I was scouring the web looking for some good posts about speed and agility as a startup’s advantage when I stumbled upon this: “Speed and Design: Key Differentiators for a Startup”.  It was written more than two years ago in December 2011 by a tech entrepreneur, but it’s still highly relevant today.  In fact, it’s spot on in what I was looking for.

One of the reasons why I was looking for speed and agility in a startup is the idea that so many great ideas are already out there.  However, the startups that are born and grow and survive are oftentimes the ones that standout especially in design. 
Today’s world has anyone and everyone programming.  There are great resources like Codecademy, One Month Rails, Lynda.com, and they go on and on.  There are utilities that help you build an app without ever touching real code!  Back in the day (early 2000’s and prior), programmers came at a premium.  The real good ones were always in San Francisco.  But now, people have so many tools out there to get programming experience, and launch quickly. 
The keys now to standout are a startup’s speed and design. Though, I will add one more to this list and make it lucky number 3 – service.  Here are some thoughts on why and how speed, design, and service:
  • Build, Launch, Adjust, Repeat.  There are niches and pain-points everywhere.  Applying a model from industry to industry can work, but fine adjustments are needed to really build and cater to a specific market.  The quicker you can implement and adjust (or pivot) the more likely you will win customers and win them fast over competitors.
  • Brains Are Rare Talent.  Those with creative minds have it made.  Creativity is like one of those attributes that many people aren’t born with.  Instead, it takes unique minds to sometimes come up with the most unique solutions.  Creativity is difficult to train.
  • Great Programmers Can Be Your Catalyst.  It’s true that with coding, there are almost infinite ways to implement a solution.  At the end of the day, programmers are builders where architects (the creatives) may provide the final plans.  If you get me to the future state, I don’t need to know what’s behind the curtain so much.  However, great programmers have the know-how and the experience to know how to deploy quickly and may know the reasons why NOT to employ a particular method or code due to some harsh learnt lessons from the past (i.e. polling can be a major server suck).
  • Keep it simple and sweet.  KISS has long been a phrase tossed around about anything and everything.  My dad actually said K.I.S.S. stood for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  Whatever works, I suppose.  In the end, today’s culture is NOW NOW NOW.  And because of this, startups need to orient their products and services to help customers get set up quickly.  People aren’t going to make time to understand your product if there’s something out there that is both easier to set up and easier to use.  Set up, training, and transacting take time, and as you all know the other popular phrase… time is money.
  • Bring It All Together with Superior Service.  Tying everything above is service.  Or rather more specifically, customer service.  As a startup, you’re bound to run into problems and issues be they software bugs, product quality control, service issues, etc.  Your ability to provide personal customer service quickly will endear your customers.  If you fail to be upfront and honest and provide assistance timely, you’ll quickly become just another company that your customers feel can be replaced easily.  By being personal and providing timely service, you can reach customers on a more HUMAN level, and thus, play emotional ties.

So Rohit from techCEOprovided a good start in calling out speed and design as key differentiators.  However, I feel that adding service is a critical third differentiator.  As a startup, it’s important to maintain healthy and communicative feedback system with customers to know what to fine-tune, what to create, what to remove… Speed to deploy and iterate, design for simplicity and usability, and service to maintain and build relationships are the activities that really set startups apart, and should be parts of a sustainable business model.

What are your thoughts about key differentiators?  What’s another key differentiator that I may have missed?
Inc.com’s Ilan Mochari wrote “What Happens When Entrepreneurs Fall in Love With Their Creations”.  The article went in a different way than I thought.  In light of the Golden Globe-nominate Her starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson (voice) where Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, falls in love with a computer system, Mochari writes about the propensity for entrepreneurs to fall in love with their creations.  Though, the ending was more of a cautionary note for any one of us, in general, about the attachment we have these days to technologies. 
Mochari opened the article talking about the “edifice complex,” a spin on the Oedipus complex when sons fall in love with their mothers.  The edifice complex is where a person falls in love with a building, or at least, the desire to the design one.
Mochari talks about how Jim Koch’s, founder of Boston Beer Co., love for his business enabled him to pursue building a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility despite providing minimal value, instead, adding substantial costs in capital and operating costs.  (He later realized his folly and moved to build a smaller facility, but only after heavy investment in time and capital.)
Lessons and Take-Aways
The conclusion of the article was a little more “generic”, and could serve entrepreneurs/ readers with a more cautionary tale in touching on Koch’s dilemma.  That is, there are many perils when it comes to loving our creations as entrepreneurs including some thoughts below:

Failure to see the real opportunities.  I’ve long described entrepreneurial endeavors analogous to raising a kid (for better or worse).  As such, we sometimes believe our creations are perfect as they are, and no, he never bit Little Billy despite jaw impressions to the contrary.
When you’ve spent hours and weeks and months and years on your product, you may be blinded to see that there is something eerily wrong underneath the covers.  As such, it’s important that even though you may test features for success/ failure, getting feedback early and often from your customers and prospects lends critical perspective to ensure your product hits the spot.

Blinded to the failures.  Somewhere in your journey of the startup roller coaster, you may stumble and fall.  Periodically, the team should evaluate the direction of the company, and whether or not the current path will lead to the Land where you want to be.  However, sometimes love of your startup may blind you thinking your startup will succeed, when in fact, it won’t.  Either a pivot is needed, or shutting down is the more appropriate direction so you can move onto another project.  Of course, this can be tricky and takes real consideration whether or not you may just be in the “trough”.

Stagnation for improvement.  This can be confused with the above, but I want this to be clear: what I mean here is the debt (not financial, but technical or otherwise) of the startup.  If you’ve been working on a project for years (oftentimes, not that long), you may believe your product is so perfect that it can’t actually be improved anymore. Or maybe that it’s in a great place where it doesn’t need to be improved.
We, as a people, should strive to learn to better ourselves and the people around us.  We’ve always got room to improve.  As such, our creations oftentimes have room for improvement as well.
I like the notion of the idea of Six Sigma – the notion of process improvement to reduce variability.  With Six Sigma, you’re constantly looking to improve.  When you reduce variation to some level, then you crank the screws tighter and the cycle for improvement continues.

Over-valuing your startup.  Tune into ABC on Friday evenings, and you can catch a glimpse of over-valuation galore on Shark Tank.  You’ll see Mr. Wonderful, Mark Cuban, and the other sharks pointing out hideously high valuations of entrepreneurs; thus, putting in a massive hurdle where the entrepreneurs never get investment.
I like capitalism and the notion of free markets where the market pays what the market bears.  I haven’t had quite the opportunity to really sell a company (yet), but the idea here is that entrepreneurs’ biased views and love for their startups sometimes fail to recognize the notion that what they believe the worth of their company is can be very different from what it’s worth to the free market.  This may lead to a failure to do a deal in a complete liquidity event or investment to get the business blasting off the ground.
Wrapping It Up!
Hey, passion for our startups is important in entrepreneurship.  It can be a great ingredient in how we continue to pursue our dreams.  Passion and love gives us that genuine spirit that enables us to invigorate and motivate prospects into investing in us or buying our products.  However, love for our products should be tempered with realism.
Have you seen the movie Her?  What are your thoughts on our growing dependence on technology?  What are some other ramifications of falling for our startups as entrepreneurs?

I read this article from Stephanie St. Claire, a self-described “unfunded entrepreneur” – “11 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Business”.  I think I read this middle of 2013, and just kept it in my list of sites to remember, and articles I want to blog about because I enjoyed it.  Obviously, right?

St. Claire writes about many aspects of starting her business and the journey to wherever it is she is today – still fighting the good fight.  She traverses the messiness of divorce, selling her home, a meager $14 left on her bank account, and so much more.  She says she’s a good writer, and her creativity truly comes out in her writing making her article more fun to read.

So, while reading her article, I wanted to touch on a few of her 11 points, whether or not I agree or disagreed.  Armed with my own experience with Body Boss and others from the past, my thoughts:

  • Her first point: One. Running the business is your first priority.  I quickly learned from Body Boss that it’s not about Working Out, meeting Coaches and Trainers, watching Players crush it in the gym that will occupy a great deal of my time.  Instead, it’s about the little things like taking care of business.  I don’t think it’s as much as 15% of my time.  However, it includes all the little things like paying the bills and ensuring the insurance for the company is in line, the LLC exists year to year, answering emails quickly on the weekend, or staying on the phone to trouble-shoot issues after my afternoon game of soccer pick-up.
    Like the Sharks on Shark Tank tell so many inventors, inventions are great, but inventions alone aren’t businesses. 
  • Two – Ready to meet your soul mate?  It’s you.  While really working more and more on Body Boss during my MBA program at Emory May 2012 through May 2013, I became so much more in tune with myself.  My time during the MBA program actually was one of my greatest – not necessarily for the program itself, but the time I was able to “work on myself”.  That’s actually what I tell everyone about the greatest takeaway from MY time at Emory.
    Be comfortable in your own skin, and be comfortable being yourself.  Not everyone will buy your idea and buy into what you’re trying to accomplish.  You’ve gotta stay true to yourself.  Like business like personality, St. Claire’s point from Ten – Email will be your new best frenemy – “Not everyone is your customer”.
  • Four – Running out of money is a common part of the journey.  St. Claire writes about how dreams of flying high hit rough air with the gas gauge near zero forcing her to land into the “wild, abandoned air strip called Bank Balance: Fourteen Dollars”.
    I kinda like the idea of having less options when you’re starting something out.  Understanding everyone has his/ her own life, but with a more “complex” situation comes more excuses.  By having options or working part-time, you may not feel the pressure to really make your startup work.  When you’re staring at no income but still bills to pay, you start to really push yourself to make it work… else, you crash land and watch as your startup go up in smoke.  Back anyone up into a corner, and you give her no choice but to fight. 
  • Now that I’ve pointed my thoughts around going full-bore on your startup, here’s St. Claire at point Five – Build a hybrid stream of income.  Okay, so obviously hitting some meager amount in your bank where you can’t even pay bills is a bit of a problem.  Something’s gotta give.  St. Claire talks about how picking up some other part-time gig to supplement income could be beneficial – adding financial stress to an already immensely stressful situation can be even more taxing.  She says that if you believe part-time income would serve to put your mind at ease, then do it.
    I think this is sage advice if only you take on legitimately part-time work.  If you’ve just gone ahead and taken full-time work or pulled in part-time work that demands more time than your business, I think that’s a mistake.  Your business should be priority #1 as it requires dedication and care to succeed.  Splitting time, again like said above, may not give you the right motivation to truly push yourself. 
    What else I’ve found is that most people (your customers or even co-workers included) only have so much daylight to work with you.  If you don’t have a majority of your time to work on your business, you may miss prime time where customers need you, or simply, you may be missing prime time for selling.  You’re likely not selling to entrepreneurs like you who are working non-stop.
  • Six – Read Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work. Simply put from St. Claire (and Pressfield’s book) is something I’ve found to be true: “[The biggest] challenge you will deal with in running a business is your own resistance”.  You will no doubt harbor doubts and excuses, and those around you may tell you you won’t succeed or you should go back to a cushy, safe job, but ultimately, it’s your choice.
  • Eleven – Number eleven is a hodge-podge.  From St. Claire: “Work out perplexing issues in your business and it will resolve problems in other areas of your life. Breathe, play, laugh.”  I think the key message here is that if you fix some major areas of your business (you know the problems, probably), you could benefit in alleviating other areas of your life.
    And yet, like the point above about taking on a part-time job if you need to to mitigate financial stress, you should maintain your life still.  That is, still make time to enjoy the little things of life.  That may include exercise, friends, and especially family. 
    What are your thoughts about St. Claire’s 11 lessons?  Any of them resonate more so with you than others?

    Ever since I was young, I was a huge proponent of “being prepared’. I think it was especially hammered home as an Eagle Scout — “Be prepared” is the Boy Scout Motto after all. And in Entrepreneurship, I think being prepared can be a game-changer — one that separates the good from the greats.

    I learned the importance of being prepared while preparing for and running my Eagle Scout Project — a food and clothing drive with North Fulton Charities. Coordinating with the North Fulton organization, the local Kroger, the many neighborhoods in the Alpharetta area, and of course, with my hardworking Scout volunteers… it was all a pain. No doubt about it.  However, the drive ran so well, we received donations that overflowed one of those trailers you see being towed by monster SUVs.  It was really was, I believe, a rousing success, and it ran so well because of preparation and planning.

    As I’m heading into our second year (since launch) of Body Boss, the notion and importance of “being prepared” has never rang more true.  In my effort to keep my blogs going with bullet points, here are a few “be prepared” moments that come to mind…

    • Conferences. Conferences are especially great places to market and sell many products and services.  However, preparation can really set yourself apart and really be a great marketing and sales diving board if done well.  Be prepared to standout from the sea of vendors.

    • Get in the mind of your customers.  Sales is all about understanding needs, right? Well, being prepared in this case means knowing who the buyer is, what’s he/ she looking for, and being prepared to answer the hard questions. Think of it like an interview. Be prepared so the interviewer asks you a question you’re ready for, or to show that you’ve done your own homework.
    • Be ready to pitch at a moment’s notice.  At any given time, there’s a 50-50 chance I have my computer with me, or at least a pen and paper. I also carry a deck of business cards and Body Boss one-pagers. Like the little robot kids at Disney say, “it’s a small world”.  At any moment, you can run into a prospective customer or a valuable partner. I remember once in Denver at a Starbucks (of course), I saw two big guys in athletic apparel walk up and sit down. I casually laid out some Body Boss collateral on the table nearby acting like I was looking at them. It eventually led them to ask about Body Boss. They were entrepreneurs who were former college football players, and one was a coach at a nearby high school. We talked about sales opportunities and other licensing deals.
    • Be prepared for the fight. Being an entrepreneur is tough. I think I’ve mentioned the toll it takes on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Going full-time on one also demands a level of financial preparedness, too. Be ready so when it comes down to do or die time, you’re ready to go full steam ahead and you’ve got the conditioning to push through the ebbs. Entrepreneurship isn’t a sprint… it’s a marathon… made up of sprints. Really.

    You can’t prepare for everything. However, if you prepare right, you’re likely able to mitigate the impact should something go wrong. Or, you’ve prepared yourself to seize the moment. One of my favorite quotes to live by is from Roman philosopher Seneca: “Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity”.

    What are your thoughts about “being prepared”? How has “being prepared” helped your cause either in a startup or otherwise?