Now that I’m on the W2 train (read: employed at a startup, not running my own), I’ve been having this internal battle about “not being an entrepreneur”. It’s a voice that keeps me grounded in my passions and my dreams. Though I’m not actively building out one of my own ideas, I realize the opportunities in my current role and how it’ll give me a greater platform to build my next startup.
However, one important aspect I’ve kept up with is meeting with entrepreneurs, startups, and wantrepreneurs. I still meet to expand my network and broaden my view of the startup world while helping others. 
I’m happy (with a massive sigh of relief) that I’ve been able to maintain my many connections while succeeding in my startup role. 
In fact, in my weekends upcoming, I have brainstorming sessions with several entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs to flesh out their ideas and potentially spark new ones. I’m very much looking forward to these sessions as they let me think outside the box, and work with individuals who are highly successful in their fields. I get to jump in and provide input as a product entrepreneur to help them paint clearer visions and create action plans — this is what I absolutely love.
As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, currently, I am focused a lot on the tactical responsibilities of sales and marketing. I’ve created some great new material, but I’ve had to get real deep into the weeds. Sessions like brainstorming give me a chance to exercise even more creativity in realms I’m not particularly familiar with. However, they’ll help me flex and strengthen my mental muscles that will, in turn, help my current role.
Even though I’m not really an entrepreneur today running my own startup, I’m still pursuing entrepreneurial activities that will complement my current role as a full-timer at a startup. But also just as importantly, I’ve been able to maintain the entrepreneurial activities that I truly enjoy, and those that will help me in my path of being a successful entrepreneur in the future.
Last Thursday while giving a talk, I was asked by an audience member what I was really good at as an entrepreneur. I thought about it for a second and responded, “I’m great at solving problems”. Well, he was looking for one of the 10 talents according to Gallup’s Strength Finder for Entrepreneurs — Entrepreneur Profile 10.
An avid student of psychology and self-improvement, I was eager to take the test. My results in order of strength from highest (1) to lowest (10):
  1. Independence
  2. Determination
  3. Confidence
  4. Disruptor
  5. Relationship
  6. Knowledge
  7. Selling
  8. Risk
  9. Delegator
  10. Profitability
Not sure if sharing this would expose me negatively, but I see this as largely positive. Especially where I’ve been the last several years and, in many ways, where I am today, the results make sense. 
The independence talent coupled with determination and confidence is how I approach much of my work — largely solo efforts with head’s down dirty work. As I said in earlier posts since starting at SalesWise, I’ve been so focused on delivery of the tactical that working on the strategic level has been a challenge for me. 
On the flip-side, I wish selling were higher, especially given my current role, but my work has been in flux as we learn and iterate our messaging. As an early-stage startup marketer and seller, I’m evolving more than normal as I iterate towards better-targeted messaging to scale acquisition.
So, I’m not at all surprised on being low on delegation. Given the many different hats I wear and the many tactical pieces I need to deliver, I have developed a propensity to work in silo. I find myself learning new tools and methods so I can do more on my own — a paradox given workload vs. time. Instead, I have a strong locus of control as I want to own more of the processes end-to-end so I can learn what works and what doesn’t without fragmenting my (our) learning. This is especially beneficial (at the moment) as I work longer hours, and I am unable to get responsive help when needed. 
It’s good to see my talent rankings. Though, I hoped Gallup would show me the “intensity” scale for each talent. Meanwhile, I recognize the risks of each of these. Heck, I realized my independence was becoming stronger late last year, partially promoted by a growing distrust of others to which I’m happy to be a part of a team to rekindle the ability to trust. A good team is comprised of team members with complementary talents — to which I have a very strong team to fill the gaps (in talent) I have.
So you’ve built an MVP of a product. You’ve hit the ground selling. You’ve gone door-to-door (probably more figuratively, but possible you’re actually doing this). You’ve met with 100 prospects, and of those 100, you got… 0 customers. Ouch.
One of the greatest problems in the startup world is selling a product before product-market fit. I know from personal experience with Body Boss how we launched with a product that was overbuilt with features that weren’t needed by our market while missing features that were critical. Sales was very hard.
Within our true 16 months of running, we had signed up 12 customers… the average receipt of the customers in the first eight months was $214 while the average receipt of the customers acquired in our last eight months was $458.
Meanwhile, our retention and user engagement numbers of our latter batch customers were several times greater than the former. This reflected many things beyond marketing… namely, our improvement in the product inching towards product-market fit.
As I look back at our sales processes while building a product from the ground up in an industry none of us cofounders had any experience in, I can point to several lessons that could have helped mitigate our difficult sales situation…
  • Have first-hand experience in the market you’re trying to address. You can develop empathy easier, you may have a network of like peers, etc.
  • Absent first-hand experience, be a sponge and do a lot of customer discovery to explore the problem and present your idea of the solution to get buy-in
  • Selling on the dream is hard. Instead, sell on the primary value and benefit you’re providing with your MVP. You can share the dream, but sell hard on what you do provide
  • Focus on the problem you’re solving and the benefit you’re delivering. Don’t try to jam-pack more features that deliver incremental benefit. Focus on what delivers the most benefit in the shortest amount of time so customers get it
  • Launch, learn, iterate, repeat as fast as you can as long as you have sufficient “gut-feeling” on how the current approach is going
  • Customer discovery up front (early and often) mitigates significant cascading risks down the line
Most people in sales at startups will stress how sales is hard. Why? Because absent of product-market fit, the product just doesn’t address the market in a simple, scalable way. Meanwhile, you have significant friction in showcasing how your product can (assuming you can) deliver inertia-breaking benefits.
So yeah, sales before product-market fit is hard. 
I was talking to a wantrepreneur recently who was having a tough time getting started on her idea. She felt overwhelmed not knowing where to begin. Stopping her from starting was her own grand ambitions.
This is pretty common – this paralysis of too much and the unknown. However, we (this wantrepreneur included) can take a step back and realize startups aren’t short-term sprints – they’re marathons (of sprints).
Successful startups don’t happen overnight. Instead, they are successful from learning and iterating. It’s not about that initial jump, but sustained persistence. If we think about it this way, then we can think about approaching our ideas like we approach habit creation.
An anecdote from my life: I wanted to write my book two years ago. I had a couple false-starts where I typed up a couple pages and stopped. I kept stopping because I felt how daunting it was to start from PAGE 1 of a book of XYZ many pages. I believed in what I wanted to do, but it was a massive mountain to climb.
Last November, I decided to write the book again, but with another approach. I listed out all the chapters of the book, and made a decision to two chapters of the book till completion. I attached micro-goals to my macro-goal. Within 10 days, I had the first iteration of my book.
Gregory Ciotti of 99u.com refers to this as “micro and macro quotas”. Before when I stared at page 1 of XYZ, I looked at it as page 1 of chapter 1.
Instead of looking at the whole grand idea and being intimidated by the grandiose, create a plan (that will change), and create micro goals of what to accomplish each day. Build the idea as if you’re building a habit of success.
Seth Godin’s got a great post titled “While waiting for perfect”. From his blog:

You’ve permitted magical to walk on by. Not to mention good enough, amazing and wonderful. 

Waiting for the thing that cannot be improved (and cannot be criticized) keeps us from beginning. 

Merely begin.

He’s got another titled “Abandoning perfection”.

I really enjoyed these posts for their writing simplicity and their messages. I speak to many friends and new contacts who all admire entrepreneurs. They share daydreams of doing their own thing. Many of them are waiting… they’re waiting for a big client… they’re waiting for a great idea… they’re waiting to find a partner who can code. 

Everyone’s waiting for perfection when there are so many ways enabling them to act now. They can act now, build something simple, and start learning. Waiting for perfection stops us from learning. Stops us from finding out if our idea even works. It stops us from potentially learning of an even greater opportunity. 

I like Seth’s writing… a lot. I like that his blog is a bit philosophical, and I’ve been playing with the idea of posting my own stream of consciousness posts. So to that end, I’ll say this and add to Seth’s post: “We make imperfect perfect.” 

That is, we may start an entrepreneurial endeavor short of our grander vision. We’ve launched a simple MVP (or maybe MLP?), but by doing so, we’re able to test traction sooner. When we do that, we learn, and we iterate. We put our names out there rather than sitting quietly with no notice. We pursue something that has been eating at us for so long.

As we iterate, we gauge traction, and we grow or pivot the idea… perhaps reaching the limits we once dreamed of, or perhaps greater. We make the endeavor perfect. We make some seemingly ordinary person that perfect someone. We make do with our situations and create perfect opportunities. 

At that point, we’ll probably look back at our starts and laugh how it was all imperfect, but to get to where we are and who we are, we wouldn’t change a thing. We made those imperfect opportunities… perfect.
It’s been a little over a month since I signed on full-time with a startup (two including my month of contracting), and it’s been a big culture shift for me. Jumping straight in…
  • I go to the same office everyday. I don’t actually have to go into the office everyday, but at our stage, it’s important to be amongst the team to iterate our sales and marketing strategies. However, I still switch my afternoon environment to find new energy and meet new people.
  • I’m reluctant to use outside resources. Having bootstrapped startups in the past and working with other startups with little funding, I can appreciate not only wearing multiple hats, but also using every resource I do have to accomplish a need. However, now, I have resources (in the team or externally) to help produce what I need.
  • Food! Now working at ATV, I essentially have free breakfast and snacks. Additionally, my company does team lunches on Tuesdays and Thursdays + Startup Chowdown on Fridays. This means that I can conserve a lot of cash by forgoing some grocery shopping.
  • My time has been incredibly focused and in overdrive on SalesWise. I used to do a lot more high-level strategy in consulting. Now part of an early-stage startup, I’m back to an early morning, late night, and much-of-the-weekend grind… fully dedicated to a single company’s cause. Time management has become even more important.
  • I’m pushed farther and faster by everyone around me. The team is made up of highly successful, bright team members. They push me to think bigger, faster, more creatively, and they’ll provide support, too. I’ve learned a lot so far from everyone on the team, and it’s been overwhelmingly good.
  • I have benefits and consistent flow of money! It’s strange to know money is coming in after years of… “instability”. I can save even more now as the company pays the majority of health insurance. It’s interesting how having this job has been saving me more money than when my income was far less steady.
  • I’m working so deep in the tactical that I’ve been lacking at more strategic thinking. We’re iterating so fast that I’ve been managing website builds and changes, performing sales, building marketing campaigns, assessing marketing content, etc. I have not stepped back enough to assess the grander picture. This worries me as this created many blindspots while building Body Boss – so deep in the weeds I failed to realize the greater picture to optimize direction and tasks. 
It’s been a great change for me so far, and I have to really earn my keep with this talented team. Looking forward to the next month and hopefully many more more to follow.
My buddy is one of the best networkers around. He’s got people everywhere and for anything. Need a “container guy” (a guy who sells shipping containers)? He’s got one. Need to reach the head of a major healthcare system? Check. So when he was approached to help build traction and sales for a new product for pets – he knew everyone.
  • Product was ripe for ABC’s Shark Tank. He knew a guy who could get the company on-air. In fact, they started on the path of filming.
  • Reached out to several local businesses as points-of-sale for the product – 1000 units preordered.
  • Went to community events and locales to interview prospective consumers – got hundreds of great feedback and buying interests.
  • Secured seed investment to make production runs.
  • The list goes on…
He had agreed with the founders of the idea/ company on his compensation structure – namely, equity in the company based on milestones to which the founders agreed. After all the sweat and time spent to bring the company to executing on the funding, start filming, start production, the founders back-pedaled on everything. My friend never had a contract in place. The founders started sweating about equity only after he captured traction and pre-orders.
Needless to say, my buddy pulled out of the opportunity. Funding never occurred. The lots of product that was produced later sits in a storage unit.
I asked my buddy for his lessons learned…
  1. Never start without a contract. Similar to the entrepreneurs I spoke with months ago, being explicit and documented in expectations early on helps mitigate problems that willarise when there’s an inkling of success.
  2. Know who you’re getting into bed with. Startups are difficult, and having the right team in place for success is sometimes serendipitous but needs great consideration. The early team should be aligned as the culture starts from the beginning.
  3. Inventions are not businesses. Companies have products, but they don’t necessarily have revenue. Companies only exist as long as they stay solvent. The founders of the company believed having a product automatically equaled sales. Nope!
  4. 100% of 0 is 0. I remember at Body Bosswhen we were a bit greedy in sharing equity with a potential strength coach to become an Advisor. We didn’t end up asking him to be an Advisor and saved our ownership. Problem is that he ended up becoming the strength coach of the year and a Super Bowl coach while we kept 100% of a shut-down company.
  5. Your brand persists through ups and downs. My buddy made sure to meet face-to-face with each retailer he presold to to tell them the company wasn’t moving forward. He had to go back to his main investor to stop the check. As hard and shameful he felt about not moving forward, he ensured his contacts were in-the-know. His personal brand is fully intact and even strengthened due to his integrity and honesty.

My buddy is a great sales professional. He’s a great networker. Even though this opportunity fell through, he has many more opportunities available. But now, he approaches them with a lot more diligence.

While writing last week’s brainstorming post, I read NY Times’ article about Google’s pursuit of finding the “perfect team”. The article touched on how the most effective teams all operated very differently, and there was no clear pattern amongst groups… kind of.
There was no clear correlation to successful teams being friendly outside the office versus those with no outside office interactions. There were successful groups of full of introverts and those full of extroverts and then teams mixed. Teams made up of exceptionally bright individuals didn’t directly translate to outperforming teams with less-exceptionally intelligent individuals.
Instead, one key element that all high-functioning teams exhibited was everyone having an equal voice – speaking roughly equal amounts. Teams heavily dominated by a few did not function nearly as well as those more “talkative” groups.
Further, high-performing teams had team members who would engage in conversation regardless of function or experience. Everyone weighed in with general thoughts plus their experience and area of expertise. These teams exhibited high “psychological safety” where team members could speak out without fear of others judging or being critical. Everyone could freely and respectfully interject one another.
Perhaps then, it’s no surprise high functioning teams scored high on emotional intelligence in order for psychological safety to exist. Team members would be perceptive of how others in the group felt and would address those feelings directly, rather than ignoring or not knowing at all.

The article pointed what subtly fascinated me in my team’s recent brainstorming – this implicit psychology safety net (and indeed culture) that I’ve noticed has been lacking in many companies I’ve worked with over the years. There’s still this notion of the leader(s) having full direction and control and everyone else are subordinates. It creates a gulf in leadership abilities, detracts from confidence, and hampers innovation.
Scott Hightower speaking at the Emory Entrepreneur Network Breakfast Series on February 25th at the Morris, Manning, and Martin
I attended an Emory Entrepreneur Network breakfast last Thursday with Scott Hightower, President and CEO of Verified Security, as the speaker.
Scott spoke of his start in media production before making the leap into entrepreneurship by buying a small security company. Eight years later, the company is a highly successful managed security services provider for commercial customers. The company’s abbreviated customer list includes Clorox, Great American Cookies, Zaxby’s, and Holiday Inn.
Scott shared his top 12 lessons he’s learned since taking the plunge into entrepreneurship to which I’ll highlight the top 4 that stuck out to me.
  1. Focus on cashflow and profitability/ focus on recurring revenue. Scott saw a grand opportunity in the security company he bought in its relationships and a gap in providing monthly services. Scott implemented a recurring revenue model that helped his company through the economic downturn in 2008-2011, and it is recurring revenue that will drive the valuation of his company.
  2. Ask for help and connect with others. Scott worked at Cox Communications in media production for 15+ years and didn’t know anything about security. He realized he needed to reach out to others for help and to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. He enrolled in educational classes. He networked. He grinded to be a successful leader.
  3. Figure out the sales process and automate it. Scott cites Aaron Ross’s book Predictable Revenue as a source of great inspiration for his business. To accelerate sales, he figured out what would be too costly to serve or too far outside the company’s services and said no to them. Meanwhile, he streamlined and set out the structure that would enable selling to be a repeatable, scalable process.
  4. Work on your business, not too much in it. Scott cited how difficult it was to grow the business and focus strategically when he was in the weeds addressing anything and everything. It’s easy as a passionate entrepreneur to get tied into the weeds. For Scott, his task list kept growing and he spent too much effort on tactical tasks rather than strategic tasks. As the owner and driver of the company’s vision, he needed to delegate and prioritize.
  5. Don’t try to do too much – specialize. (Scott said he was going to list his top 10 to which he actually provided 12. Emulating Scott, I’m over-delivering with this fifth point.) This was a key learning for me as well from my early startup – build a focused product, not bloated with too many features and functions. Scott focused on his differentiators so as not to be trapped in a commoditized business where price competition ruled. Additionally, to succeed in efficiently addressing sales, services, and customer support, the company needed to specialize its services, not a broad stroke.

I enjoyed Scott’s lessons and the many books he pointed out as great teachers – added a couple to my list already. I’m giving next month’s talk on Thursday, March 24th so I’ve got my work cut out in following in his footsteps. If you’re involved in Emory at all, come hear the talk! Emory Entrepreneur Network Breakfast Series.

I’m following up on last Thursday’s post on brainstorming and collaboration with a couple known brainstorming methods. The two methods listed below come immediately to mind. Each promotes collaboration amongst team members and thinking more holistically – helpful for many small startups who may lack expertise in key functional areas.
  • Disney’s Brainstorming Method: Dreamer, Realist, and Spoiler. One of the largest, creative companies in the world has a process to identify new opportunities by establishing “rooms” where all ideas are brought to the table with little prejudice. After the ideas are brought forth, the team evaluates the realism of each idea (shortening the list). Then, the team runs through a “spoiler” room where each idea is scrutinized for actual value and viability. Here, ideas are tested for sustainability. Disney’s method compartmentalizes the ideation process so all ideas are brought to the table before shooting any of them down. Based on their track record, seems helpful.
  • Six Thinking Hats. We’re all aware of the “Jack of All Trades” associate in the office. He wears “multiple” hats – each hat representing a specific role (product development, marketing, developer, etc.). In the Six Thinking Hats method, team members are designated specific hats which Edward de Bonosays represent the way the brain thinks in six distinct ways. The hats represent: Managing, Information, Emotions, Discernment, Optimistic, and Creativity. By designating resources to each hat, ideas can be thought of in a cohesive, challenging, and holistic way.

Most brainstorming sessions like my recent ones (and many others) are unstructured. Here, individual(s) must step up to fill a gap the team lacks to help shape an idea more holistically. This could be tricky, however, if teams don’t know what they don’t consider. Structured brainstorming methods could help mitigate these oversights. Things to ponder…

What other brainstorming methods have you heard of or used? Without structure, how has your team mitigated the risk of thinking in silo or lacking the holistic view?