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!
I’ve written a few articles about Minimum Viable Products (MVP), and after deliberating with various entrepreneurs about what they believe is their MVPs, I wanted to do more research about the concept.
I found an article by Vishal Chandra called “Understanding Minimum Viable Product : MLP vs MVP vs MSP” referencing not just an MVP but two other Minimums: Minimum Learnable Product (MLP) and Minimum Saleable Product (MSP).
Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, defines a minimum viable product as the initial step to begin the learning process as quickly as possible – paramount to the central idea of the ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop.
Vishal distinguishes what an MVP is by defining the two other types:
  • Minimum Learnable Product – the minimum product needed to learn what will need to be built for the MVP. These can include designs, articles/ blog posts and the conversations that flow from them, surveys, etc.
  • Minimum Saleable Product – the minimum product that motivates customers to pay for the product. In this case, Vishal cites an MSP for B2B customers may include additional features like security, integrations to other tools, etc.

I definitely see how MLPs and MSPs fit in the startup cycle (product, marketing, sales, etc.). However, I’d argue that MVPs can be saleable, too, but not necessarily SCALEABLE.

For example, a new clothing subscription service may manually curate subscription boxes while charging customers. That enables the startup to learn the process, pricing, etc. But as the company grows, they may then build a robust “fitting” engine that takes earlier learned lessons into an algorithm. There was no MSP per se as much as the MVP evolved as they should as the product reaches product-market fit.

What are your thoughts on distinguishing other minimum viable/ learnable/ saleable products? What are other minimum _____ products, and how would they work?

I sometimes ask those who meet me what their perceptions of me are, especially initially. Two years ago, I constantly heard responses saying I was “intense”. At that point, I realized I was highly opinionated on how to do things and was vocal about it. I overlooked certain faults believing I wouldn’t fall prey to others’ mistakes despite countless advisors saying otherwise (i.e. taking too long to launch, difficulties of equal ownership and responsibilities between partners, etc.).
Now, I’m a more seasoned entrepreneur. I now advise many entrepreneurs and startups, and I find myself giving similar advice to the ones I received. Even though many entrepreneurs ask for advice, however, I know most won’t listen to ideas contrary to their beliefs. I get it. There’s a certain air of confidence about entrepreneurs with their visions and a rite of passage they must go through.
Now when I advise others, I focus on one or two areas, so at least they have a single big take-away. At least then, I hope my message resonates better; and thus, they can overcome the missteps I made.
Of course, it’s perfectly okay to ignore advice… mostly. When you ask 100 entrepreneurs to solve a problem, you’d probably get 100 different ideas. Entrepreneurs are visionaries, solution creators, problem-solvers… and we pursue entrepreneurship not because we want to, but because we have to. We believe we can do it better. With that, we are highly confident in our abilities and our vision.
That confidence and break-down-barriers approach give us the energy to try new things, learn if we’re right or wrong, iterate, and keep going. That is what entrepreneurship is all about… adapting. The more bruised or scarred an entrepreneur, the better. Confidence in our vision and fail (or succeed) is our rite of passage.

In my last post Want Work? Start a Relationship, I touched on having a strong brand. I want to follow up on branding because when people ask me about finding work, they ask wondering if they can do the same or how to start a business in general.
When I was getting my MBA at Emory, I was working on two startups – Body Boss Fitness and Beachscape (as a Co-Founder and as a consultant, respectively). Getting started at Emory, my classmates (and others today) were interested in how I started. Many would lament the lack of ideas to start a business.
However, you don’t necessarily have to have a new, innovative idea to start a business. I’m not saying not to be disruptive, but businesses start every day without disruptive products or services.
Opportunities for wealth are many and large enough that grabbing even a sliver can reap meaningful returns personally, professionally, and yes, monetarily. The most critical element starting and especially sustaining long-term growth is branding.
Branding… meaning the relationship between the company and consumers (both buyers and non-buyers). Innovations like the iPhone are great at getting market share, but in the long-run, even despite patents, innovations become commoditized. What’s left is the relationship between company and buyer.
Consider how many accounting firms there are. How about consulting companies? Or how many services do delivery?
Businesses start out as products or services, but must quickly shift to become relationships-oriented. Consulting firms live and die by relationships. Apple has its loyal customers decked out in Apple gear standing in line for days waiting for the next iThing. Why? Because consumers trust these companies, and are eager to show loyalty. Strong relationships àstrong brands.
So if you’re reading this wondering if you can start your own business and need an idea, you might not need something so game-changing. Develop and cultivate your brand. Like I said, “Have good great relationships.”
What’s another mechanism for long-term growth and sustainability? Why or how would branding and relationships not be a key driver for initial success? How would you address the problem of creating more companies and more “noise” in the marketplace? 
I get many questions on how I find my consulting opportunities. Since Body Boss, I’ve been working different consulting gigs from supply chain consulting to website development to product management and the like with clients from Canada to local retail companies to startups.
My simplistic response: “have great relationships”.
Quick thoughts on finding opportunities:
  • Maintain relationships. My previous life as a consultant in a startup firm allowed me to get amazing experience working with decision makers. Many of those same people want to work together again and again.
  • Say hello. I get many opportunities from just simple introductions to strangers in everyday places. For example, I met a woman at Starbucks who later introduced me to her boyfriend who wanted to redesign his digital assets for his retail store. 
  • Be flexible. I’m a generalist, and it’s been my advantage to work with companies in many capacities. For example, I have two recent opportunities in front of me: 1) technology consultant in China; 2) a talent manager for a burgeoning artist.
  • Confident self and strong brand. I’m honest in my interactions, so many people see me as confident and genuine building a relationship on trust. As I mention more about my experience and my blog, others see me as an expert. Doesn’t take much from there to work together.
  • Never hard sell. Everything is relationships-based (think: brand) – it’s the only real advantage companies have. When I meet anyone, I never hard-sell. I never need to. We form a relationship based on trust and ability to execute. Opportunities grow organically from there.
  • Get out!It’s hard to do any of the above without meeting new people. I’ve formed great relationships from UK consulate events to network introductions to, yes, Starbucks. Everything starts with an opportunity.

What are your thoughts on finding new work opportunities? Where would hard-selling be more appropriate versus softer, relationship-based sells?