I was recently given the opportunity to speak at Georgia State University’s Institute for Insight program to their Masters of Science in Analytics (MSA) students. It was an honor to speak to the class, and one that I admit, was daunting at first.
For one, I hold no advanced degrees in analytics, though, in my professional experience, I have run the gamut of analytics to drive decisions and strategies. However, it’s another animal when asked to speak to students who live and breathe data and analytics. Alas, I got over this quickly as school teaches one way but practical experience can teach on a deeper level – see “School: Tell You What to Do. Startups: Know Why You Do”.
Second, I wanted to speak about my entrepreneurial path. However, I’m so passionate about startups I can go on for days. My challenge was to distill one of my greatest passions to students who may not care about entrepreneurship while sharing an hour with consulting.
Did students even want to hear about entrepreneurship and startups? What would they be interested in knowing? Where do I begin? I don’t want to just talk at them with topics they wouldn’t find interesting.
Reaching into entrepreneurial bag and I knew how to handle this… CUSTOMER DISCOVERY! I sent a Google Survey to the class beforehand to test interest. With any luck, this would even prove a point in whatever I would talk about – customer discovery.
Here are some of the results from the questions:

From the results, there was overwhelming interest from students having some aspirations to join startups or start companies of their own.
Second, students were interested in 1) how to start a startup and 2) success factors. Perfect, I’ll start here.
The following are some of the unsexy slides I put together to explain these areas + “keys to failure”.

My tips for getting started are much more tactical and “scrappy” rather than steps to incorporate, put partnership terms to paper, etc. Instead, it’s far more important to test if there’s even viable interest in the product/ service in the first place. The business doesn’t go if the product/ service doesn’t go.
Get in front of customers, test the idea, and iterate. If there’s traction, then the rest comes along – I’ll have more slides for you then.
I had a lot of fun giving the talk, and I hope to give many more in the future. Fits well with my goals of giving a TED talk, becoming an entrepreneurship professor, and being a leader in startups/ business.
I was speaking to an entrepreneur I’m working with and he shared thoughts on his “lack of formal education”. He dropped out of school when he was 17, and has been building successful businesses ever since.
He’s happy he’s successful not least because if he had to join the corporate world, he wonders if his lack of a college degree, let alone an advanced one, would be a detriment. He lamented he didn’t “know the theory” behind the practical. I understood but argued otherwise.
In MBA in a Startup World I mentioned how working in a startup enables the understanding of the theory behind the practice. However, this morning coalesced my thoughts even clearer. That is, in my MBA experience, I was taught what to do, but didn’t really get the why. I had a sliver of practical exercises via student projects – controlled environments.  
In building Body Boss, I naturally adopted similar concepts of what I learned during my MBA program. (Remember, I was three months into starting Body Boss when I started the core classes of my one-year MBA.)
For example, I didn’t have much sales and marketing experience before Body Boss. However, I quickly learned concepts like the different influencers in a buying decision, effective selling techniques, etc. while building the company – before I stepped foot in a sales and business development class in school. I had been burned plenty of times during my first cold calls and demos that I learned more effective techniques — techniques I would later learn in class.
In school, professors told me what to do. Body Boss taught me why I should do it this way, not that way while giving me a platform to practice CONSTANTLY. In sales, knowing the why makes me more effective by knowing how to adapt my style to the situation better.
Back to the Founder, he’s developed an amazing set of skills and knowledge that helps him be more successful. He’s adapted to not being told or taught what to do by learning on-the-fly, and now, he’s got the practical theory down. Perhaps he can write his own textbook.

What are your thoughts about education’s role in delivering the why behind the practical? 
One of the biggest take-aways and “duh” lessons from my entrepreneurship professor at Emory was mitigating risk for customers – one of the greatest hurdles entrepreneurs face when selling. Risk, in this case, is tied to the buyer’s job security.
My recent conversation with the Managing Director of a venture capital firm reiterated the importance of mitigating risk for the buyer when assessing/ adopting a new solution. Consider this:

You’re the VP of information security at a Fortune 500 company, and setting up a new data farm. There’s a new startup touting impressive server performance and security layers at half the cost of IBM. However, IBM is one of the premier hardware manufacturers with thousands of customers. They’re reliable and have been around for decades. Who do you choose?

There are many answers you need before you can choose, but the gist is the inherent risk if $hit hits the fan. With a startup, you as the VP may be questioned for selecting a provider with little reliability history. In choosing IBM, much of the risk is shifted towards the large company. Should a server go down, you, personally, might not have been able to curb a catastrophe since IBM couldn’t even handle it.
In my experience with Body Boss, coaches weighed the risk of players not having access to their programs because of network connectivity issues vs. having reliable spreadsheet saved on the desktop that could be printed.
The VC recalled how many startups focus on either the benefits of their startups’ offerings OR risk savings opportunities. Strong startups and salespersons, however, discuss opportunities/ benefits AND risk mitigation (i.e. 99.99% server uptime, 99.8% fulfillment accuracy, etc.).
When you’re selling, approach empathetically and consider the risk for buyer.

What are your thoughts on risk for buyers? What approaches have been successful when selling to others as they relate to both the benefits and the risks involved?
Do your customers know their hair’s on fire? (Original image source: Steelhouse.com)

When considering an idea for a startup, I’ve referenced a question people often use: “are you selling a painkiller or a vitamin?” The notion is people “need” a painkiller before they need a vitamin (“nice to have”).

In my recent meeting with a venture capitalist partner, he uses the idea “hair on fire” as it’s more dramatic and visual. That is, having one’s hair on fire is direr than perhaps even a painkiller. (I, for one, don’t take painkillers even when prescribed oftentimes.)
For the VC, he considers three key questions to evaluate “hair on fire”:
  1. Are there enough people with their hair on fire? Read: What is the size of the market? Is it large enough for big returns?
  2. Do prospects know their hair is on fire? Read: Does the market need to be educated about their problem? How important is the problem? I think of this, too, as “is this a latent need or an active need? If latent, how can you convert to active?”
  3. Does the market have the desire to put out the fire? Read: Is there enough benefit for customers to make a change and adopt your product/ service? Are you mitigating risk for customers?

What other key questions should there be when considering “hair on fire”? How could you evaluate if a need is latent vs. active? How could you convert to active, if latent?

I had a great conversation last week with a managing director of a local venture capital firm, and he brought up a few points that struck me. I’ll share them over the next few posts. The first point he shared was a story about “getting yes, and getting out”.
In one particular meeting where with a local large company, the venture firm had the main objective of getting a key executive to agree to meet one of the firm’s portfolio companies.
The meeting was scheduled for an hour, except about 20 minutes in, the large company’s exec agreed to meet with the portfolio company. Almost immediately, the lead investor of the VC firm got up to leave. The partners reached their objective. Anything after the objective could have actually hurt the meeting or turned that definitive YES to a maybe or worse.
In most cases, this makes perfect sense. I find that I can be wordy and after reaching some initial objective enthusiasm can turn into lethargy or dilute the achievement. For the VCs, the goal was to spark a conversation, and let the portfolio company take it from there. Of course, the VCs have enough experience to gauge whether or not they have to stay longer or not.
Get the yes, and move on. Don’t complicate matters.
What would be a situation where getting the yes simply isn’t enough? How could being “too objective” be a negative?

Brené Brown’s recent talk at Hubspot’s Inbound Conference was captured in Inc.com’s article “How to Avoid a Perfect Shame Spiral at Work”, and it was incredibly relevant to me just yesterday.

Brené Brown, behind the famous TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability”, spoke about the common miscommunication that happens in the workplace where parties neglect to speak their honest thoughts, and often spiral into shaming themselves.

Brené gives an example where she had unilaterally dismissed her CFO’s idea in a meeting without a clear explanation as to why. Commonly, someone in the CFO’s shoes would think the worst as to why his idea was dismissed. He’d focus on his greatest vulnerabilities as potential causes.
However, in Brené’s real-world case, her CFO was brave enough to speak to Brené afterwards about the matter. Her reply was that the CFO’s idea was so important it needed its own meeting and action plan.
A similar shame spiral was close to happening to me recently. At one of the companies I’m working with, my role has shifted greatly away from product management and towards marketing. However, marketing-wise, much is in a holding pattern while we wait for campaigns to trigger and the new product to launch. Thus, I’ve stepped back, wary of micro-managing a very capable marketing team.
To the company’s Founder, it looks like I am less passionate in the product and company. In my head, I am aware of timing and thinking how I can best bring value to the company given where we are in the product launch and marketing campaigns. Except, unlike Brené’s CFO, I’ve kept these thoughts internalized till I figure out how best to proceed.
The Founder realized my diminished role and stepped up to talk to me about my situation. We had a great talk about what was happening, and developed a plan moving forward. However, it took him to speak with me, not me being more proactive.
Thinking about Brené’s message, I can fall into a shame spiral often, but hopefully, don’t. If I do fall victim, it’s because I’m afraid of the possible outcome or that I am not good enough. This is where I can improve in being more assertive and viewing these situations as more collaborative rather than my singular view with set outcomes to avoid the shame spiral.
What was a situation where you fell into a shame spiral? How could you mitigate against these occurrences? Also, what are vulnerabilities did you start to rationalize for yourself, and what are you doing to overcome those?
My buddy recently shared with me a video from Inc.’s iCONIC: Chicago conference of Life Is Good co-founder Bert Jacobs. It’s lengthy at 43 minutes long, but it showcases how Bert and his brother’s company ingrained “super powers” and humanitarian efforts into the company culture that has driven the company into a $100M company.
As I said, the video’s pretty lengthy. I’ve distilled my take-aways below.
  • Jacobs repeatedly tells the audience, “Your most precious asset is your time”. He then asks, “What’re you doing with your time? What’re you doing with your life?” Life Is Good is built on valuing everyone’s time and making that time valuable. They “focus on opportunities rather than the obstacles” believing whatever you focus on (good or bad) grows.
  • The concept of Life Is Good came from the Jacobs’ childhood when the family was enduring much hardship. To focus on the good, the Jacobs’ mother started a dinner ritual where each family member tells what went well that day.
  • Life Is Good is built on super powers we all have including compassion, gratitude, fun, authenticity, and others. These super powers are what give life fulfillment.
  • The brothers started selling t-shirts out of a van they bought and traveled and lived in. After one road trip, the brothers threw a keg party where family and friends gave thoughts on artwork. There, the brothers had a picture of the Life Is Good character, Jake. A woman described the picture saying, “This guy has life figured out.” The brothers decided to shorten those words into “Life Is Good” onto a t-shirt with Jake. With that shirt, the brothers sold 48 shirts in 45 minutes. That was the “aha” moment.
  • To expand the company, the brothers decided to wholesale to retailers. The first customer sold out of the t-shirts quickly, and asked if Jake “ate ice cream” (there was ice cream shop next door to the customer). The Jacobs brothers said, “Sure, Jake can eat ice cream”, created a new shirt, and found the interest exceedingly positive. From there, shirts were created where customers asked for Jake to do various activities.
  • In six years, Life Is Good grew to $3M. Bert laments they could have been a $20M company, but they made every mistake possible. However, they were learning.
  • The brothers wanted to take the company to the next level and set an advertising budget, but had a change of strategy (and heart) after reading letters sent to them including one inspiring letter from a 10-year-old boy. The Jacobs brothers decided to shift the money away from radio advertising towards “pumpkin festivals” to raise awareness for activities for kids with life-threatening conditions. The response was so overwhelming the company started more pumpkin festivals. The pumpkin festivals raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for kids while aligning the company towards a humanitarian mission. Customers were more than happy to spend hard-earned cash towards Life Is Good shirts knowing there was a great cause behind the company – the “halo effect”. The company grew from $3M to $50M from 2000-2005.
  • Capitalism will solve social issues. Corporate America gets flack due to “greed” and the like. However, it’s okay for people to want big houses and nice things. That does not have to be mutually exclusive to non-profits. Instead, capitalism can help solve social issues.
  • Life is Good is a human message, not just an American message. The company fully believes in enabling people to live happy and fulfilling lives.
  • “Protect your time with your life because it is your life.” In response to the inevitable demise of everyone, “will you have to run around to make up for things that you wish you did? Give out more love because you didn’t give more when healthy?”

What are your take-aways from Bert’s talk?

Feature article from Delta’s Sky magazine about Coach K and Coach Urban Meyer on creating champions — September 2015 issue.

On my recent Delta flight, I read an interesting leadership article in Delta’s Sky magazine – the feature piece being an interview of two of the NCAA’s most successful coaches – Coach MikeKrzyzewski (Coach “K”) of Duke’s men’s basketball team and Coach Urban Meyer of Ohio State football with five and three national championships, respectively.

Given these two coaches’ storied careers, their leadership has incredible sustainability. Here are my take-aways from the article:
  • Both coaches took leave of absences in their careers due to medical concerns. Their successes cultivated deeper motivations to win exacting significant physical, mental, social, and emotional tolls. After stepping away, however, each returned to coaching posts to continue winning ways, but implemented mechanisms and understanding to keep themselves in check. Take-away: To operate in peak form like their respective teams, leaders, too, need to ensure self-maintenance. 
  • The interviewer asked the coaches about social media’s effects on the players. Neither coach stop players from interacting on social media. They see social media as part of a change that did, does, and will continue to be a big part of players’ lives. Instead, the coaches focus on teaching their players how best to leverage social media and be wary of its potential to amplify. At Body Boss, we ran into many coaches who wanted nothing to do with social media. These same coaches were against technology in the weight room. However, the more progressive coaches saw social media and technology as tools to achieve goals not able to be realized before. Take-away: The only constant is change, and successful leaders find opportunities to leverage new tools and ways of thinking to achieve goals.
  • There is a necessity to coach players beyond the field. It’s easy to focus on employees or colleagues as purely that – employees. However, like Coach K and Coach Meyer demonstrate, there is much more to be gained when coaching players beyond the field. In business, the importance is in developing capable, courageous, and influential people, not just workers. Take-away: There are greater ripple effects when influencing people beyond the job.
  • Urban Meyer recalled the first time he saw Tim Tebow play; except, he wasn’t playing football. Instead, Tebow was playing right field in a baseball game. By the third inning, Meyer made up his mind to sign Tebow because he immediately saw his competitiveness and tenacity. Take-away: Finding High Potentials and “athletes” can be tough, but once found, you can slot them anywhere and know they’ll get the job done.
  • Both coaches also reflected on the importance of players’ support systems. Given the many avenues for distractions for players, it’s important for the player to listen to their true support groups, not the noise. Take-away: There is a lot of noise today, but it’s up to the individual (player, entrepreneur, other) to choose who to listen to as it’s their lives, businesses at stake.
  • Both coaches have won multiple championships in different schools. The key to sustained success is cultivating adaptive cultures. Coach K noted cultures change, but the foundation of the culture, the values, are what don’t change. Take-away: Values should sustain over time. They are the building blocks of cultures that do and should change.

If you’ve read the article about the coaches, what were your take-aways? What points would you agree with them on? What points would you NOT agree with them?

For one of my consulting projects, we’re stepping into usability testing for the launch of a new platform. I’ve participated in usability tests before, but haven’t run a “formal” test. The startup I’m working with hasn’t done one either, so I’m really excited about this – formulating and implementing this process, documenting results, and learning.
What really excites me about startups is this process and challenge of building from scratch. For usability testing, I’m creating the guidelines and plan with the marketing team. Yes, I’m leveraging other tools, guidelines, and templates I’ve found online and from friends, but I build my own before implementing others’. This way I test my own logic against best practices.
With Body Boss, I built a Master Playbook that contained all of our strategic goals and “plays” we were going to do. This included marketing campaigns, the sales strategy and pipeline, etc. More tactically, I created multiple cold call scripts in Excel so I could review character-count, word-count, speed of delivery, etc. Then, I’d try the scripts on batches of prospects, document the results, and improve them over iterations.
I’m eager to see how the usability tests go, and figuring out what works well and what doesn’t work. I’ll share lessons learned after, of course. I’m excited to learn from this experience more first-hand as a moderator. Add Usability Tests to the list of experiences thanks to startups and entrepreneurship!