One of the fun experiences since joining SalesWise is having truly collaborative, open brainstorming sessions. We’re an early-stage startup, and we’re working on ways to grow faster and become even more valuable to our customers. So, we’re experimenting and opening the floor for discussions. It’s been nice given my last several years has been relatively isolated.
What’s stood out in these sessions:
  • Though led by leadership with several highly successful prior ventures, the leaders are open to new ideas and not following some previous template. This venture is new – new industry, product, team, times. We’re approaching fresh and eager to learn.
  • Everyone wears different hats. We have folks specializing in design, backend, frontend, product management, marketing, sales, etc. Then, we have different backgrounds that shape our views vis-à-vis risk, startup and corporate experience, etc. It all comes together to bring balance.
  • Everyone is eager and excited about what we’re building coming in prepared with ideas and discussion points. One of the reasons I joined the company was everyone’s passion about what we’re building. It shows when everyone is engaged in brainstorming.
  • The purpose of these sessions can be highly important, and we’re not afraid to sleep on discussions and gather again the next day for several hours. If it’s important, we’ll make time and effort.

In the last several years on my own, I tended think about the bigger picture. Now that I’m part of a team, I need to switch my mindset and think [more] from my role as sales and marketing. It’s been a fun change, and I’m looking forward to the great things we cook up.

What ground rules do you set for brainstorming sessions? Have you ever used a brainstorming process or method? If so, what?

Ever since Postmortem of a Failed Startup, people are asking me:
  • Have you always wanted to write a book?
  • Why did you write the book?
  • You must read a lot, too. What do you like reading?

Most people assume I’ve always loved writing. Truth be told, for my first 28 years of life, I hatedwriting, and I hated reading. Both were forced upon me in school, and I had little interest in what I read and wrote.

So why do I write so much now? How did I get into reading? Am I more mature and appreciative of literature? Yes, but really, it all comes down to context. I now read and write based on things that interest me.
Another analogy: a new friend from dinner last night said she used to hate eating tofu. It tasted terrible. However, she started restricting her diet, and she needed to explore more food options. One of those options was exploring cooking with tofu. She learned recipes that sounded like they would be good, and through experimenting, she now loves tofu.
Okay, let me add that what also motivates us to do anything is understanding the why. For me, I’ve always wanted to be a thought leader and share stories and lessons with others. The blog and book are great ways to reach larger audiences. For my friend, learning to cook with tofu expanded her dietary options while also cooking with a taste that suited her palate.
We typically “hate” several things, but much of that feeling is based on misunderstanding and misalignment of context and purpose. I suggest finding something hated before and do it in a context that is interesting grounded with purpose. It’ll be interesting how your feelings start to shift to “enjoy” or even “love”.
What do you hate doing, but could use a little shift in context? Why do you hate some of the things you do?
I reconnected with a wantrepreneur I met months ago to see how things were going. Since our first meeting, she’s made connections all around, built a pitch deck, and got estimates for developing her idea. From the outside, she’s doing great. She talks excitedly about a new platform launching soon that would be huge for her product. Sadly, she’s going to miss the boat because her product is still just an idea.
She also pared down her list of features to get more minimum viable product-lean. This has dropped her development costs dramatically to economical levels. However, she’s still seeking meetings with investors to get funding to start development.
Unfortunately, funding hasn’t come through while great opportunities like the new platform launch have come and pass. In two months come holiday season when the new platform will be on many people’s wishlists – another golden opportunity will pass.
We talked about what her idea was worth and what she believes the value will be if she’s a success. Is she confident in her idea and her ability to execute that perhaps she could fund more of the development herself rather than rely on outsiders? If she had all the information she had today but two months ago, would she had invested in development to make it to this new platform’s launch? Hesitating as she laments the very idea, she whispers, “Yes, I would.”
A few thoughts:
  • She, like many others, is learning how difficult it is to raise money without traction. She’s also lost an initial investor. Like I said in sales, never celebrate till two weeks after a check clears. Build momentum (read: traction) to spark investment interest.
  • Entrepreneurship is about doing and being opportunistic. Could she have known the platform was launching soon? Possibly, based on company history. Meanwhile, holidays are pretty set. One of the most important factors in startup success is about timing and being able to seize opportunities. I believe full-heartedly in what Seneca said — “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.
  • Things happen outside of your control, but control as much as you can when you can. Unfortunate events like losing investors can be unpredicted, and development continues to be delayed. She could address this directly by learning to code herself, growing her network of developers and partnering with a technical cofounder, or fund the development herself (or other).
I like to consider how invested and confident wantrepreneurs are in their ideas (from wantrepreneur to entrepreneur). If they truly believe in their ideas and themselves, are they realizing what the bottlenecks are? What are they doing to knock those barriers down? For her, taking more control by funding development herself, if not finding a technical co-founder or learning development herself, could help her seize golden opportunities or move on.
For the wantrepreneur, she’s going to take immediate action. I’m excited to see her idea come to fruition soon.
What are your thoughts on requiring outside investment to fund an idea? How could a lack of funding interest affect a wantrepreneur’s passion and drive to execute?
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.

I met one of the co-founders of a Chattanooga-based startup recently whose company is on a growth TEAR. The company launched two years ago, and have grown to 65 full-timers and 30 part-timers with annual revenues approaching $10MM. Two years… yowza!
With such fast growth, I was curious what were his top lessons and tips he’s learned. Naturally, I asked…
  1. Treat supply and demand the same. The startup follows a model more recently popularized by Uber – that is, they hire providers to perform a service, and they sell the service to customers. Thus, the startup actually has two markets to address. Most people understand that brands must focus on customer experience, but with their model (and like Uber’s), they must also focus on the service providers. The service providers are an extension of their brand, and thus, it’s important to ensure the service providers are taken care of and heard from.
  2. Clearly establish roles at the beginning (amongst the founders). I surmise there might have been issues early on when one co-founder worked on the startup full-time while the other worked part-time. Though, I’m unsure what he meant by “roles” here. At least when it comes to duties, early employees (founders included) wear many hats. Instead, I believe he was referring to a hierarchy of sorts. In my experience with Body Boss, one of the lessons learned was the importance of some level of hierarchy to fall back on when decisions reached an impasse. The four of us co-founders had equal equity, equal authority, and without a clear leader, we could (and we did) spin our wheels on decisions that were evenly split.

It’s always great to hear about rapid growth companies, and learn from their founders.

What are your thoughts on ideas and innovations that must address two markets? What are your reservations about hierarchies vs. flatter organizations?
A couple posts ago, I wrote about advice I had given to a wantrepreneur when she asked how to start a business after incepting the idea. My answer was simple: “Do your customer discovery. Consider doing a survey.” However, she didn’t know how to start.
The word “survey” is generic and broad. Every time you ask someone a question, you’re performing a mini-survey. In a true customer discovery survey, you use a structured approach and many respondents.
A few simple survey tools at your disposal (my favorites):
  • Verbal/ Manual. Not always the most appreciated or scalable, but soliciting feedback verbally is a form of direct survey. That is, going door-to-door (figuratively or literally) can be an effective way of getting in front of your prospects.
  • Simple survey apps. Lots of tools here including popular SurveyMonkey, Qualitrics, and, my favorite, Google Docs (Apps). A Google Form can easily be used as a survey with multiple choice, true/ false, free text, etc. It integrates with Google Sheets for analysis, or exported for more. If you have a Google account, it can be free, too.
  • Survey tools on steroids… That is, there are tools that help you distribute surveys to grander audiences and near real-time like 1Q– a direct-response advertising and market research startup in ATL. These services have member pools already where you can choose demographic, geographic, etc. options and send questions with near immediate feedback. Of course, this can be costly – price of a powerful real-time solution.
  • (Note: there are many more beyond these.)

There are a ton of survey tools available, but the tools above have been especially useful for me and what I recommend to others. But the goal is the same: to validate if your idea can be a viable business and get traction at the start.
What tools and methods do you use for customer discovery surveys? How would you perform customer discovery aside from surveys?
Well, that was an interesting start to a first conversation. At first, that may come off as incredulous or even laughable (“j’accuse!” comes to mind).
An entrepreneur recently asked me this after a brief meeting citing he had had always introduced himself, “I have a company called XYZ doing THIS-THAT-THE-OTHER-THING”. I was the second person to introduce myself to him as Entrepreneur recently.
(At the event where we met, I actually consciously chose to introduce myself as “Daryl the Entrepreneur”.)
For months, I introduced myself with “well, I do a lot of different things” and would rattle off “independent supply chain and biz dev consulting, I program in iOS, just started a dev shop” and the list goes on. That took too long and eyes would glaze over.
In fact, “Aspiring Entrepreneur” used to be on my LinkedIn till I was reminded that once I was building my own startup and selling to customers, I was an entrepreneur. I was no longer “aspiring”. I was. That is, I am.
So I told him I had been introducing myself in many ways over the years, and depending on the audience, I would change my introduction to be the most relevant to the listener (okay… “most impressive”). Just so happens “Entrepreneur” also eloquently encapsulates everything I do from business development, to developer, to customer success rep, to bookkeeper, etc.
A couple take-aways here including:
  1. Own what you do. Don’t be shy or think “you’re not worthy” of whatever title or introduction you want to use. Instead of looking for reasons to argue the contrary, find reasons to back up your introduction. 
  2. Know your audience. At the event, it was clear “Entrepreneur” would resonate with others the best rather than “Programmer”.
How do you introduce yourself? What’s your 3-word description, 15-word introduction, and 30-second pitch? How do you modify (do you modify?) your introduction to the audience?

I was recently approached by a wantrepreneur asking how to start a company. She was paying developers to build an app around her idea, but otherwise, she was secretive about the whole business.
I ended up giving her my general first step in any idea – find out if the idea is even a good one. Translated: Do your customer discovery. Consider doing a survey.

I’m a fan of surveys for a number of reasons (assuming your survey is well organized):
  • Who is your market, really? Is this a market of 1? She was convinced EVERYONE in the world would use her app. Yet, she mentioned she needed to get approvals to work with the government, DMV, etc. Well, the DMV requirement just excluded 95% of the world.
  • Is this a real problem? Asking your friends and family questions about your idea is a good start, but can be biased with people of similar backgrounds (education, geography, income, etc.) who may not be as critical as you need them to be.
  • What’s the product development roadmap look like? Speed is key in startups to not only get traction, but to get the right traction. To do so, it’s important to build products quickly, learn, and iterate. Surveys allow you to consider what pain-points (àfeatures) are highest priority.
  • How do you market to your audience? Survey questions about social media usage, device usage, etc. help paint the picture of what consumers interact with; thus, helping you most effectively market later.
  • Now, you have marketing ammunition. As K.P. Reddy cites, “great CEOs know the numbers of their businesses. Surveys give you stats you can cite in pitches, marketing collateral, etc.

When starting a business or thinking about an idea, customer discovery should be one of the first things you do.

How would you agree or disagree with customer discovery being the first step of building a business or an idea? What ways have you done customer discovery?
Source: http://ak8.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/1256950/preview/stock-footage-man-in-brown-suit-stand-on-beach-and-rises-hands-then-walked-and-immersed-sea-water-and-swam-at.jpg
I’ve been heads down trying to get this new startup I’ve got going that for one of the first times in a while, my mind was drawing a blank as to what I should post about. I’m not quite where I want to be for the startup to post anything about it, yet, so I’ll curb that. Instead, I did read an article recently about the CEO of MongoDB, Max Schireson stepping down.
MongoDB is one of the hot techs out there right now. When you think up-and-coming and leading edge tech, it’s right there at the top with a recent valuation of $1B according to the article on Business Insider – Why This CEO Happily Just Quit The Best Job He’s Ever Had.
Schireson cites his crazy travel schedule considering he and his family lives in Palo Alto while the company is headquartered in New York. He’s on course to break 300,000 miles this year! (As a former frequent flyer (Delta Diamond, for the win) and now sparse traveler, ah, I want that.) Anyways, he’s leaving the post and stepping into a Vice Chairman role.
His blog post describes more of the situation, and based on some questions and lifestyle choices of those around me are playing out, I wanted to share some take-aways…
  • For Max Schireson and many, family comes first.As a young consultant but always a “family man”, I used to ask the more senior consultants how they felt about traveling during the rapid growth years of their young kids.
  • Not always about money, especially “now”. When you’re good at what you do and you know people, you’ll likely always have opportunities that will pay you. Money’s not really the problem. For me right now, my focus is less on money and more on entrepreneurship and building a startup that will have lasting impressions. If things really do slip for me, I know I can pull the ripcord and parachute to “security”.
  • Some/ most people won’t understand why, but you only need a select few to know why. That is, MongoDB is growing by leaps and bounds. They’ve raised some serious capital and have a hotly rising valuation. Schireson’s step down from CEO will impact him not just on the bottom line, but also from professional development, etc. perspectives. Most people will see it that way. But to those who matter, they’ll understand and support him on his decision and transition (and beyond).
  • If you’re running a company, you need “all-in” leaders to make the most of the opportunities. Maybe you need to mitigate some risks at the beginning, but once that’s rolling, you need to plunge headfirst to make the decisions and adjustments (pivots?) necessary to the business to be successful. It’s like raising a baby!
  • Plenty of bias and judging between men and women executives. The start of the Business Insider article talks about Schireson’s experience of questions asked of him vs. his female executive counterparts regarding “personal interests” vs “family-work balance”.
  • Behind every great business leader, is a great partner. I remember watching a video of the trials and tribulations Elon Musk endured during the formative years of both Tesla and Space X (see his 60 Minutes interview). However, he also had a great partner at home in his wife to take care of the “Personal Business”. Looking at those around me like at Body Boss, Don (our Head of Development/ Lead Developer/ Make Sh!t Happen Officer) worked some crazy hours after his full-time gig, and was supporting a newborn. His wife was a huge, HUGE partner of not just him, but for Body Boss because of her support.

So in the end, Schireson’s making the decision that he and his family feel is best. It’s been a great run at the helm of MongoDB, but it also doesn’t mean his role in shaping the company future stops and that he just stops moving forward professionally. Instead, now, he can move forward in the capacities he views as most critical to his greater LIFE – his family.
What are your thoughts about stepping down or away from seemingly highly lucrative positions? Schireson obviously holds his family as the main pillar of his life. What would you say is yours right now?