can’t see the video click here

1:17     Hacking for Defense (Why did we create it?  What is it?)

3:30   Lean Startup (What is it? How it started, How did the class get on Udacity)

5:30   Pricing (Customer Validation, Sales, Pricing)

8:30  Customer Discovery (What is the Lean Stack)

10:13 What Advice Would You Give to Yourself at 18?

12:37 Small Businesses vs. Scalable Startups (Should I take Risk Capital)

15:48 Can you Teach Entrepreneurship?

19:03 What’s the Craziest Problem I’ve Ever Seen? (The Navy SEAL’s)

21:25 How Do You Find Out What Customers Really Want? (Customer Discovery, Pivots)

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Marketing Communications

I was having coffee with the CEO of a new startup, listening to her puzzle through how to communicate to potential customers. She was an academic on leave from Stanford now selling SAAS software to large companies, but was being inundated with marketing communications advice. “My engineers say our website is old school, and we need to be on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, my VP of Sales says we’re wasting our marketing dollars not targeting the right people and my board keeps giving me their opinions of how we should describe our product and company. How do I sort out what to do?”

She winced as I reminded her that she had gone through the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps. “Painful and invaluable” was her reply. I reminded her that all the Lean tools she learned in class–Customer Discovery, business model and value proposition canvases– contained her answer.

Here’s how.
—-
Define the Mission of Marketing Communications
Companies often confuse communications tactics (“What should my webpage look like or should I be using Facebook/Instagram/Twitter?”) with a strategy. A communications strategy answers the question, “Why are we doing these activities?” For example, our goal could be:

  1. Create demand for our products and drive it into our sales channel
  2. Create awareness of our company and brand for potential customers
  3. Create awareness for fundraising (VC, angels, corporate partners)
  4. Create awareness for potential acquirers of our company

(Marketing communications is a subset of the Marketing department’s mission. Read the post about mission and intent here.)

Audience(s), Message, Media, Messenger
Once you figure out why you’re creating a communications strategy then you can figure out how to use it. The “how” requires just four steps:

  1. Understand your audience(s)
  2. Craft the message for that specific audience
  3. Select the media you want the message to be read/seen/heard on
  4. Select the messenger you want to carry your message

Step 1: Who’s the Audience(s)?
An audience means – who specifically you want your messages to reach. Is it all the people on earth? Everyone in San Francisco? Potential customers such as gamers who like to play specific types of games? Or people inside companies with a specific title, like product or program managers, CIOs, etc? Venture Capitalists who may want to invest? Other companies that may want to acquire you?

What’s confusing is that often there are multiple audiences you want to communicate with. So, refer to your strategy: Are you trying to reach potential customers or potential investors and acquirers? These are very different audiences, each requires its own messages, media and messengers.

If you’re selling a product to a company, for example, is the audience the user of the product? Her boss? The person who has the budget? The CEO?

How do you figure out who the audience is? It turns out that if you’ve been doing customer discovery and using the value proposition canvas, you know a lot about each customer/ beneficiary. The first step is to put all those value proposition canvases on the wall to remind you that these are the people you need to reach.

How do you figure out which of these customers/beneficiaries is most important? Who’s the least important? If you’ve been out talking to customers, you will have an idea of who’s involved in the buying process. Who’s the user of product? The recommender? The decision maker? The saboteur? As you map out what you learned about the role each of these customers plays in the buying process, marketing communications and sales can decide which one of the customers/beneficiaries is the primary audience of your messages. (And they can decide if there any secondary audiences you should reach.) Often there are multiple people in a sales process worth influencing.

If you’re trying to reach potential acquirers or investors, the customer discovery process is the same. Spend time building value proposition canvases for these audiences.

Step 2: What’s the Message?
Messages are what you delivering to the audience(s) you’ve selected. Messages answer three questions:

  1. Why should the audience care?
  2. What are you offering?
  3. What’s the call to action?

Your customers have already told you how to craft the first part of your message. The answer to “Why should your audience care?” comes directly from the pains and gains on the right side of the value proposition canvas.

And the answer to the second question “What are you offering?” comes from the left side of the value proposition canvas. It’s not just the product feature list, but the pain relievers and gain creators.

Once you get your audience to read your message, then what? What’s the call to action? Do you want them to download a demo, schedule a sales call, visit a physical store location or a website, download an app, click for more information, give you their email address, etc.? Your message needs to include a specific call to action.

Other things to keep in mind about messages:

Message context
A message that is brilliant today and gets the press writing about you and customers begging to buy your product could have been met with blank stares two years ago and may be obsolete next year. In crafting your messages, remember that all messages operate in a context that may have an expiration date. Netbooks, 3DTVs, online classes disrupting higher ed, all had their moment in time. Make sure your context is current and revisit your messages periodically to see if they still work.

Sticky Messages
Messages also need to be memorable – “sticky.” Why? Because the more memorable the message, the greater its ability to create change. Not only do we want people to change their buying behavior, we also want them to change how they think. (This is often a tough concept for engineering founders who believe that if we just tell customers about the features that make their product faster, cheaper, etc. they’ll win.)

Consider that if you were told you were going to pay for cold, dead fish wrapped in seaweed you might not be too hungry. But when we call it sushi people line up.

The same goes for a hamburger. You may eat a lot of them, but if McDonald’s message was “dead cow, slaughtered by the millions, butchered by minimum wage earners, then ground into patties, frozen into solid blocks, and reheated when you order them,” instead of “You deserve a break today,” sales might be a tad lower.

Product versus Company Messages
There is a difference between detailed product messages versus messages about your company. At times, you may have to communicate what the company stands for before a customer is ready to listen to you talk about product messages. For example, to outflank a competitor who had faster products, Intel moved the conversation about microprocessors away from speed and technology to create a valued brand. They created the “Intel Inside” campaign.

Apple was trying to resurrect a then-dying company by reminding people what Apple stood for with their “Think Different” ad campaign

Both Apple and Intel were selling complicated technology but did so by simplifying the message so it had broad emotional appeal. Both Intel Inside and Think Different became sticky corporate messages.

Step 3: Media
Media means the type of communications media each audience member reads/listens to/watches. Is could be print (newspapers/magazine), Internet (website, podcasts, etc.), broadcast (TV, radio, etc.) or social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). In customer discovery, you asked prospects how they get information about new companies and new products. (If not, get back out and do so!) The media your prospective customers told you they use ought to be on top of your target media.

The online media your company controls (your corporate website, company Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) should be the first place you experiment finding your audience(s) and message.

Typically, you pick several media to reach each audience. It’s likely that each audience reads different media (potential customers read something very different than potential investors.) You’ll need a media strategy – a plan that describes the mix of media and how you will use it. This plan should include the category of media; print, internet, broadcast and then identify specific sites, blogs, magazine, etc.

Step 4: Messengers
Messengers are the well-placed and highly leveraged individuals who have influence over your audience(s). Messengers convey and amplify your message to your audience through the media you’ve chosen.

There are four types of messengers: reporters, experts, evangelists and connectors. (Each audience will have its own unique set of messengers.)

Reporters are paid by specific media to write about news. Which reporters you should talk to comes from discovering which media your audience has said they read. Your goal is to identify who are the reporters in the media your audience reads and what they write about, and to figure out why they should write about you. (Wrong answer – because we have a new product. Very wrong answer – because my CEO wants to be on the cover of publication X or Y.)

Experts know your industry or product in detail, and others rely on them for their opinions. Experts may be industry analysts in private research firms (Gartner, NPD, AMR), Wall Street research analysts (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs), consultants who provide advice for your industry or bloggers with wide followings. Experts may even be potential customers who run user groups that other potential customers turn to for advice.

(Today some reporters are experts – product reviewers in the Tech Section of the Wall Street Journal, or the Technology section of the New York Times (or its product review site Wirecutter)).

Evangelists are unabashed cheerleaders and salespeople for your product and, if you are creating a new market, for your company vision. They tell everyone how great the product is and about the unlimited potential of your product and market. While nominally carrying less credibility than experts, evangelists have two advantages: typically, they are paying customers, and they are incredibly enthusiastic about what they say. (Evangelists are not customers who will give a reference. A customer reference is something you have to twist arms to get; an evangelist is someone you can’t get off the phone.)

Connectors are individuals who seem to know everyone. Each industry has a few. They may be bloggers who expound on the general state of your industry and write magazine or newspaper columns. They may be individuals who organize and hold conferences where the key industry thought leaders gather. Often, they themselves are the thought leaders.

Founders ask me all the time whether they should hire a PR agency. I tell them, “The question isn’t if.  The question is when?” Influencing the messengers is what great public relations firms know how to do. They may have their own language describing who the messengers are (e.g., “influencers”) and how they manage them (e.g. “information chain”), but once you’ve done a first pass of the audience > message > media > messenger, a competent PR firm can add tremendous value.

Customer Discovery Never Stops
Understanding your audience(s) is important for not just startups, but for companies already selling products. It helps you stay current with customers, get ideas for other needs to fill and to create new products. In addition, the audience > message > media > messenger cycle seamlessly moves this learning into getting, keeping and growing customers. Today, Marketing Automation tools (customer analytics, SEO, and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms) generate customer behavior history about what messages worked on which media. These tools generate data that companies use to feed AdTech tools (demand-side platforms, ad exchanges and networks) to automate selling and buying of online ads.

Communications as a Force Multiplier

  • Smart CEOs treat communications as a force multiplier for sales, a tool to dramatically increase valuation and the vehicle to get acquirers lined up at the door. Not so successful CEOs treat it as tactic that can be handed to others.
  • Hiring a PR agency too early is a sign that the CEO is treating this as someone else’s problem. In a startup, the first pass of understanding Audience, Message, Media, Messenger can only be done with the founders/CEO engaged.
  • Getting publicity for a product that does not yet exist is how startups get noticed. But don’t fall victim to your own reality distortion field and hype a product that can never be made (think of Tesla versus Theranos.)
  • Figuring out who the possible audiences are, what messages to send, and what media to use, feels overwhelming at first. The temptation is to try to reach all the audiences with a single message and a single media. That’s a going out of business strategy. Use Customer Discovery, and your customers will teach you who they are, what to say to them and how to reach them.

Lessons Learned

  • Marketing Communications = Audience, Message, Media, Messenger
  • Use the Value Proposition Canvas to understand who your audience(s) are
  • Craft messages to match what your audience has already told you
  • Pick the media they said they read
  • Find the right messengers to amplify your message

Herding Cats – Using Lean to Work Together

When Colonel Peter Newell headed up the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) he used lean methods on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to provide immediate technology solutions to urgent problems.

Today, his company BMNT does for government and commercial customers what the Rapid Equipping Force did for the U.S. Army.

Pete and I created the Hacking for Defense class (with Joe Felter and Tom Byers.) One of the problems our students run into is that there are always multiple beneficiaries and stakeholders associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions and missions.  So how do you figure out whose needs to satisfy?

Here’s Pete’s view of how you do it.


Unlike businesses, government organizations don’t sell products, and they don’t earn revenue. Instead, they have missions to accomplish and very hard problems to solve.  They use a variant of the Business Model Canvas –  the Mission Model Canvas – to map their hypotheses, and they get of the building to do beneficiary discovery. (A beneficiary can be a soldier, program manager, commanding general, government contractor, stakeholder, customer, etc.)  And just like in a commercial business they are trying to determine whether the value proposition solves the problem and helps the beneficiary accomplish their mission.

Discovery for both business and government is similar in that the only way to do it is to turn assumptions into facts by generating hypotheses, developing Minimum Viable Products and getting out of the building to test those MVP’s in the trenches where the customers and beneficiaries work. Early in the discovery process, teams are faced with a cacophony of personalities and organizations. Often, they struggle with understanding which person or group represents a beneficiary, supporter, advocate or potential key partner. It’s only through repetitive hypothesis testing that they begin to sort them all out.

It’s in the trenches however, where things become different.

Multiple Beneficiaries, Multiple Conflicts
Unlike their commercial counterparts, government problem solvers are often faced with multiple beneficiaries associated with a problem, often with conflicting value propositions. As these differences become apparent, teams must make decisions about the value proposition trade-offs between conflicting beneficiaries – sometimes even pivoting completely in favor of one beneficiary to the detriment of another.

During last year’s Hacking for Defense class at Stanford Team Aqualink experienced the conflicting beneficiaries’ problem.  The result was a significant pivot of both beneficiary and value proposition.

Aqualink started with a problem given to them from the chief medical officer of the Navy SEALS – they had no way to understand chronic long-term health issues divers face. Divers work 60 to 200 feet underwater for 2-4 hours, but Navy doctors currently have no way to monitor divers’ core temperature, maximum dive pressure, blood pressure, pulse and the rebreather (air consumption), or the dive computer (dive profile) data.

Having all this new data would give a diver early warning of hypothermia or the bends. More importantly the data would allow the medical director to individually assess the short and long-term health of each diver. And medical researchers would have access to detailed physiological data. The medical director tasked the team with building a wearable sensor system and developing apps that would allow divers to monitor their own physiological conditions while underwater and to download it for later analysis.

In the first week of the class this team got out of the building, suited up in full Navy diving gear and did customer discovery by spending an hour in the life of the beneficiary.

But as the students on the Aqualink team spoke to the SEAL team divers, (another one of their beneficiaries), they experienced an existential crisis. Most of the divers were “ambivalent” (read hostile) about the introduction of a vitals monitoring platform, (“If you gave to us at 0900, it would end up on the bottom of the ocean by 0905.”) Having worked so hard to get into the SEALS, no diver wanted doctors telling them they could no longer dive.

After further questioning, the team discovered the reason the divers were spending so much time underwater – they often did not know where they were. To find out, they had to get a GPS fix. This meant their minisub (called the SEAL Delivery Vehicle) had to rise to within 6 feet of the ocean surface so the GPS antenna could broach the surface. And to do so they had to surface slowly to avoid giving the divers the bends.

The divers told our student team, “Screw the health sensors. Build us a GPS sensor that can be deployed from 100 feet underwater.”

Now the team had a dilemma. They would have to decide which beneficiary to focus on – the SEAL Team medical director, who was the sponsor of their problem, or the operators of the delivery vehicle and divers within SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team One, along with their immediate chains of command in SDVT-1 and Naval Special Warfare Group 3.

When they went back to the medical director with their findings, he was surprised as they were.  “Never knew that’s why they spent all that time down there.  Heck, yes, fix their problem first.”

Understanding the Problem Context and Problem Ecosystem
As Aqualink shows, getting out of the building – interviewing the beneficiaries, drawing their workflows and mapping a day-in -their-life – will give you a more complete picture of the context in which a proposed problem exists. Talking to multiple beneficiaries will lead to better understanding of the entire ecosystem of the problem. Often this will show that the problem you have been given is merely a symptom of a larger problem, or is the result of a different problem.

The solution is to:

  1. Cross check the results of your discovery between different beneficiaries. Often, you’ll find that they seldom have a complete understanding of one another’s workflows and pain points but instead are championing the solution to a mere symptom of a different problem.
  2. Share what you learned in discovery among the different beneficiaries. This will arm you with the tools needed to get them (or their leadership) to agree on the right problem that needs to be solved first. In many cases this will lead to your first pivot!

The goal is to sort out who has a value proposition that must be addressed first.

The power of beneficiaries helping one another
While discovery with multiple beneficiaries can be confusing and exhausting, there is immense power when all the beneficiaries work together. Therefore, the goal of customer discovery is not just to understand the pains and gains of individual beneficiaries, but to find a shared purpose between all of them.

Once they understand they share the same goal, they can solve pain points or create gains for each other using the resources they already control. A “shared” sense of purpose is a very powerful step in the pathway towards a deployable solution.

When the Department of Energy asked BMNT to build a training program for getting veterans into advanced manufacturing jobs, we saw the power of a shared purpose between multiple beneficiaries first hand.

The problem we were asked to solve is that of the 10,000 veterans who leave military service every month, many remain unemployed or underemployed, yet at the same time the number of unfilled advanced manufacturing jobs in the U.S. is expected to climb to over a million by 2020. From a business perspective, obtaining technically qualified talent is among the top constraints to growth in the US.

Seems like it would be a match made in heaven, right?  Not so fast…

While we initially thought the beneficiaries of the effort were the veterans, we quickly discovered there were other beneficiaries in advanced manufacturing. We found these additional beneficiaries had different pains and gains which in turn required different value propositions to solve their problems.

Our customer discovery taught us that there were three additional beneficiaries:

  • Universities needed to grow their enrollments. Our discovery showed us universities were willing to create programming for Advanced Manufacturing, but first needed to see a business case for how it would increase their enrollment to make it a worthwhile effort.
  • Industry needed to attract and hire qualified employees. We learned that technically qualified employees within industry were in such demand that the number one way to get qualified employees was to pilfer them from others.
  • Government Agencies needed to help their communities build skilled labor pools to attract new industries.

And we learned that our initial beneficiary, veterans leaving service, didn’t need internships or low-paying jobs, but needed jobs that paid enough to support their families.

We found each of these beneficiaries had a shared purpose. And each of them had a value proposition that would create a gain or relieve a pain point for another beneficiary. These were big ideas.

We found that as these overlapping value propositions emerged, we used the results to get the beneficiaries to come together in a workshop designed to jointly create a shared minimum viable product that they could then use to test within their own organizations.

Bringing the groups together in a workshop also served to align value propositions between beneficiaries by demonstrating that there was a way to create a single program that served all their needs. And we created an environment that allowed each beneficiary to discover that the other beneficiaries were partners they could work with in the future.

What was the impact of bringing the beneficiaries together in a workshop and creating this beneficiary ecosystem for advanced manufacturing?

Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) created a veterans’ jobs program. They teamed with a local college to create internships that allowed veterans to work during the summer.  In turn, the local college created additional advanced manufacturing classes to meet LLNL’s technical needs and the regional workforce investment board provided funding.

In Fort Riley, the Army base in Kansas, the military teamed with Kansas State University to create an advanced manufacturing program. Kansas State created a series of advanced manufacturing classes. Soldiers leaving the service can take these courses at a nearby campus beginning up to six months before they leave service.

An unexpected consequence is that today there are soldiers from Fort Riley using advanced manufacturing processes to create parts for vehicles and equipment at the Army base.

Lessons learned

  • Government problem solvers will often be faced with multiple beneficiaries with different value propositions. Share what you learn from different beneficiaries with each other to sort out which has a value proposition that must be addressed first.
  • The benefit of having multiple beneficiaries is that their strengths can be used to help one another create gains and relieve pains for one another. Creating a shared sense of empowerment from working together smooths the pathway towards scaling the right solution.

Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy

When you’re up to your neck in alligators, don’t forget the goal was to drain the swamp.

I love teaching because I learn something new every class.

This time it was, “Don’t let process distract you from finding the strategy.”


The latest “aha” moment for me when I was at Columbia University teaching an intensive 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class.  The goal of the class is to expose students to the basics of the Lean MethodologyBusiness Model Design, Customer Development and Agile Engineering.

In this short version of the class, students (in teams of four) spend half their day out of the classroom testing their hypotheses by talking to customers and building minimum viable products.  The teams come back into the class and present what they found, and then they get out and talk to more customers.  Repeat for 5 days.  All teams talk to at least 50 customers/ partners/ stakeholders, and some manage to reach more than 100.

One of the teams wanted to create a new woman’s clothing brand. The good news is that they were passionate, smart and committed.  The not so good news is that other than having been customers, none of them had ever been in the fashion business. But hey, no problem.  They had the Lean Startup model to follow. They could figure it out by simply talking to customers and stores that carry unique fashion brands.  How hard can this be?!

2_8_maraBy the second day the team appeared to be making lots of progress –  they had talked to many women about their clothing line, and had marched up and down NY stores talking to buyers in clothing boutiques.  They built detailed value proposition canvases for each customer segment (young urban professional woman, students, etc.) –  trying to match customer pains, gains and jobs to be done with their value proposition (their new clothing line.) They were busily testing their hypotheses about customer segments and value proposition, seeing if they could find product/market fit.

In listening to them it dawned on me that I had fallen victim to teaching process rather than helping the teams gain insight. I asked them to remind the class what business they were in.  “We’re creating a clothing fashion brand,” was the reply.  I asked, “And how much fashion brand expertise do you have as a team?” “None, we’re using customer discovery to quickly acquire it.”  On the surface, it sounded like a good answer.

But then I asked, “Has anyone on your team asked if any of your 120 classmates are in the apparel/fashion business?”  After a moment of reflection they did just that, and eight of their classmates raised their hands. I asked, “Do you think you might want to do customer discovery first on the domain experts in your own class?”  A small lightbulb appeared over their heads.

A day later, after interviewing their classmates, the team discovered that when creating a woman’s clothing brand, the clothing itself has less to do with success than the brand does. And the one critical element in creating a brand is getting written about by a small group (less than 10) of “brand influencers” (reviewers, editors, etc.) in fashion magazines and blogs.

fashion-brandWhoah… the big insight was that how you initially “get” these key influencers – not customers or stores – is the critical part of creating a clothing fashion brand. This meant understanding these influencers was more important than anything else on the business model canvas. The team immediately added brand influencers to their business model canvas, created a separate value proposition canvas for them and started setting up customer discovery interviews.
The lessons?

  • This team was entering an existing market. (The team had already drawn the Petal Diagram mapping the competitive landscape.)petal-and-canvas
  • In an existing market there is a track record for how new entrants create a brand, get traction and scale. Many of the key insights about the business model and value proposition canvases are already known.
  • In an existing market, going through customer discovery (talking to customers, buyers, distribution channel, etc.) without first asking, “Are there any insights that can be gained by understanding the incumbent strategies, can be a trap for the unwary.”

Ironically, when I was entrepreneur I knew and practiced this. When I started a new venture in existing markets I would spend part of my initial customer discovery attending conferences, reading analysts’ reports and talking to domain experts to understand current market entry strategies. (None of this obligated me to follow the path of other companies. At times I took this information and created a different strategy to disrupt the incumbents.) But as an educator I was getting trapped in teaching the process not the strategy.

The fashion brand team’s experience was a great wake-up call.

From now on my first question to startups in an existing market is: “Tell me the critical success factors of the existing incumbents.”

Lessons Learned

  • In an existing market, draw a Petal Diagram with adjacent companies
  • Focus part of your initial customer discovery on learning competitive insights.
  • Describe how those companies entered the market. What was critical?

 

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 45: Dan Miller and Brian Zuercher

I always told myself that I would stop pushing forward when there was an overwhelming force from the outside saying that this is not working. But even when I reached that point, I continued to try to brute force it into existence. I wound up losing a lot.

We followed every test and experimental process from the get-go but we didn’t tell our investors we were doing that. They still thought we were building what we had presented in a PowerPoint slide. When they found out, they questioned my decision-making and me as an entrepreneur.

The same passion that got your startup idea off the ground can blind you to signs that your company is failing.

And not keep investors informed about changes to your business model can have serious consequences.

How to recognize when it’s time to pull the plug on your startup idea, and why founders can’t operate afford to operate in a vacuum were the focus on today’s Entrepreneurs are Everywhere radio show.

The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.

dan-miller

Dan Miller

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were

brian-zuercher

Brian Zuercher

Listen to my full interviews with Dan and Brian by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here

(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Dan Miller is the co-founder and CEO of Level Therapy, which provides access to psychotherapists through video, voice, and text. Before Level, Dan was the founder and CEO of Freshsessions, the world’s first marketplace for musicians to find and book studio time anywhere.

Before setting out on his own, Dan held various product, research, and operations roles at Salesforce, SurveyMonkey, Forrester Research, and The Ladders. He was also on the team that wrote the business plan for BlackGirlsCode. In 2014, Business Insider listed Dan as one of the top 46 African Americans in Tech.

With Freshsessions, Dan thought he was on to a great idea. Other people thought so, too, but weren’t willing to pay for the service:

It was going pretty well at the very beginning. We built a landing page, and ran some ads, and started to drive targeted traffic to the ads to see if people would be interested in it.

There was a lot of interest. But it was very difficult to find engaged studio owners that wanted to change how they were operating their businesses to adopt a technology-based model, and find musicians that had enough money to book consistent sessions through the platform.

We found the need, but no payers.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

He wanted Freshsessions to work so badly that he was tone-deaf to signs that it was time to shut the business down:

I always told myself that I would stop pushing forward when there was an overwhelming force from the outside saying that this is not working. Even when, I believe, in hindsight, that I reached that point, I continued to try to brute force it into existence.

We were trying out different cities, and I was flying around the country, and we were trying different campaigns and various things, and ultimately they were not working.

Through that process, I lost a lot including some relationships with individuals, and I started to develop symptoms of acute anxiety.

 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Brian Zuercher is the CEO and co-founder of Seen, a marketing software platform that is helping marketers tell the story of their brand and build relationships with their customers through consumer generated photos and videos. Seen was recognized as the “Innovation Game Changer” at the 2012 Ohio Interactive Awards.  

Actively involved in the local startup community, Brian is a Startup Weekend Columbus host and MC at the monthly morning pitch event for entrepreneurs, WakeUp StartUp.

Additionally, he has an extensive background in building and launching consumer products at Seen, Clearwish (founder), and Woods Industries.

Today, Seen has achieved some success, but it took Brian and his team several pivots to get where they are. They didn’t always keep their angel investors informed about the changes they were making and it nearly cost them:

We followed every test and experimental process from the get-go but we didn’t tell our investors we were doing that. They still thought we were building what we had presented in a PowerPoint slide as the product, but that didn’t work out in our case. 

We did three iterations of the product in less than 12 months, each one progressively going off of different consumer metrics that we found and then partner feedback.

Ultimately, it didn’t work and we decided we had enough time to maybe do one last iteration. We did the tough thing of letting everyone go, reducing the burn down to two of us from almost 10 at one point, and gave ourselves six weeks to turn into a new product.

Meanwhile, the investors thought we were dead. We’d told them, “Hey, we let everyone go. We’ve got some money left, but we don’t know if we’ve got much left.” 

They questioned my decision-making and me as an entrepreneur. Fortunately we had the confidence of a couple board members as well who were able to stand up for us.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Seeking help to cope with the anxiety he developed as Freshsessions was falling apart, Dan tried some web-based mental health practitioners. The experience wasn’t positive, and led him to come up with the idea for Level Therapy:

I tried one that was solely web-based, with an interesting subscription model, but they didn’t accept insurance. I walked away from that experience feeling cold, and more like a number than a person.  

Immediately, the entrepreneur in me started to kick in, and I started to think about why, objectively, was I having those thoughts? Where did this company miss? How could I build a solution that would address those points?

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Dan suggests other founders seek out not just a single mentor but a network of fellow entrepreneurs that can act as a kind of advisory board:

I would aim to find other entrepreneurs that are perhaps six months ahead of where you currently are as a company, or six months to a year or two years ahead of where you are, so they are contemporaries that have experience, potentially the same types of challenges that you’re experiencing. They can give you timely advice.  

Also, individuals that are further out, so perhaps they have either sold companies or they’ve been operating companies for three plus years, five plus years, etc. They can give you more long-term strategic advice.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Based on his experience with Freshsessions, he also counsels founders to never work with friends:

It was difficult to overnight go from being someone whose relationship was based around just having fun to actually motivating them and inspiring them and pushing them.  

Maybe that was a function of me being young in my professional career as well, but that was my experience. I wouldn’t do it again.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

In his first startup, Clearwish, Brian learned it isn’t enough to focus on trying to realize your vision. The founding team must be on the same page about possible future directions for the company, too.

We were approached to get funded and had enough success and promise at the time, but we couldn’t find alignment around the notion of building a lifestyle business first, a venture-based business, and how big it could really be.

 We had never discussed everyone’s expectations when we founded the company. Oh we had a happy, fun conversation over a couple of beers, but we did not sit down and say, ‘Hey wait, where’s everyone want to go with their life?”

Instead, we launched the product, got momentum very quickly, and were swept up in this process. We misfired on that and broke down that team. It was a learning experience for sure.

 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Having worked with startups in Columbus, Ohio, Brian says it’s not necessary to be in a startup ecosystem to make your startup work:

When I was complaining about raising money in Columbus many years ago, Bill Diffenderffer, who ran SkyBus and is now one of the founders of Silvercar, told me, “You keep saying here, but there is no here here, so just go get the money.”

That really stuck with me. The place isn’t necessarily going to make the business go.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

His advice for other founders? Think big:

I think I try to ask all the questions that I’ve been asking myself, like why are you doing this? Why are you making the decision? Why are you looking at that? Is this what you believe is right for the business versus right for what some financier asked you to do? I push them to think really big.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Dan and Brian by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here (And download any of the past shows here.)

Coming up next on the blog: Emily Kennedy, founder and CEO of Marinus Analytics; and Chris Cabrera, founder of Xactly

Tune in Thursday, Oct. 13, at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 to hear these upcoming guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: George Zimmer, founder of Men’s Wearhouse and now founder, chairman and CEO of Generation Tux; and Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

 

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 44: Jacqueline Ros and Christina Stembel

The first two years of my startup were the most challenging years of my life; I just felt like a complete failure all the time.

In moments of darkness you need to remember why you’re here and why you’re fighting that fight.

Grueling. Demoralizing. Chaotic. Miserable.

Most first-time entrepreneurs aren’t prepared for the challenges they will face building a startup, and yet they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

How founders find the determination to push through tough times was the focus on today’s Entrepreneurs are Everywhere radio show.

The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.

jacqueline-ros

Jacqueline Ros

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were:

christina-stembel

Christina Stembel

Listen to my full interviews with Jacqueline and Christina by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here

(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Jacqueline Ros left a teaching job to found Revolar. She and her team ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, went through the Techstars Boulder 2015 accelerator program,  and recently closed a $3 million financing round with The Foundry Group.  

Jacqueline’s goal for the company is to change the way women keep themselves and those they love safe.

She had no startup experience going in and was surprised by the learning curve she faced. Here’s what she tells other first-time founders:

In moments of darkness you need to remember why you’re here and why you’re fighting that fight.

You have to be obsessed with what you’re doing. You have to believe, especially if you have no idea, and you’re coming from a completely different background than tech or entrepreneurship.

You have to be 1000% dedicated to the mission and the problem you’re trying to solve and always be customer focused, because it is a long ride.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Christina Stembel dreamed up the idea for Farmgirl Flowers in 2010 after gaining experience across a variety of industries including hospitality and event planning. Her goal was to start a business that was not only innovative and creative, but did some good in the world.  

Her idea for creating signature daily arrangements of locally grown flowers disrupted the floral delivery industry, but Christina quickly found herself overwhelmed:

The first two years were the most challenging years of my life; I just felt like a complete failure all the time.

I would go to networking events and everybody had like a sappy smile on their face and all the stories I was hearing was how much funding everybody had raised and how great everything was and how they had free lunch and all that stuff. I was like, I just switched from coffee to tea because tea bags are like 16 cents a piece and I can’t afford coffee right now.

I just felt really alone and I felt like nobody else was feeling that way. Now that I amd on the other side and can have coffee again, I want to tell people that because I feel people are ashamed to say it.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Everybody glosses over how lonely you’re going to feel, but this is really hard. It’s excruciating.

You’re going to cry. You’re going to feel like you’re going to fail all of the time. You’re going to be scared all the time.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Revolar is a wearable device that allows users to alert a preset list of contacts at the click of a button if they are feeling unsafe or in need of help.

Jacqueline came up with the idea after her sister was attacked twice. By talking to people, including students on college campuses, she found that she was on to something. Then she went to work on the technology:

I hired some contract engineers who used to work on the Life Alert product to build us a really dinky prototype that you could plug into the wall. And I found a couple who worked out of their house to build me a really chintzy app.

If you plugged this prototype into the wall, it would send an alert.

That was enough to get our Kickstarter campaign going.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

She explains why they turned to Kickstarter and what happened with their campaign:

We kept hearing from investors, “Who are your customers? How do you have proof that they’ll pay for this?” Kickstarter was the only platform we could think of to prove that people would buy our product.

We naively thought we would have a viral campaign, but it took us 4 months to create and cost us $25,000. It was an incredible undertaking, and we had the hustle for every last dollar.

By the end of the 45-day campaign, we had 1,200 pre-orders.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Today, Revolar has retail partnerships with Brookstone, Best Buy and Amazon. Here’s one thing Jacqueline wishes she’d done differently.

I wish I had talked to an accountant before I talked to a lawyer, because if we had established ourselves as a S Corp or an LLC in the beginning, I could have gotten a lot of my own money back and then reinvested it in the company.

It would have been great in the Ramen noodle days to have the ability to get money back to reinvest in what we were doing.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Christina started Farmgirl Flowers with $49,000 in her bank account. She set herself up at her dining room table, watched YouTube tutorials on flower-arranging and gave herself two years – or until she ran out of cash – to build the business.

The money didn’t last. She came precariously close to shuttering the company, reaching a point where she had just $411 in the bank.

A single moment gave her the fortitude to keep going, however:

I was taking every order that would possibly come in. Even if it was midnight, I didn’t care.  

As I was walking to my car one night with a delivery of three arrangements, a couple of women stopped me and were like, “Oh my gosh, is that Farmgirl Flowers?” They recognized the burlap wrap that I created. 

The fact that these women on the street recognized the brand I was trying to create and identified it as Farmgirl, I felt like, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to make it. Even though I only have $400 in the bank I’m going to make it. People recognize our product now.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Farmgirl Flowers is on track to make $11 million this year, but two years ago, Christina was again panicked that the company wouldn’t make it:

I started to see a lot of companies that looked eerily similar to us pop up.

I was pretty convinced we were going to be out of business within a year because everywhere I looked there was a lot of consumer confusion or people were asking if we were the other companies now with our burlap-wrapped bouquets.

I thought all of these are raising $5 million, $10 million, $15 million pre-revenue. Here is my brilliant idea and now all these guys from tech companies are quitting their jobs and starting these companies that look like Farmgirl. I was really scared that we were going to be the Friendster to their Facebook.

I thought I had to raise funding to compete with them, so I pitched to 26 companies here on Sand Hill Road in San Francisco and even Boston and New York. I was unsuccessful, so I felt like I failed my team.

Every networking event I would go to, the first, second or third question anybody would ask me is, “What round are you on? Who’s invested?” As soon as I would say, “We’re bootstrapped,” I would see their eyes go over my shoulder and look for someone more valuable to talk to. 

It was really frustrating and demoralizing.

Then I took a step back and realized I had equated my success and my company’s success with funding. I realized that my benchmark for success should be, “Am I creating a company that I’d want to work for, that I’d want to sell to and that I would want to buy from?” If I can do those things, then that’s success.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Jacqueline and Christina by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here (And download any of the past shows here.)

Coming up next on the blog: Dan Miller, co-founder of Level; and Brian Zuercher, founder of Seen

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 to hear these upcoming guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 43: Dakin Sloss and Ajeet Singh

In large companies innovators have to work twice as hard – they spend time fighting the system. In a startup, your ideas turn into reality really, really fast.

A startup founder needs to never lose sight of the vision, but be extremely adaptable to pretty much everything else.

Lots of people have visions. Most are hallucinations.

In a startup, you don’t fight the system; you are the system.

And realizing your vision as a founder takes equal parts determination and flexibility.

How startup ideas are conceived and nurtured was the focus of the guests on today’s Entrepreneurs are Everywhere radio show.

The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.

dakin-sloss

Dakin Sloss

Joining me in the Stanford University studio were

  • Dakin Sloss, co-founder of Tachyus, which offers predictive analytics and quantitative optimization for the petroleum industry
  • Ajeet Singh, co-founder of ThoughtSpot, provider of search-driven analytics
ajeet-singh

Ajeet Singh

Listen to my full interviews with Dakin and Ajeet by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here

(And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Dakin Sloss co-founded Tachyus, providing predictive analytics and quantitative optimization for the petroleum industry, in 2013.

Prior to Tachyus, Dakin co-founded OpenGov, a platform to share, visualize, and analyze government financial data. Before OpenGov, he built California Common Sense, the open data and government watchdog non-profit.

Dakin was recognized as one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2016. 

While building OpenGov, Dakin learned that founders must maintain the vision for their startup idea while being flexible about how best to achieve it:

Lots of people have visions. Not as many people can figure out how to make them happen.

One of the hardest parts about starting something is being very firm in your big picture vision, and being extremely adaptable to pretty much everything else.

For example, customers usually have a good intuitive understanding of the problem they have. But they can struggle with communicating exactly what that problem is and exactly what solution they’d like. Your job is to help them figure that out.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Ajeet Singh is co-founder and CEO at ThoughtSpot.  

Prior to starting ThoughtSpot, Ajeet was co-founder and Chief Products Officer at Nutanix, an enterprise data storage industry. Ajeet learned the ropes of enterprise startups at Aster Data Systems, where he was Senior Director of Product Management.

Prior to Aster, Ajeet worked at Oracle where he was part of the team that first launched Oracle Database to the Amazon EC2 cloud.

Leaving a big company like Oracle to work at a startup was an eye-opener for Ajeet:

In a large company, you come up with new ideas but then you are mostly fighting the system. When you move from a large company to a small company, your ideas turn into reality really, really fast.

Once you realize that your ideas will get implemented very quickly, you think, ‘I’m the only one watching,’ so the bar for your idea actually goes up. You have to make sure that you looked through all the implications of what you are suggesting. Ideas have to be that much higher quality because there are not too many people watching.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

One of the things Dakin struggled with at OpenGov was how important it is to get team communication right. Being the smartest person in the room doesn’t always mean you’re the most effective, he said:

We made so many silly communication mistakes – like we weren’t doing consistent one-on-ones and we weren’t facilitating good communication across the team. We were growing really fast and we would deal with issues as they came up, rather than proactively making sure everyone was working really well together.

So much of building a company is about people, independent of the particular subject that you’re focusing on, and so much is about setting things up for it to be a great environment for people to collaborate, to trust each other. A lot of small things – things like how you set up meetings, and how you schedule out your week – have big, cascading consequences. If you get them right, things are really smooth. If you get them a little bit off, you have a lot to fix.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Here’s how he makes sure the Tachyus team works well together:

Companies really thrive on rhythms in the same way that people, or families, or relationships do. So we dedicate the beginning of each of our week to our leadership team meetings and then an “all hands” meeting. These seem like small things, but they turn out to be really important, because as you’re pivoting, changing your business model and changing your product, there need to be some things that are stable to keep people on the same page.

The really the big advantage you have as a small company, is that you can get a lot of things wrong but as long as you get people around the table that are flexible, are good communicators, and are smart, you’re going to be able to figure a lot of things out. You may be in the wrong market at first. You may be in the wrong product at first. The key is getting your organization set up to be adaptable.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Having the opportunity to make a difference in the world drives Dakin, and so does working with like-minded people

Part of what’s fun about building a company is bringing together people that have a shared thesis or shared world view. There are obviously lots of differences, but creating an environment in which those people thrive and can collaborate together, it’s a new type of community basically.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Rather than put work into creating a new markets for his business ideas, Ajeet looks for business opportunities in existing markets. He explains:

What I am excited about is opportunities in very large markets with multiple multibillion dollar exits and where the technology has become old.

The most important thing is to come up with an idea that solves a big problem. Your solution has to be 10x to 100x better, compared to what is out there. People already have an existing way of solving the same problem.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

At Aster Data Systems, Ajeet and his team ran into challenges trying to transition their product to mainstream customers:

We had a lot of success working with large web companies. Companies like MySpace and LinkedIn became some of our biggest customers. We tried to sell inside Silicon Valley, so these were all tech companies. We were mostly selling our product to engineers.

As we tried to sell outside the Valley, it is a very different world. Selling to an IT person or businessperson in the middle of Chicago is very different from selling to a LinkedIn engineer.

We struggled with our messaging, how we positioned our product to companies that were in the Valley versus outside.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

He carried the customer lessons with him to Nutanix and it paid off:

At Nutanix, most of our early customers were on the East Coast. We learned that if you are building a product for enterprises, start with the East Coast. You can scale much better. Your learning will be much, much better.

There are 500 Fortune 500 companies and there are global 2000, and there are another maybe 1 million small and medium businesses in the world. A lot of them do not have the engineering talent that companies in the Valley do.

So if you’re building a product, you’ve got to build it, test it, position it for the large market and the large market is not the Valley – unless you are building technology for developers, then Silicon Valley is a great place to do that.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Ajeet added that Silicon Valley’s unique startup ecosystem offers founders a chance to do things they could never do elsewhere in the world:

There is no place like this anywhere else. When it comes to cultural diversity, the freedom to express yourself, the freedom to fail, being able to talk about your failures with pride, these kinds of things just don’t exist anywhere else in the world.

You can go to a coffee shop and run in to a billionaire. If they have been successful, they want to give back and they are very open about giving you their time.

I have been really fortunate to have some really good mentors and advisers over the years from whom I have learned a lot.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here

Listen to my full interviews with Dakin and Ajeet by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Coming up next on the blog: Jackie Ros, founder of Revolar; and Christina Stembel, founder of Farm Girl Flowers

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111 to hear these upcoming guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere:

%d bloggers like this: