One of the reasons I joined the current startup I’m at was to learn from a successful CEO/ founding team – to be mentored. So far, I’ve appreciated every moment.
It’s fascinating to me how he thinks. He’s highly successful with prior startups; so, to say his mindset is different from mine would be an understatement. In fact, we’ve approached many things from completely different perspectives.
Some observations and disparities in viewpoints:
  • Him: time and money (big). Me: test and money (small). Oftentimes, he thinks in time first, money second. He recognizes time is a resource we don’t get back. Meanwhile, time is also money. Recently, we debated about testing messaging. As I thought about testing variants for efficacy that may take time, he thought about burn rate. Specifically, how much time and money will have been spent for an effective test? He would rather test quickly and burn through a list, for example, and then get another list later, not go through 4 weeks of burn before finding something that works.
  • Him: Get results now, and get efficiency later. Me: Get results soon, and get efficiency later. To the point above, my CEO is acutely aware that we may have to freestyle a bit now which may be inefficient. However, he’s cognizant of what he needs now to show success. If we find success now, we can build out the right strategy to be more efficient and scale.
  • Him: top-down numbers. Me: Bottom-up numbers/ approach. Having boot-strapped my startups in the past, I think “organic”, bottom-up like acquisition. I think about acquiring a handful of customers through highly tailored approaches. I think about piecing together the grander message for marketing. My CEO thinks about conversions. He thinks about the math of filling the pipe with XX number of cold leads converting to YY leads converting to ZZ opportunities converting to AA customers. He thinks about what he can do now, how much more resources to commit to yield customers at the bottom. Then, refine the approach for scale.
  • Him: Get on the plane. Me: I’ll try to get them on the phone. That is, we need to learn as much as possible as fast as possible and keep everyone happy. From bootstrapping, I’m reticent to spend $100 on a customer (even if that fits in fine for our cost of acquisition). Again, I’m thinking about money, but from a “small pockets” perspective. For my CEO, I can spend what’s needed now (including hopping on a plane) to meet with prospects or working with an early customer to ensure we get the most out of our customers (beyond revenue). 
  • Him: Everyone pays. Me: Friends and family five-finger discount (free). Friends or not, if they find value, they’ll pay. I was always under the impression of giving a handful of friendlies free use of the product in exchange of learning. For my CEO, he wants to test if even his connections value our service enough to pay for it. That’s pretty important. Getting things free is great, and using it can be great. But that doesn’t tell you if you’ve created a product of VALUE.
  • Him: Your time is valuable. Me: I can discount my time. Same as the first couple points and the “finding value” bullet preceding, my CEO ensures contractors and the like get paid. When I was starting out, I offered to work for free as a trial to see if this relationship would be worthwhile. He was adamant on paying. It sets expectations. Free can discount effort. Don’t discount your value.

It’s been a fun ride, and I will continue learning from him. I haven’t set up explicit “mentoring” or “coaching” sessions. Instead, I’ve just taken so many mental notes on his approach to… everything. It’s fascinating, and I know this experience will pay off in the long-run. Heck, they’re paying off today.

Today’s post… a plug for my book – Postmortem of a Failed Startup: Lessons for Success – is now in hardcopy! You can pick up the paperback on Amazon for $13.99 (or ebook for $5.99).
I originally published the book as an ebook in early January. Got a lot of great feedback including Amazon reviews like…

I want to start using the book to teach other entrepreneurs before meeting with me. One of the reasons why I wrote the book was because of how often entrepreneurs shared challenges described in the book.
If you’re looking to get your venture off the ground, your idea out of your head, or have a startup in-flight looking to grow, get the book on Amazon.

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.

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.

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?

One of the biggest, greatest lessons I’ve learned while doing a startup is one that isn’t shocking.  In fact, before I say it I’m going to go ahead and say it’s going to sound stupid.  You’re sometimes told this in consulting projects, read it in some books, but it’s just the very experience of doing a startup and smack-your-face-duh moment when you really appreciate this. So here goes… when you’re offering any product or service, you have to make a TANGIBLE value proposition.  People and companies largely respond to one thing: net profit.  This means there are two big levers – raise my revenue or lower my costs. 
Yeah… sounds simple and stupid, right?  But if you were me, you may think that there may be a grand idea you have that can save time or can “boost performance” or something like that.  Rarely do people really understand in these terms.  You’ll find those who can understand that building a stronger athlete with ancillary benefits like accountability and the like, but most people do NOT get these concepts.  What do they really understand?  Budget. 
I can tout how in 60 days, I saw personally how I increased my strength by 4.86% (read the post here), or how a high school football team’s top 10 players saw 9.13% gains in the Barbell Bench Press and 5.13% gains in their Barbell Power Cleans, but sometimes, it doesn’t quite click yet. 
Instead, listening to some coaches, especially college coaches, they immediately latch onto the opportunity to save money via summer workout programs.  That is, today, colleges spend roughly $20 per book that is sent out to players over the summer with their summer workout plans.  What ends up happening oftentimes is players lose their books, too, so the Strength & Conditioning program has to send out a new book.  Not only that, but the book just sends out the workout with no feedback system.
So the value prop here for Body Boss, for example, is the ability for coaches to use Body Boss to share summer workout programs with one system at a cost lower than printing and shipping books at $20 per book.  For college football teams, for example, if you produce books for 105 players (NCAA Div. 1 squad size limit), that’s a good $2,100.  Further, Body Boss can be the way that players can get feedback, while also accessing a workout program without the fear of losing the “book”. 
Thinking about consulting, this should be a no-brainer.  How often or easy is it to build a business case or even sell a project if you’re just selling soft benefits? 
So in the end, before you get all enamored about your idea and try to build marketing messages set on value props not based on values, don’t.  If you’re touting saving time, perhaps it’d be easier for your customer to not think of the time aspect as much as the value of that time.  What are the opportunity costs you’re experiencing by doing what you do now?  If you used product XYZ, you’ll save time so you can DO that opportunity cost. 
Anyways, so yeah, sometimes you can get enamored on what makes your product so great or why a project would be nice, but if you lose yourself in the wrong value, your message just falls on disinterested ears.

– SC Ninja out