Over the last year or so, I have become an Advisor for a couple startups. It’s been a great experience for me to teach and continue learning as an entrepreneur. I do meet with several startups and entrepreneurs weekly, but not officially as an Advisor save for a couple.
During (and especially after) Body Boss, I realized the importance of having Advisors. Advisors help startups and the executive team navigate the go-to-market waters bringing specific experience to the table – industry, technology, etc. With that comes connections, too.
The role of a startup Advisor includes:
  • Guiding the startup on its direction
  • Provide valuable insight into the industry, competition, market, etc.
  • Share connections to move the company forward – prospects, new hire candidates, other
  • Establish cadence around metrics for progress

In exchange for devoting time and attention (and reaching success, hopefully), startups typically provide stock or cash to Advisors. This ensures both parties are aligned on objectives and provide the necessary feedback.

Ash Mauryarecently wrote in Entrepreneur an article titled “Traction Is What Investors Are Looking for When You Present Your Plan”. Ash writes that investors are looking for traction, above all other criteria like market opportunity and competitive advantage.
Ash’s definition of traction is:

rate at which a business model captures monetizable value from its users

Before Ash describes the definition of traction, he shares his thoughts on value…
  • Created value > captured value. That is, the value a customer receives is greater than the value the company receives (the customer pays).
  • Captured value ≥ cost (delivering solution). This is simplistically understanding revenue is greater than (or equal to) cost.
  • Created value ≥≥ cost.

This is a pretty simple to understand. For companies looking for investment (well, any company looking to be successful), it’s important to understand traction and all the drivers thereof. As an early-stage startup wiggles and fights its way towards product-market fit (or service-market fit), traction will likely be near-flat. But as the company reaches product-market fit, that traction curve starts to climb fast. Here, focus turns towards customer acquisition, and thus, the sales and marketing machine commences.

Understanding what traction is is important, and just as important is understanding the real value you are creating for your consumers. If you can help your consumers capture great value, then can you start to build traction. Value àtraction. Value does not = traction. That requires some marketing and sales, but value is fundamental.

I recently had a couple interns work for me at SalesWise. They were great resources to help in marketing, sales, prospecting, support, etc.
However, the interns were straight out of high school (or still in). They did not have much experience in any particular area. It was a challenge, at first, to get them ramped up on what to do. Luckily, I leaned on my experience as a co-op back at Georgia Tech to help me lead my interns.
My biggest advice to the interns, and indeed, the same understanding I wanted them to be grounded on: “Absorb as much as you can, even if the work seems ‘simple’.”
My biggest advice to them after their time? “Re-read and re-absorb everything you did.”
One of my regrets from my internship at UPS Supply Chain Solutions back in the day was not absorbing as much as I could about logistics, transportation, the contacts I interacted with, their interests, etc. As I look back, there were hundreds of connections I wish I kept in touch with. (LinkedIn makes it much easier to do this today.)
I had my interns research our various customer profiles — their functions (i.e. sales operations, sales enablement, marketing ops, other), the challenges of each persona, how our solution could benefit these individuals, etc. By the end of their time, they could rattle off what was important to each person and could write messages or communicate with each person in a meaningful way.
I feel my co-op experience gave me great insight into being a professional and working with others, especially communication. However, I missed out on some of the “tribal knowledge” because I didn’t think much about it.
For my interns, I felt it was important (as each wanted to enter some role in business) to understand the people on the other side of the table — customers, internal stakeholders, etc. I wanted them to understand the WHY of each task. These interns were very bright, hardworking, and self-starters.
They will run up against many other students who are just as bright, hardworking, and self-starting. What will set them apart is their ability to immediately contribute and have accelerated growth. It’s this tribal knowledge, these concepts around understanding audiences, etc. that will make these interns highly valuable as they seek their next opportunities.
What are the pieces of advice you give to interns? How have you helped nurture interns? If you were an intern, what was some of the best advice or best take-aways from your experience?
I opened up the floor for others to suggest today’s blog post topic and decided on “how to stay motivated”.
I’ve heard several entrepreneurs recently share their struggles – struggles from overcoming challenges to staying consistent in writing. It’s tough. It’s really, really tough.
As I mentioned in the past, many people assume the hardest part of startups is making the leap into entrepreneurship. That’s tough, but the greatest challenge is overcoming the CHASM. The greatest challenge is staring down doubt and overcoming hurdles over and over. There’s even a period referred to as the “trough of sorrow”.
Tips on staying motivated:
  • Ground into your why. The why is what fuels your passion. It’s the reason you started. If it’s powerful enough, it’ll keep you going.
  • Find tools, whatever they may be that gives you energy. For me, that sometimes starts with a simple motivational video.
  • Surround yourself with supportive, like-driven people. Atlanta is really thriving as a startup hub with a vast network of entrepreneurs, startup spaces, and dream-chasers and achievers.
  • Take a step back and reassess your situation and your direction. 
  • Be vulnerable and ask for help. This is why I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. Staying motivated sometimes means opening up to others to ask for the support and encouragement needed.

“Staying motivated” implies you’re already in-flight on your idea, passion, or startup. A piece of advice that can help before you make that head-on jump: Can you pursue this idea or passion on a steady basis as a hobby? Sometimes, making a big plunge is too drastic and requires too much change which can quickly deflate interest and motivation.

There are a number of ways to stay motivated, but the big ones are grounding into your why, and reaching out for help.
Leaning on Des Traynor’srecent talk “Lessons Learned In Growing A Product”, I want to highlight Des’ message on starting out very focused and simple. Des cited Gall’s Law around systems theory to build a successful company.

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. – John Gall (1975, p.71)**

I’ve written plenty of times about starting very focused including a chapter in Postmortem of a Failed Startup titled “Start Small and Targeted and KILL IT.” I believe it’s the smartest, quickest, and cheapest route to building a successful product/ company.
Some key points from Des about starting simple:
  • “Insanely big ideas should start insanely small”
  • Salesforce’s website started way back in the day with two calls-to-action/ messaging: “Free trial/ membership” and “Forecast the Pipeline”
  • “Start not where successful companies are, but where they started.” This point resonated with me greatly, too, because many big, successful companies tend to start very small solving a major problem. Over time, its breadth of products and services grow pushing complexity and pricing beyond many companies (especially smaller). This creates a gap for new players to come in simple, small, and focused. (And thus, the circle of life…)
  • When you know the problem well, distill to workflows which you build features to enable
  • “A small list of ‘target users’ beats a big list of non-customers”. This point goes into the importance of knowing your audience and solving their real pains.

There are lots more good points from Des’ talk to which I highly recommend you check out.

What are some of your take-aways from Des’ talk? Any of these messages resonate with you? Why?
** Note: John Gall was an American author and pediatrician who wrote in 1975 a book, General systemantics : an essay on how systems work, and especially how they fail….
I watched one of Intercom’s cofounders, Des Traynor, give a talk “Lessons Learned In Growing A Product”. It was instantly one of my favorite talks giving a bit of conceptual, visionary/ motivational, and technical.
One of the tenets that really resonated with me was “be insanely diligent about roadmap”. He talks about how most new features are flops, and shares good practices in diligence. Here are some of the key points:
  • Understand the relationship between how often people use a feature to how many people use the feature. He illustrates a chart with “frequency of use” on the y-axis and the “number of users” on the x-axis. The features with high frequency and many people using them represented the core features
  • When improving features, consider improvements (“change”) in quality, importance, satisfaction, and frequency
  • To motivate more use, consider creating: habits, triggers, rewards, defaults, context, and, generally, more uses
  • When launching a product: “exit by feature set or by a deadline, but above all, exit”. The point here is you can go on and on trying to develop a product, but launching enables testing and market traction

There are a ton more golden nuggets in Des’ talk to which I’ll likely spread out over the next couple blog posts. (Yes, I enjoyed it that much.) I highly encourage everyone watch it, even if you don’t know much about startups or technology.

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?

An entrepreneur recently asked me how to monetize her app. She’s made great progress building and marketing her app. In fact, she’s been asked to do several interviews and has been invited to conferences all over. Next, she’s seeking investment to support growth, but has few ideas on monetization. Given specific challenges, she could consider monetizing based on third-parties.
Some background: the entrepreneur’s app empowers users to reach long-term safety and security. Since app launch, she’s ridden an impressive wave of press and publicity. Her app is cause-related, and given the most common user demographic, users are not financially stable. Meanwhile, as a for-profit company, asking for donations to support app development and her cause has been troublesome.
The app helps users navigate the long process getting from “low-point” to “high-point”. Because her target users have little disposable income, charging users will be a major deterrent and possibly dilute the power of her cause.
The entrepreneur could consider monetizing the steps along the user journey by considering what third-parties could benefit from reaching the user and by supporting the cause. Perhaps like…

A gamification-like strategy, where company-sponsored rewards (i.e. discounts towards food, clothing, etc.) are earned when users complete specific educational tasks. This can motivate users to stay on track and supported throughout their journeys towards the high-point. 

The entrepreneur can monetize based on reward redemption or sponsorship careful not to dilute sponsorship dollars for the sake of revenue. Meanwhile, sponsoring companies will be able to market their products and services, while also supporting a positive cause.

There are many ways to monetize popular apps despite hurdles – low income users, fears of cause/ value dilution, user privacy, etc. In this entrepreneur’s case, consider not only the target users, but also what third-parties can benefit along a user’s journey.
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?
My last post about usability testing talked about set up and guidelines for testing. Following up, here are some outcomes and lessons from a couple testing sessions so far:
  • You can get great feedback. It’d be great to build a product leveraging the experience of the founders in a startup and customers use the product seamlessly. However, founders’ view of the world can be skewed. Usability testing solicits feedback directly from the target audience.
  • Find users who will provide candid feedback. Operative words are “provide” and “candid”. Usability testing can be awkward for testers not used to giving honest feedback. It’s important for the company and customers that users provide critical feedback knowing no answer is wrong – benefits go around for everyone.
  • Bugs can screw it all up. The goal of usability testing is to assess how users interact with the product. Sometimes, you’ll want users to perform specific tasks. However, product bugs can quickly halt testing; thus, preventing constructive feedback. Now, feedback may focus on bugs rather than usability.
  • Early testing can tell you everything. Stop. Iterate. Continue later. That is, early users may find resounding issues during tests. You’ll know it when it happens. In this case, discontinue testing till these headaches are resolved else you get the same feedback from all users. Go again.
  • Watch for unspoken signs. In presentations and demos, I scan faces in the room for emotions and reactions. In usability testing, I do the same. Do they seem delighted or uninterested? Is the user focused? Confused? What’s left unsaid can be most telling.

Usability testing has been a great process for us so far. We identified key gaps, and emerged focusing efforts on select features while reducing clutter. Before, we hypothesized what users wanted. Testing has provided real data and insight.

What outcomes or lessons have you learned from usability testing as a test-giver? Any input as a test-taker? How has usability testing helped your company’s product development and roadmap?