Startups

Who Makes Seattle? We Make Seattle.

A cool new project about the Seattle creative community hit Kickstarter recently.  It’s called We Make Seattle.

Given the fact I am an entrepreneur, founder of a Seattle startup and now founder of a site that helps other founders tell their  startup stories, I am very excited to see something like this come out of our community.  Seattle needs more exposure to put to rest the “Seattle vs Silicon Valley” arguments.  We are not SV and never will be; we are Seattle.   We are unique, different, but also a land of huge opportunity.  Films like this allow us to tell our stories to the world and show them we know a thing or two about creating great products and companies.

They are more than half way to their goal of raising $28,500 to get this thing in production, so go on and help them achieve their goal!  Below is more about the short film.

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This short film is a celebration of what makes Seattle the best place in the world for entrepreneurs and creatives to live. It tells the story of the vibrant and supportive community we have for starting companies, betting on dreams, and chasing big ideas.

Despite being named the #1 tech city in America by The Atlantic, and consistent top rankings on the list of the world’s most livable city, we’re frequently overlooked as the place to go for people with big talents and ideas. This film will change that.

The film has three goals:

1. Celebrate the creative community.  We have all personally benefited from the Seattle community, and the film will be a reflection back to the community itself on how many amazing companies, events, and projects are based here. In our daily lives we rarely step back to see the entire city, and We Make Seattle will inspire by telling the story of how many great things happen around us.

2. Help recruiters and entrepreneurs attract talent. NYC, LA and even Portland have produced short videos to help local companies tell the story of their city. Seattle has no such film, until now. The film will be the perfect one link to send to convince ambitious creatives, potential business partners, or top candidates from around the world to bring their passions to the northwest.

3. Have the community tell its own story. Everything about this project is built by the Seattle community itself, and led by well known leaders who have benefited from our creative city and want to give something back. We’ll be inviting people to contribute in various ways throughout the production of the film.

All funds beyond our budget will be used to promote the video, as PR and reaching a wide audience is as important as the video itself.

What I Have Learned In the First Few Founders RAW Conversations

I love entrepreneurship because it comes in all shapes, sizes, flavors and personalities.

As I am sure you know, we have started a new project recently, called Founders RAW.   It’s a video site where we showcase recorded conversations I have with other founders over a beer to get a better idea of their story as well as (hopefully) pull out lessons that other viewer will be able to apply to their life.

One of the perks of founding Founders RAW is the unique opportunity to be the one sitting down with these individuals and drive the conversation.  It’s an honor, and it’s quite fun.

It’s also very educational.  Here are just a few things I picked up after the first 6 Founders RAW conversations.

Entrepreneurial from an early age

Everyone I have sat down with has expressed how they were exposed to entrepreneurial ventures from a very early age.  This may have been through observing their parents operating their businesses, working paper routes during middle-school, creating their first “business” in their youth or somewhere in between.  The common thread I am already seeing is entrepreneurship is taught (or experiecned) very early.  So early, in fact, these people thought it was normal and was what they wanted to do when they “grew up”.

This is precisely what I was talking about when I wrote about Making Entrepreneurship An Infectious Cultural Disease.  If we’re taught from a young age to take responsibly for our business life and chart our own course, well that’s exactly what we end up doing.

Clueless at first

Like clockwork, when I talk to founders it’s bound to come out at some point.  “I was clueless at first.  We had no idea what we were doing and we just tried things to see what happened.”  It’s amazing how high of a pedestal we place founders of companies, thinking they know it all and are destined to succeed from day one.  Unfortunately it can’t be farther from the truth.  Founders are forced to quickly learn on the job.

If anything, we are VERY good actors.  We fool others into believing we know what we are doing.  And we continue to do that until we stumble into actually knowing what we are doing.  I believe this skill is a pre-requisite for a founder: the ability to convince yourself and others you know the next few steps to take towards success.  And then exercise that ability to go find and do what ends up being the next step before it’s too late.

It’s Hard Work!

Founding a company is hard work.  I hear it again and again each time I sit down with a new founder during Founders RAW conversations.  “It was tough man!”  “We worked really, really hard sometimes for many, many years.”  Anything extraordinary will require extra effort on the part of the founder, no exceptions, they tell me.

What’s really interesting is to ask them the next question “So given it was hard work, what makes you different than the other founders who are working just as hard?”   I don’t have a specific answer I can write about right now but I think that answer would be very interesting, specially coming from the horses mouth.

My guess: “I figured out a smarter way to work hard.”  Although everyone can work hard, the most successful people find ingenious ways to get things done quicker, faster, more efficient and with higher quality.  A railroad worker most definitely worked harder than a business man, but it was the business man who walked away from the day with more money, providing him more security.

Hear many, listen to few

An interesting nugget of wisdom has already been touched on in these early conversations.  It revolves around the idea that everyone wants to tell you what to do next and how to best build your company.  “Everyone has an opinion, just like everyone has an _________.”

The key is to hear and understand as many viewpoints as you can, but then parse out what applies to your situation and follow a few solid pieces of advice.  Be very picky on who you give your ear to, who listen to and what you read.

Hear a lot, listen to few.

This is huge!  If you don’t follow this advice you end up like a dog running around looking up every time it hears something and sniffing everything it sees.  This is a quick way to go nowhere, fast.

Man, it’s been quite an awesome few months and I look forward to many, many more beers with other great founders who are willing to open up to me and tell us their stories.

If you haven’t yet watched these first conversations, go check them out now > Founders RAW

Determining Which Problems to Solve Requires Wisdom

An important first step when building a product/business is determining what problem you are actually solving.  Pick the wrong problem and you will waste precious time, resources and energy running in the wrong direction.  Pick the right one and you just might have a billion dollar business on your hands.

The key is to be wise in how you pick the problems you will ultimately solve.

thinkingSean Ellis said it best.

Surprisingly, founders’ instincts to solve problems can also cause us to fail. Many startups miss success signals because they are too busy solving problems. Our instincts tell us to be responsive to customer feedback – especially negative feedback. These problems are so actionable that we feel good solving them. But over time a startup that chases problem after problem creates a bloated, fragmented solution that isn’t really needed by anyone.

 Think about that statement for a minute.  Basically, what Sean is saying is you cannot run around and fix everything that people complain about in your product.  It takes wisdom to decipher which feedback from customers – positive or negative – you should listen to and act upon.

He goes further.

Ultimately the goal of any startup should be to create a “must have” product experience. The signal that tells you that you have created a “must have” product is your true north to build a successful business. You should understand everything you can about the “must have” experience so you can cultivate and protect it. Who considers it a must have, how are they using it, why do they love it, why did they need it, where do they come from…?

A “must have” user experience.  Perfect.  That’s exactly what you need to be striving for and what customer discovery is all about.  He lists of a few questions that need to be asked about the target user.  I can think of hundreds more which need to be written down and answered through interviews, user testing and the customer validation process.

The goal = listen to the positive reinforcements from customers, follow where they are leading and create the best product possible.  All the while not listening to all the negative feedback and not building X, Y and Z feature just because one random customer emailed you and suggested you need to include it.

Be wise my friends.

The Value of Youth Sports In Startup Founder Success

A few recent conversations have turned towards youth sports participation and the valuable life lessons they provide.  One in particular stood out to me – youth sports participation is one of the best training grounds for a startup founder.

How would I know?  I was a competitive athlete pretty much since the time I could run, competed up until college and still remain athletic and competitive today.

soccer1Although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, as I was playing youth soccer, basketball and baseball I was adequately preparing myself for a life long battle in the business world.  Learning to cope with immense challenge and competition is paramount to a person’s ability to achieve success.

I am so grateful for the experience and for my parents not forcing me into any specific activity, but rather allowing me to participate in a number of sports so that I could further develop my athletic ability, maximize my leadership skills and mature enough to determine which sport I more fully wanted to pursue.

It turned out it was Soccer, and it’s crazy to think back and imagine me as an 8 year old running around in a grassy field on an early Saturday morning thinking I’m just having fun when in actuality I was taking in and absorbing lessons which would help me in my life 20, 30 and 40 years down the line.

Below are just a few ways youth sports help develop a young energetic child into a strong willed startup founder.  I thank John Cook of GeekWire for the conversation that sparked these thoughts.

Teamwork

One of the first things you learn as a young athlete is how to play as a team and how to become the best teammate possible.  No soccer team can win with one person trying to play alone – teams must be able to depend on their offensive players, their defensive players and ultimately their goalie to perform to their best ability.  Players must be willing to step up and take the shot, yet at the same time be able to support and assist their other teammates if the organization is going to function properly.  This requires youth to understand which is which, and the appropriate timing of each decision.

Companies are the same way, they aren’t built by one person. Startup teams must be well rounded, supportive and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve success – for all members of the team.  That, or the team won’t exist.

Leadership

Even at the earliest of ages sports teams will vote on a player to become captain, basically naming the leader of the team.  I believe this is the single best thing we (should continue to) do for our youth.  Captains are usually the more talented of players, have wide ranging experience and are outgoing and not shy in their ways with others.  But most importantly they are willing to take on responsibility.  They must lead the team, delegate when appropriate and stand up for a teammate if something goes wrong.

I believe giving responsibility as early as possible is one of the best ways to develop great leaders.

Imagine the lessons a 10 year old is learning as they lead their team during youth competition.  He/she is learning the basic tenants of team leadership, things they can apply to almost any endeavor.  In short, they are the on-field CEO and the success or failure of the team will rest (at least somewhat) on their young shoulders.

I cover startup leadership quite a bit so if you are a regular reader you will know my basic thoughts on the subject.  Simply put, startup CEO’s need to take full responsibility for their organization from day one.  They must wear the captain’s band on their sleeve in plain view so everyone knows where the buck stops.  This is not for their ego; it’s for efficient and effective organizational structure.  Why should an employee ask 3 people a question when really they should go directly to the decision maker to get the best and quickest response?  If employees in a startup don’t know who the decision maker actually is, whatever startup they are a part of ain’t gonna be around very long.

Failing

I get it, losing is not why we play the game.   Go visit a sports park on a weekend and watch how kids react to losing nowadays.  Yet losing in sports – just as in life – happens.  It actually happens a lot.  Learning to fail gracefully is a huge lesson any person, especially for someone thinking about starting their own company.

Why am I telling you failing is good for children?  Failing, maybe even getting injured  in the process, and then getting back up and trying again shows young athletes that if you do not quit then each new day is a new opportunity to win.  Losing teaches children not everything in life is guaranteed.  In fact, it teaches us more often than not things will not go as originally planned.  Sometimes shit hits the fan and you need to retreat and regroup to determine your next move.  There’s your basic “strategic thinking” lesson in action, a skill founders must employ A LOT.  Losing teaches youth hard work is required to experience success against your competitors.

This is essentially the experience of any early stage founder.  Startups fail most of the time.  Using lessons from our youth we can realize we just need to get back up and try it again, and hopefully we learn something in the process.

Enduring Hard Work

Finally, part of learning from failing is gaining the endurance to last long enough so we can experience success.  I distinctly remember our training sessions during soccer season.  They sucked.  Even if we weren’t going to be the best in the state of Washington (which we were 3 out of 4 years) we were definitely going to be the most in shape.  Coach made it very clear we would be the team with the best endurance around.

So we ran.  A lot.  We ran until we dropped, and then we ran some more.  We learned to embrace hard work and earn our success.  We learned anything worth winning was worth enduring tough challenges and the hardest of practices.  It was our standard and we embraced it wholeheartedly.  We spoke it.  We lived it.  We practiced it and we played it.  No wonder we won the state championship 3 out of 4 years I was on the team.  It was in our our DNA and our blood.

Startup founders need to take ownership of their future.  They simply need to determine where they are going, commit to a standard and uphold it no matter the cost.  They need to bleed confidence to the point where their success is inevitable.  They need to work harder than their competition.  This doesn’t mean work the most hours as humanly possible, that would be as dumb as our soccer coach running us until we all pulled hamstrings, eliminating us from competition completely.  Startups must figure out how to work harder but also work smarter.   Determining and following quality performance standards will do wonders to founders and their startup teams.

Youth sports are fun but they are also incredibly valuable to our society.  If you are a parent I would encourage you to place your children in a positive environment where they can develop leadership and success skills as early as possible.

Just like you.

Although Tempting, Raising Too Much Money Is Not A Good Idea

A 21 year old Stanford grad recently raised $25 million before even launching his payments company.  It was said to be the largest seed round of funding in Silicon Valley history.

This, for him and his other founders, was a terrible mistake. Before I go into the reasons why let’s talk in broader strokes about what the first early years of growth of a company should be.

Initially, you have an idea (a hypothesis) and you sketch it out on a napkin.  You then determine who else you need on your team – go recruit them – and establish the founding group of 3 or 4 people.  After that, you build a prototype as quick as possible and you get it into customers or users hands.  Once released, you observe the usage, gauge what’s working and what’s not, keep what’s working and toss what’s not and iterate as quick as possible.

All the while, you keep your team small, lean and working efficiently running like hell and trying to keep the wheels on the car.

All this could take anywhere between 6 months and 2 years – maybe longer – but it’s the most important time in the company’s history because this is where you are testing things to find the “secret sauce” and how repeatable it can be.  Before leaving this phase you should experience a massive uptick in growth, proving you actually have something worth investing in.  That, or the reality is you just have an idea but you don’t have anything people will use/buy yet.

I explain this because it is not how Clinkle’s, the startup I mention above, story unfolds.  From my understanding – and I don’t have all the facts for sure – is they have been working on this concept for some capacity for almost 2 years, already have roughly 50 employees and just raised $25 million all the while with no product launched.

The crazy thing is the list of investors is star-studded; they are A list investors who have backed many other successful technology companies.  I don’t blame Clinkle for being naive and short sighted when you have these types of people begging you to take their money.

But the reality is they just signed their companies life over to the devil.

The devil?  Yes, they have entered startup hell.

At this point, some simple math and logic can explain. By taking $25 million this early, they just lost all leverage with investors.  They also just put the horse before the cart. When raising money at an early stage, a startup generally gives away anywhere between 20 – 40% of their company.  So, if they raised $25 million and gave away 25% of the company, it’s fair to say this unlaunched company is valued at $100 million post money.

You read that right – $100 million valuation for a startup that hasn’t even put out a product.  This is absurd and it’s a terrible situation for any founder to put themselves in.

You might say that’s too high.  Okay, so maybe it is but given this much invested this early, I have a hard time seeing investors with less than that amount so it’s fair to see the investors share 20% on the low end.

Also, it now raises the exit question.  Given such high investment it now means Clinkle will have to exit for north of $100 million to simply not lose any investor money.  More likely, a $200 or $300m exit would be needed for VC economics to work.  This is not an easy task at all.  A nice $50 million acquisition will now be seen as utter failure.  You don’t think investors wouldn’t block an acquisition offer to sell at a decent price, because it would be bad for their return?

Another thing to consider, down rounds.  Raising this much money and allowing for at least some sort of valuation on the company (even if it was completed using convertible notes there still is an implied valuation) now sets the bar for future fundraising.  Basically, Clinkle just did the equivalent of making their first skydive the Felix Baumgardner Skydive from space.  It’s a bit difficult to repeat this feat.

More to the point, if Clinkle stumbles at all with during their first $25 million and they don’t have out of this world user adoption, they will be facing a down round of funding – meaning they will need to raise another round of funding at a lower company valuation than the previous raise.  The result strips out founders ownership and gravely demotivates the entire team.

Look, I have no idea if Clinkle will be successful or not, they might end up the new Paypal or Square for all we know.  But make no mistake, these are very important founder lessons for a few reasons.

Founders’ best asset is time, in the sense that if they can buy themselves more time to figure stuff out they generally do figure it out.  They key is to figure it out while still retaining the highest percentage of your company possible.  But when you raise $25 million right out of the gate you are not afforded that luxury.  Investors will rake you over the coals if you slip up and not perform.  The problem is Clinkle has no idea how the market will adapt and adopt their product.  That’s what raising a smaller seed round over the first few years and growing naturally affords.

Secondly, the press will kill you if you come out of the gate doing something like this.  Do you want to be known as the next Color (who basically did the same thing) for the entire history of the company?  People love to find the next thing or person to pick on, and as a founder it’s not smart to bring this unwanted attention to your already stressful life.

The lesson here is – mo money, mo problems.  If you raise money at all you should raise enough for money for what you need for the next 12-18 months and be strong enough to say no to investors who don’t have your best interests in mind.

That, or sign your company over to the devil.

Why We Play This Crazy Game Of Poker

poker chips2

Startups are all about risk.

Taking risk is healthy, if not required, for any successful outcome – be it business or in life. Yet not understanding the risks you are taking (or choosing not to take) is the easiest way to find yourself out of money, out of business and out of a life.
PandoDaily ran a few great pieces recently regarding risk. A few things jumped out at me as I read them (and if you have time please read them yourself, super valuable stuff here).

 

The first one talked about the Three Main Risks you encounter as you start a company. Those included:

1) Category risk: Is your market large, valuable, and growing?

2) Competitive risk: Are you about to be disrupted?

3) Execution risk: Can you produce legendary results every quarter?

Although all are valuable, I believe the 3rd one is the most important since ideas are a dime a dozen and quality execution means everything. Of course you must start by picking a large, valuable and growing market. You can even take the most competitive angle on the market, and choose to be the innovator/disruptor rather than the traditional business that gets disrupted.

But if you cannot deliver legendary results each and every quarter, you risk losing the war. My thoughts on execution will be left to another post but suffice it to say executing on your idea makes all the difference.

These three thoughts are very important perspectives to take as you set out on your next adventure, and should’t be taken lightly. I would encourage any founder who finds themselves at the starting line of their entrepreneurial journey to take those three points and write at least one page on each point, detailing how you are exceeding what is required to become a great company in today’s markets.

But I want to bring to light another risk you might not even be aware of – The risk not taken. Or better said, how you view your decision to be an entrepreneur in the first place is worth a deeper look.

Andy Dunn, co-founder of mens online clothing retailer Bonobos, penned an incredible post on taking risk, and the possibility of the risk not taken. I cannot do justice here so just go ahead and click the link and take it all in. Good read…

But it gave me pause. It made me thank God I have chosen this life, for better or for worse. I feel at the end of my life I will be incredibly thankful of the lessons, people, relationships, experiences, money and memories this journey will have provided me.

Each and everyday we are presented with decisions, some small and some large. The crazy thing is at the time we probably don’t realize how imminent these decisions will be on our lives, we are usually so distracted and stressed we pretty much look at the immediate consequences of the choice at hand – make it – and go forward with our life.

Yet, as we all know, consequences can have long lasting effects on our life. Simply by punting – not taking the riskier decision – we are holding ourselves back from fully experiencing the world.

Andy talks openly about his struggles during his entrepreneurial journey. I love it because I’ve been there too! He mentions a time where he realized in the middle of a first date the restaurant where they were dining only took cash. Being a founder living pretty much on credit he basically didn’t have ANY cash – he even went to the cash machine during the dinner only to have the machine deny him any money – so he couldn’t pay for the meal. Talk about the worst feeling in the world, especially for a man.

Outside of those crazy broke stories, Andy dives into why we choose to put ourselves through such difficult circumstances, choosing to take risks, ones that probably seem somewhat unnecessary at the time.

The risk is not in doing something that feels risky. The risk is in not doing something that feels risky.

Very little is obvious in the research on human decision-making and happiness. Very few things are proven. One thing that is proven is this: the only regrets octogenarians have are for the risks not taken.

Here’s why: If the risk taken does pan out, it is good. But if it doesn’t — and here’s the key thing — we find a way to justify the failed risk taken as learning.

So true.

So here we have probably the best breakdown of why entrepreneurs CANNOT NOT take risks. I always found it funny people loosely refer to entrepreneurship as a disease. I think this gets to the bone of why people have been saying such a thing. We are addicted to 1) winning and 2) learning. And either way, being an entrepreneur we will succeed in our journey. We will either win big – financial, social, societal – or we’ll learn a hell of a lot in the process.

That is why we play this game. That is why we bet our stack of chips on our future, because we simply cannot NOT see what happens and learn from the experience.

You can learn more about business, people and life in general in 4 years of a startup than from any university in the world.

That is why it’s so addicting. That’s why we pull up our chair and are willing to place our next bet, because you never know what card will be flipped next.

I would rather ante up to see, wouldn’t you?

Bringing Health And Wellness Back Into Daily Focus For The Startup Founder

It ain’t no secret, startups will consume ALL of you.

As any founder can attest, you have no time to spare when you are starting a company.  You have no time for hobbies.  No time for friends.  Little to no time for family.

And definitely no time for your health.

Things start spinning so fast it’s very easy to add the “Founder 40″ as former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason put it, simply by not paying attention to what you are or aren’t doing and what you are or aren’t eating.

That’s why I recently stepped back to evaluate my life and get my health and fitness back on track.  I realized I was starting to get soft in areas I have never been soft and lazy in ways I never have been lazy.

Given, I have paid at least small attention to my wellness since founding Seconds and in fact didn’t put on the Founder 40, so I am glad to say I am not overweight or out of shape.  I have been lucky to have kept up with a minimal exercise routine and stayed fairly consistent.

But what I did do was probably what most of you have let happen – I started to pay less attention to what I ate, how I ate it, what I drank and how often I drank it.  I started to notice how often we would include beers in our company meetings (all 4 of us) and how waiting 8 hours before I ate again would make me so hungry I would then stuff my face with a huge meal only to feel really full immediately afterwards.

(pro tip, feeling really full is not a good sign of healthy eating.)

I write this because I know most of you deep down are thinking the same thing, maybe even more desperately than I am.  All of us want to improve our health and wellbeing, and knowingly we would make the right choices if we knew how simple they really are.

Here’s a short list of things that I realized I needed to get back into my life.  The key to all of them is how I committed to them just as I would commit to showing up for a new job at 9am everyday if that is what they expected.

It really is that simple.

fruitCleansing

I just finished a 10 day herbal cleansing, the first one I have ever done.  To my surprise, it feels great and wasn’t bad at all.  The cleanse consisted of a fIber drink and multitudes of vitamins and minerals through the day and herbal cleanse pills at night.

In the end, it was a reset of my entire digestive and limbic system, and it’s amazing how I feel my body is a lot more efficient in how it’s processing the foods I eat.

I highly recommend doing a cleanse once every few months.

Eat more, smaller nutritious meals each day

I have re-committed to eating more nutritious and that means eating more meals throughout the day, with each meal being smaller in portions.  Eating better is simply a decision and then an act of commitment to keep that decision.  Once you have established the habit, it’s reinforcing each time you make the right decision to eat well, instead of grabbing a quick bite of crappy and unhealthy food.

I have learned to love fruits and veggies, I make sure I at least have a banana, orange, and apple each day, more if possible.  I drink meal replacement shakes and make sure I have a protein rich snack between meals.  During meals, I am aware of the nutritional value of the food I am eating, making sure I have a protein base (chicken, fish, beans, eggs, etc…) and then add a fruit and vegetable with it.  I also make sure I finish my meal feeling satisfied but not full.  This is key to not overeating and saving on caloric intake, which in the end will result in a trimmed body from weight loss.

Also, drink water.  A lot of it.  More than you think you need.  It’s the wonder drug of life, as hydration makes all other processes work more efficiently.

Simply put, I actually think about the food I put in my body and that makes all the difference.

Don’t drink as much

Drinking seems to be just part of the startup experience.  Every week there are a number of events going on in the startup community where free beer and wine are offered to meetup attendees.  Who can say no to that!

I realized I was drinking quite a bit of beer each week, and heavy beer at that.  I am not a “light” beer drinker either, I enjoy a strong well made Amber or darker beer with more hoppy taste.  And along with the hops come calories, which if you are not careful will start to add up week upon week.

Think about the affect this can have on weight gain – one beer roughly equals 100 calories.  A pound of body fat equals 3,500 calories.  Without even thinking about it, drinking 5 beers is another 500 calories in your system.  Conservatively,  if all you did was drink 5 extra beers each week you will put on almost 10 pounds each year.  Work on a startup for 4 years and you now see how easy it is to put on the Founder 40.

Keeping an eye on your alcohol consumption – amongst many other positive benefits – will help keep the LB’s off.

nike-shoesExercise every other day

Founders are notorious for having little time for anything else in their life besides working on their startup.  Yet counterintuitively, committing to an exercise routine of every other day actually makes you a A LOT more energetic and productive, giving you the feeling of creating more time in your day.

The cool thing is it doesn’t have to be a 2-hour workout every day.  As little as 20-30 minutes, every other day, will do tremendous improvements to your fitness.  I go on a 3 or 4 mile run and do about 15 minutes of strength training every other day and I feel great.

Honestly, I feel like 23 as I approach my 33rd birthday this summer.  Trust me, do whatever you can to get activity 3 or 4 days a week and you will be shocked at what happens to your life.

Walk whenever possible

In addition to working out every other day, I now pay very close attention to getting out and walking to meetings around downtown Seattle.  Yes, I need to leave a little bit earlier for the meeting but it pays off in the end.  It reinforces my active lifestyle, it gives me fresh air, it keeps the metabolism up and burns energy throughout the day.

Get up from my work station at least once per hour

Similar to walking to meetings, it has been proven sitting for long periods of time is very unhealthy.  It’s bad for our posture, bad for joints, bad for our circulatory system, bad for our digestive system and just downright not good for the body.

Making a habit to get up and do a lap, going to the bathroom, talking to another co-worker or whatever you want to do will keep you limber, awake and give you an edge health wise.

To me, it also allows to break up the monotony of the sitting workday.

To all those who say “I need to concentrate on coding or designs” I urge you to simply stand up at your desk, stretch and do some work on your feet for a while.  Also, you will find taking frequent breaks will keep you sharp, alert and might even help you with your work!

Pay attention to how I look and feel

Finally, all this has helped me pay a little more attention to how look and how I feel.  That’s not a bad thing!  We are told to not care about ourselves and not be so self centered about looks and things like that, which in some ways has its logic.

I agree, to an extent.  No need to overindulge in yourself.

But to barrow a dev term, we only build what we measure.  So if you are paying attention to your health and wellbeing, you will start to notice things about it you want to change.  Once you identify what needs to be changed, only then can you start down the process of changing it.  If you don’t pay attention, obviously nothing will happen.  So paying more attention to how you look, dress, how you feel climbing stairs and walking long distances will go a long way to help you become a healthier and more fit individual.

These simple things have really influenced me and my health recently, and I guarantee they will make positive changes in your life too.  All you need to do is make a few small but significant commitments in your daily life.

Seconds Highlighted on Started In Seattle, And Discuss How To Get Noticed

We were highlighted on Started in Seattle yesterday.  Started in Seattle is a a new site where Stephen Medawar and Chet Kittleson profile startup that were actually started in Seattle.  (Stephen made the distinction that it not just companies that reside in Seattle, but you actually have to have started in Seattle.)

Here’s our profile.

It’s a cool new idea and I was honored to do a short interview with Stephen, where he asked a few questions about how to get noticed in a very busy and competitive market.

How Do You Meet Other Cool and Smart People In The Startup Community?

coffeeI was at an event last night and started talking to a person who was younger and newer to the startup community.  During our conversation he asked something that slightly caught me off guard, given his current job at a fairly well known tech resource here in Seattle.

“How do I meet more cool and smart founders and engineers around Seattle?  I mean, what do you do?”

Although he is young – about a year out of college and just getting his feet wet in the professional world – I was still taken aback.  It struck me as odd that someone wouldn’t know where to go and where to look to meet other entrepreneurs.

But then I realized it might not be as obvious to others as it is to me.  I’m a bit more social than most and have had the opportunity to get tied into the Seattle startup community over the course of the last few years.

So if you find yourself asking the same question this person did, here’s a few ideas on how to meet more people doing cool stuff in your community.

Go to a lot of events

It may seem obvious but going to local startup events is one of the best ways to meet new people.  The only drawback is you have to get over the awkwardness of being around a lot of people you really don’t know and looking around to find someone to talk to.  There’s no point in taking the time and energy to go to an event and just sitting on the side by yourself waiting for someone to come talk to you.

Just bite the bullet, find someone in the crowd who is not mid sentence in another conversation, put out your hand, introduce yourself and start the conversation.  BUT remember – only stay in conversation with one person for 5 or 10 minutes before gracefully wrapping it up, grabbing a card if you want and moving on.  No one likes to be cornered by a stranger for an hour.

Go to Hackathons and specific meetups

Hackathons, by their very nature, attract smart and talented people.  If you want to find the people who are hacking away on the newest ideas, you need to start going to local hackathons.  By the end of the first night you will have found a new team to help  build something new and in the process make a handful of new friends.  

Also, seek out a few meetups that fit your interests and just show up.  There are groups meeting in your city on almost anything imaginable.   If you can’t find something that interests you – start one!

Ask your close friends for introductions

Asking the people you already know to introduce you to someone they think is smart and would be a great connection is another way to expand your network.  It’s best if you identify the person you want to meet and specify the reason for meeting them, it makes their intro a lot easier.  One thing to remember on intro’s:  The person doing the introduction is putting their reputation on the line when they introduce you – so make sure you follow through and act professional.   If not, it looks bad on you as well as the  person who connected you.

5o coffee dates

Mark Suster wrote a while back about committing to 50 coffee meetings in a year.  While extreme, the point is clear – committing to having coffee with others in your community will lead to introductions and opportunities you never would have thought were available to you.  So next time you are out at an event or meetup, simply ask the person you are talking to if they can meet for 30 minute coffee next week.  At the end of the coffee meeting, ask the person who they would recommend you meet next.  It works…

Start writing

When I started blogging and guest posting on other media outlets, it opened up another channel for people to reach out and connect with me.  In fact, that is how I founded Seconds (actually, my cofounder read an article I wrote on GeekWire and he cold emailed me to ask if we can meet for coffee – see how it works!)  Putting your thoughts and words on screen and publishing them out into the world allows others to “virtually” get to know you and how you see the world.  On your blog, make it easy for others to connect with you, via Twitter, Facebook or email.  Trust me, it does wonders for your future.

So there you have it.  Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and get noticed.  Go to events.  Put out your hand.  Say something.  Write something.  And for god sakes book some meetings!

Here’s My New ‘Current Projects’ Page, So Y’all Can Keep Tabs On Me

I am noticing a trend forming in my life.

I’ve been more open to starting a few new projects lately and so I decided to update this blog and create a spot where you can go to at any point in time and check out what I am working on.  You can find the link at the top right of the header menu bar on this blog.

Current Project page.

Below you can see a snippet of things I am up to right now.  More will probably come soon but this is what is happening at this point in time in my life.  Given the fact I am currently also doing some outside contract work for other companies, I am only listing the projects/companies I have founder or equity stake in.

Enjoy.

And reach out to me if you are interested in partnering or getting involved with any of them.

Current Projects

Seconds logo

Seconds is a payment system allowing you to swiftly complete transactions via the desktop web, mobile web or text message. It shouldn’t matter what method you use, the payment experience should be as quick, simple and intuitive as sending a text message.  Realizing how important ongoing relationships are between customers and merchants, and also realizing the main point of entry into our world is now through our mobile device, we see an incredible opportunity.

 

Callin'it logo 2

Callin’it is a mobile web based real-time sports prediction and data analysis platform.  Using Callin’it, people are able to test and share their sports knowledge by publically predicting – or calling – stats, plays or outcomes of an upcoming sporting event.  For instance, right now I am calling the Miami heat will have more rebounds than the Chicago Bulls in tonight’s game.  Using real time sports data, we then compare the specific call with the actual result to build out a score for each user based on the accuracy and difficulty of their calls.  If Twitter and the ‘SAT’s for sports’ had a baby, Callin’it would be their lovechild…

 

Founders Raw logo2

Founders Raw is my newest project, a video blog with conversation style interviews focused on bringing out  raw stories early stage founders experience in their rough and tumble entrepreneurial journeys.  I invite founders to talk openly over a beer or a coffee about the “truth” of how they survive and grow their companies.  We intend on slicing up the conversations and sending out daily videos no more than 3 or 4 minutes long so we all can receive daily nuggets of the entrepreneurial truth.

 

Published Books

The Agony and Ecstasy of Entrepreneurship

The Agony and Ecstasy of Entrepreneurship has been adapted from this blog, So Entrepreneurial, and placed into book format.  They are my thoughts and musings on all things entrepreneurial, meant to help you understand what it takes and how to think like an entrepreneur in today’s world.  Far from perfect and by no means the only way to go about the journey, they represent my lessons taken straight from the trenches.  Since my thoughts originated as blog posts it’s best to take them piecemeal, maybe even digesting just a few topics each day. You will find my main perspectives are around mobile, digital and internet technologies but the principles can be applied to any other entrepreneurial focus.

You Are Never “Too Good To Step Aside” As CEO

Sometimes your ego will write checks your body can’t cash.

This is so true for the startup founder who chooses the role of CEO in his own company.

I thought of it recently as I read a great post by Jonathan Strauss, former CEO and founder of awe.sm, about stepping down from the founder/CEO role after 4 years.  In it, he very honestly describes his feelings on the decision and what ultimately brought him to remove himself from the leadership role.

Jonathan aptly describes entrepreneurship:

To be an entrepreneur I believe one must have a somewhat irrational belief in your own capabilities, otherwise you’d never be dumb enough to start a company. Regardless of any perceived glamor, most entrepreneurs I know will tell you that starting and running a company is fucking hard and there’s often more misery than joy.

He. Nails. It. On. The. Head.

If you are a frequent reader you will know this description of entrepreneurship can be found here on this blog as well.  No doubt, founding a company is one of the most difficult and emotionally taxing things in the world.  It’s a wonder company creation is actually on the rise when you read statements like these.

Jonathan goes further on why it was so hard to remove himself:

I put hiring a CEO in the same category as taking an acqui-hire or just closing up shop and moving on — things I would think about at 4am in the office on those darkest nights when I’d have a bout of sobriety about the insanity I’d turned my life into. And ultimately, things that represented the one unacceptable option motivating me to push even further beyond my limits I’d long surpassed: failure. In the early days, the only way for me to keep awe.sm from failing was to tie my fate with the company’s. If awe.sm failed, I failed. But as we switched from lean startup to growth company, I didn’t fully realize how making my ego a shareholder went from being necessary for survival to being a limitation on what we could achieve.

One of the toughest “checks” to cash as a founder is to think you are the sole reason for company success or failure.  Notice how Jonathan admits he attached himself and his fate with the fate of the company.  It is indeed one of the inherent flaws of us founders.

I commend Jonathan for his decision but I am also not letting the lesson pass me by, and you shouldn’t either.  The ego issue is very dangerous for both of you and your company.

Founders need to have a healthy balance of ego.  On one side you need to have an almost superhuman confidence about yourself and your vision because that is the only way you can get thorough the really tough times of starting the journey.  But – and THIS IS A BIG BUT – you also need to understand you are not Superman and the company can actually succeed with someone else at the helm.  You aren’t the only person on earth who can identify a market, describe a vision, build a team, sell customers and increase monthly revenue.  Other people can do that too.  And even with you still on the team.

More importantly, others might be able to do it all better than you.

So, take Jonathan’s example and learn from it.  Sometimes removing yourself from the most scrutinized and stressful position in the company is the best decision for everyone involved.

Even you.

When Your Startup Feels Less Like A Hockey Stick And More Like A Hip Check

We all love to talk about the hockey stick moment for a company, referring to the moment when users and usage really starts to take off.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  And  it’s so elusive we all want to dissect what the specific company actually did to achieve the stratospheric growth.

But what about the hip check?

What’s that you say?  Never heard of the startup hip check?  Well, take a look at the image below and I think you can get an idea of what I am talking about.

3HipCheckPretty scary huh.

This head-over-feet-over head-over-feet feeling can happen at any moment of a company founding experience.  Sometimes it happens within the first few months of a new idea as the honeymoon wears off and founders realize the pieces don’t fit and they don’t have a starters chance of even putting something together.  Other times (like mine) you get up and running – even get some initial customer wins under your belt – and then it hits you when you least expect it.

BAM – “what the hell was that!?”

In any regard, getting hip checked throws you and your company completely off your feet and off course.  There is a good chance an injury has occurred and you may never recover.  It feels like what I imagine the hockey player above must have felt as he was brutally checked right onto his a**.

And you know what?  It happens to EVERYBODY.  All athletes.  All entrepreneurs.  everybody.

So what do you do once you shake the cobwebs out of your head and realize you just got taken to town?

Pause

Simply pausing and taking account of your status is the first thing you should to do.  At this moment do not let tempers or emotions get the best of you.  Athletes ask themselves questions like: Do I have all my limbs?  Are my legs situated in the right direction?  (Anyone watching this years NCAA basketball March Madness tournemant will know know you should now check all your limbs after a bad fall.)

Rather than get emotional and retaliate, athletes need to assess why it happened.   Was I too slow?  Did I make the wrong move?  Was he just flat out better than me?

Entrepreneurs need to ask similar questions:  Why did that just happen?  What did we miss?  And what is our financial status, how much money do we have in the bank?  What do the others on the team think and feel about our situation?  Are they hurt and need to go recover, or can they keep at it?  Also, who else knows we just got hip checked?  Was it reported in the media and did we take a PR hit?

Through these questions you will determine if the company can and should continue, or if indeed it’s best to step off the ice.

RICE

Rest.  Ice.  Compression.  Elevate.

My education taught me RICE was the simplest injury treatment protocol, basically placing it in a state of limited movement and maximum preservation.  Same for a startup.  If continuation of the company is desired, I am suggesting taking a similar approach with your startup.   You have to stop the bleeding (financially) and start the healing process (working) as quick as possible.  If needed, go get a paid gig as quick as you can so cash starts flowing into the bank once again.  I waited way too long on this one and can tell you it wasn’t pretty.  Cash really does solve many problems and helps to open back up the creative process since a huge pressure valve is released.

Open the communication lines with your team, have long discussions about why the hip check happened so you can start the healing process.  Through these discussions the weaknesses will be revealed and the ways forward will emerge.

Elevate yourself.  A strange (albeit predictable) thing happens when founders get hip checked – depression.  Since it takes a certain chutzpah to start a company, namely audaciousness and ego, I have noticed those also work against the entrepreneur once they find themselves face first on the ice.  Of course this isn’t what you expected as you started out and most definitely how you didn’t want others to see you.

But there you are.

You must get up.  You must inflate that ego (figuratively speaking) back to where it was before, when you believed in yourself and your team.  A positive and forward looking perspective is the only way to recover from the hip check.

Skate Again

If you watch a hockey game it doesn’t take very long to notice how often hits and checks happen to all players.  And you know what?  They get back up and shake it off.  They try again.  It’s quite the same in the startup world.  Everyday, founders are getting hip checked to founder hell and back.  Yet, the ones we end up reading about are the ones who got back up and tried again.

Elon Musk has probably been checked more than most other successful entrepreneurs out there.  Did you know there was a time he was literally broke as he was building Tesla and SpaceX?   At one point he put the last of his millions he had made previously into his companies so they wouldn’t go under – personally financing them and risking everything he had worked for  – and then lived off loans from his other millionaire friends.

Yes, and now people say he has it too good as a billionaire and CEO of two incredibly innovative technology companies.

Hmm, well there’s a reason Musk refers to founding a company as “it’s like eating shards of glass and staring into the abyss of death.”

Because it’s true.

I simply say: Just get up and keep skating.

Earth To USA Today and JP Morgan – There Are More Startups Today Than Ever Before

A recent column in the U.S.A Today makes the bold claim that there are less startups today than compared to the 1980’s, during the Carter administration.

The rationale:

At any rate, the latest data indicate that start-ups are becoming rarer, not more common. A new report from JPMorgan economist Mike Feroli indicates that employment in start-ups is plunging. New jobs in the economy tend to come from new businesses, but we’re getting fewer new businesses. 

I am going to guess Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a professor and the author of the post, is not an entrepreneur and has never been one.  If he was one he would know basing innovation metrics and the quantity of “startups” solely on the amount of people they employ is an incredibly flawed argument.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 8.00.44 PM

Diving deeper into the JP Morgan study, they lay claim to a few reasons on why we are seeing an apparent slow down in startups:

Hudson’s possible suspects for the slowdown: a) higher business taxes, b) Obamacare, c) an IRS crackdown on US employers that hire U.S. workers as independent contractors rather than employees, and d) a steady barrier erected to entrepreneurs at the local policy level.

But whatever the cause of the entrepreneurial decline, two possible impacts: 1) A less productive and innovative economy, and 2) higher profits for big business thanks to fewer upstart competitors on the horizon.

Here are a few observations on why I feel this assessment is off the mark:

1) Assuming Obamacare is a factor completely misses the point, since Obama wasn’t even in office when the decline in jobs started (see chart above).

2) Although a local policy issue may influence certain industries – since we’re talking the entire nation here it’s irrelevant to include local policies because they vary state to state.  I, for one, can tell you it’s quite easy to get going in your own new venture.

3) The IPO market really cooled off over the last decade, suggesting a rise in mergers and acquisitions.  Simply stated, startups are being bought by bigger companies before they beef up their workforce, which also will affect overall startup employment numbers.

4)  If anything, they miss the most obvious reason why people would choose employment at a larger corporation rather than a startup: job security and dependable paycheck in a shaky economy.   Although this also doesn’t apply since the economy didn’t tank until late 2008 and beyond, so again, not a very high correlation.

5) The largest omission in this report can be seen by evaluating technological progress and the resulting drop in computing costs.  Comparing the chart from the JP Morgan article and a graph of Moore’s Law (which is exponential) you now realize using a simple number like the number of employees of startups is probably the wrong approach when determining the current status of innovation.  Moore’s Law states the computing power is increasing at the same time the cost is dropping.  So, it is easier to start a business than ever before. The cost of computing, virtual work environments, AWS, instant and free communication tools, and the proliferation of the web have coalesced to create a startup nirvana.  Looking at two charts from the same timeframe you will notice the stark drop in jobs at the same time a drastic increase in computing power?  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

So am I missing something here?

Maybe if they simply stated “startups are employing less people” I wouldn’t have a problem with the report.  But they didn’t.  They claim (in fact lead with) the idea that there are less startups and innovation than in the 80’s and 90’s, which I feel is wrong – or at least how they came to that conclusion is currently flawed.  They go on to make a few solid points regarding higher taxes and government regulation and how those influence an early venture hiring but lack any real depth for their argument.  Maybe they should have consulted an entrepreneur or two who could help them sift through the chaff a bit further.

Moore's Law of Computing Power

Moore’s Law of Computing Power

My take: it takes less people to achieve more today.  What once took a team of 10 to accomplish now only takes 2 or 3 people and a wifi connection.  So I am claiming the exact opposite of the USA Today and JP Morgan.  We are seeing more products, apps, and startups created today than ever before.  Ask any VC or startup founder and I guarantee they will say the same thing.

Hell, Instagram and their entire team of 12 employees was sold for almost $1 billion to Facebook in 2012.  So whatever you do, do not believe there is a lack of innovation and startups out there.  If anything, there’s more innovation and startups created each day than ever before because we can do more with less.

One just needs to look closer and use the right measuring stick.

To Change The World Solve A problem – Just Not “Your” Problem

As founders we’re generally told the best way to build a business is to solve a problem in the world.  Find a problem, create a solution and someone will pay you money for it.

Great, I think we can all agree with that.

Issues arise when you are advised to solve “your” problem, which I have noticed happens quite often.  And on the surface it makes sense – the easiest problems to find in the world are the one’s right in front of your face.  So we are told to look at our life and determine what needs to be fixed.  Next step, we go out and build our solution so our lives can be made better.  Then we think, “if I have this problem, then others must have it too!”  We dream about getting lucky, the moment others figure out they have this problem as well, and think we just might hit the home run and cash in on our new idea.

I started thinking about this the other day when I read or heard on video someone mentioning the fact that this is precisely why we have so many copycat startups around Silicon Valley.

Think about it (yes I am generalizing): pretty much everyone in the valley is of the same demographic and has mostly the same problems in their life.  It’s hard to argue we are in a relatively small bubble and can only see our own groups unique problems.  Simply put, we all have the same problems in our small little startup world.  That ‘s why we have so many founders trying to make an incrementally better photo sharing app, food ordering app (or input-any-cliche-mobile-app-example here).  We are too narrowly focused on what’s in our palms each day we don’t lift our heads towards the rest of the world and see what they are dealing with.  We all walk around with smartphones in our pockets and cannot stop thinking about how to make our lives 10% better with this new app, or that new website.  This is how we get 10 Pinterest’s and 50 Instagram-wannabes.

That’s all fine and dandy for the 1% in our bubble but what about the 99%?  What about the person that doesn’t have a smartphone or doesn’t want to think about being plugged in it 24/7/365?  The problem is we don’t know what all the problems are out there in the world because we aren’t really thinking about the rest of the world.

So how do we get away from all the copy cats and towards real world changing ideas?

We need to start solving problems, just not “our” problems.  We need to start talking to other people outside our network and our little bubble, maybe they aren’t as fortunate as us and still have challenges we aren’t aware of but could help solve.  We need to shut up and listen to what they are struggling with and then start thinking about how to bring a solution to them.

Real customer development happens when you have many conversations – hundreds or even thousands – and you find random people are all having the same problems but lack a viable solution.  That’s when you know you are onto something – not when you have a thought in the shower about this thing in your life that really needs to be fixed.

Uniqueness will come when you look outside of yourself and your little bubble and discover issues people not like you are dealing with.  If you have the problem as well, even better!

So If you really want to change the world, solve a problem.  Just don’t solve your problem because it’s probably not something the 99% aren’t even thinking about.

16 years to one million… 18 months to two million

Crowds of people gather on the mall to watch the swearing-in of U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington“It took us more than 16 years to get to one million paid households but just 18 months to double it.”

I read an article today that talked about how well Angie’s List did last quarter, posting impressive growth around users and revenues.  If you are not familiar, Angie’s List is a new age Yellow pages, a marketplace for service oriented local businesses.

One sentence caught my attention: “It took us more than 16 years to get to one million paid households but just 18 months to double it.”

How’s that for patience?  I had no idea Angie’s List  was even 16 years old.  More impressive, I haven’t heard of many companies where it took so long to reach a milestone like that.  Both are impressive feats of patience, persistence and obviously hard work.

But what’s fascinating is how quickly they reached 2 million paid accounts – just 18 months.

18 months vs 16 years.  Wow.

I’d be curious to know what they did to increase the paid user base so quickly.  Of course, a certain amount users will come from viral, word of mouth actions of existing users.  But, in the local space it can be more difficult to achieve viral growth.  It would be great to hear what has worked for them.

Never forget, the amount of work it might take to get to your first big milestone isn’t necessarily the amount required to reach the next milestone.  Just test a lot and keep doing what’s working and stop doing what isn’t.  Things do get easier and the system can start working for you once you reach a certain critical mass.

I have never really been a huge fan of Angie’s List, but I certainly have more respect for them now.

Fail. Learn. Live.

I failed.

Phew, there I said it.

Even though Silicon Valley and the startup culture in general celebrates failure and preaches  how founders shouldn’t hide behind their mistakes, it’s not an easy thing to admit or talk about.  Naturally, we tend to put our best face on in public and act like all is well even when it’s not.  And when it becomes too overwhelmingly difficult to face publicly, most run and hide and miss the opportunity to help others by addressing challenges openly and honestly.

Well, not me.  I believe in telling the truth and having an authentic discussion around the not so celebrated aspects of entrepreneurship.

Taking more than enough time to think about what I just experienced and how I should respond to it, I feel it’s time to talk openly about it hoping maybe I can help someone else be more open with their failures when their time comes.  Failure is hard to cope with no matter how strong you think you are and by opening up and examining the lessons that accompany failure we can all walk away better, not bitter.

“Just dust yourself off and try again.”

That is what you hear from others when you fail at something, like they know exactly what you are going through and how you feel.  “Yea, sure… thanks man, but you have no idea.”  That is my internal response.  If only life was that easy.

There’s no way another person understands the dynamics of a founder’s mental processes during the moment they realize it ain’t working.  I sure as hell hate to hear someone relate to my experience to something as simple as a kid tripping over a crack on the sidewalk during dodgeball at recess.  So much emotion, time, money and energy is wrapped into the entrepreneurial journey, especially when it turns out not as one expected or wanted.

Yet, during my time of reflection I have been able to separate the wheat from the chaff, come to understand some things are under our control and many things simply aren’t.  This is my attempt to dissect and relate back to the world some of the things I could have done differently.

I Failed.

The experiment failed.  Seconds, my mobile payments startup here in Seattle failed to attain a level of usage and customers to become sustainable.  What’s more, we failed to secure outside investment to capitalize our company for the near/mid term in order to grow into a sustainable company.  We simply came to the end of the runway (cash) and have now decided to navigate the next direction of the team and product.

To say I earned all the gray hairs I now have in the last 15 months would be an understatement.  I dealt with a cofounder and CTO of the company leaving 6 months in because he realized it was going to be tougher than he thought it would be, leaving me with a tech startup and no technical leader to write any code.

This sucked.  Since I had to spend most of my energy in finding the right replacement for this critical puzzle piece during the middle of 2012, we failed to gain any momentum in on-boarding more customers and making necessary product improvements.

I should be more proud in retrospect, I was able to find a new CTO and thus pulled the plane out of a downward spiral and at least leveled it off into a smoother glide.  But as a result of the slow glide we found ourselves in a foggy, hazy and scary place.  In nowhere land, we became a not-dead-but-not-really-living company.

A zombie startup, as they are now calling them.

I, as the CEO, take full responsibility for the outcome of Seconds.  Although not the person responsible for code and development, I was the person responsible for leading the team, driving the customer base and growing the operation.  I failed to uphold my end of the bargain and in the end the company’s fate went down with it.

I learned.

Given the fact we failed at growing Seconds into a successful mobile payments company, it’s important to remove the layers and find lessons applicable to my life and  future companies I will inevitably start or join.   Steve Blank says failed founders are actually “experienced founders”.  I agree to an extent.  More important is the ability to evaluate your failure, pick it apart and glean nuggets of wisdom to apply to your life.  That, or all is a waste.

Below are a few things I now realize in hindsight led to the demise of our experiment.

a) jumped to quick – I was recruited by one of my co-founders to join as the CEO in fall 2011.  I jumped too quickly into the company and within 2 weeks of meeting the team I was full time and ready to take on the world with people I had never met before.  I didn’t know their ups and downs.  Nor their gifts or their faults.  In retrospect, I am not sure this was the best decision and probably would have benefited from a longer deliberation and research of the team I was joining as well as the market we were attacking.

b) didn’t obsessively focus on customers – We didn’t focus enough time and energy outside the office talking to non-customers, potential customers and existing customers about their specific needs and how our product can help them.  Even more basic, although it’s easy to preach about lean startup methods and customer development principles, it’s quite another to get your ass out of the office and into uncomfortable conversations with people who will inevitably knock down your idea and hypothesis.   We didn’t validate the problem/solution clear enough.  Yet that is the only way to go from an erroneous hypothesis to a more valuable one; one which can then use to grow into a sustainable business model.

c) Underestimated fundraising – ha, I actually thought it would be easy to raise money.  Boy did I get that one wrong.  Investors are very strange creatures and at the end of the day they really can’t tell you why they invested in one company and passed on another.  It’s a tough nut to crack – especially for a first timer lacking glorified credentials like Stanford or Ivy League degrees or a past (successful) startup experience.

I figured we would lean on a quick seed round of funding for the first year or so and go from there.  I figured it would buy us some time to dial in the revenue model.  That wasn’t good enough.  Founders must figure out how to build a sustainable operation from day one (or until investment does finally hit the account) or they risk losing it all.  (read:  once you perfect your business model on a spreadsheet you actually have to execute on it and bring in a critical mass of ongoing revenue or the game is over before it starts. See b above.)

The “throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks” method does not work for early-stage, cash-strapped startups.  Got it?

d) didn’t recruit talent – I did not place enough value on recruiting and cultivating talent within our team and personal network.  I naively thought discovering dev talent was for the job of  a CTO/Lead Developer and I should not really put in the time and effort to find these people.  My bad.  Whether you are technical or not, it’s the CEO’s responsibility to reach across the isle and get to know as many talented and gifted engineers as he can.  Yes, a conversation for me is a lot smoother /easier with a non-technical person, but in the long run a network full of strong relationships with both technical and non-technical people will always be better than one or the other.

Easier said then done but team is most important.  You should never stop cultivating relationships and building your dream team, even if it’s just in your head at the moment.

e) emptied the tank – I allowed the tank to hit empty.  Empty of money.  Empty of belief.  Empty of customers.  Empty of options.  Empty of vision.  Empty of energy to keep going.  Empty of emotional strength and connection.   The determinist would say it ran its course and as the world turns… but in the end we just didn’t execute where we needed to so that we could keep (all) the tanks away from the fatalistic empty point.

There should always be another lever you can pull and pivot you can make to keep it going but… I let myself go first and once the leader’s tank is empty not much else can be done.

More lessons are in there for sure… a lot more.   But I cannot find the right words or analogies to make sense in my mind, let alone in this post so these five will do for now.  I am sure over the course of the next months/years I will hit upon another revelation and compose a nice piece for all to learn from.

Needless to say I learned a lot in the last year and a half.

Would I do anything differently starting over?  Of course I would.  If it were Sep 2011 all over again I can’t say I would.  It’s impossible.  Looking back, these lessons could only have taught me something by living them firsthand.  I am grateful of my experience and appreciate what it has taught me.

Failed entrepreneur = experienced entrepreneur.

I lived.

Here’s where it gets tough.  Recent coverage has detailed the fate of a few people in the startup community who – by all means looked great from the outside – but on the inside were tearing themselves apart due to massive stress they were facing in their personal/professional lives.  In the end they decided to take their own life rather than deal with their challenges.  I cannot (and will not) attempt to defend or attack their decisions, but I can only say I now understand.

I was both terrified and haunted when reading through and trying to understand what had happened.

I, too, have thought about it.  I have stood and thought about things I never imagined I would need to think about.  Not about ending it all, but about my place in the world and the value I bring to it.  I figure someone who follows through with an act such as ending one’s own life must feel as if there’s really not much to live for anymore – or else they wouldn’t have made the fatal decision.

The emotion of a failed startup is rooted in rejection.  None of us want to be rejected and we just want to be proud of what we have accomplished.  As the plane enters the downward spiral and you as the founder cannot gain control, things (shit) starts to hit the fan.

The scariest problem is how quickly it can turn into a downward spiral.

The fact that these people were driven to and ultimately succumbed to suicide are the true failings of entrepreneurship, the tech community and society in general.  If founders feel they truly have no more value to add simply because they didn’t live up to outside expectations and lost investor’s money, we are in big trouble.

And if it has anything to do with media coverage and the resulting negative shitstorm of outside comments we now face when our failure is publicly written about, we are in very big trouble.

Founding a company is one of the most emotional activities people will experience in their lives.  Most companies are extensions of their founders, everything from the code created to the core founding principles of the organization.  A founder’s greatest dream is to take an original thought and see it spread around the world, influencing millions if not billions.  When that doesn’t happen – your vision or idea doesn’t take off and start spreading around the world – you stubbornly start to question yourself and your value.

You also start to slide down a slippery psychological slope that might not have a (positive) end.  Once the slide starts, seemingly mundane daily occurrences start to pile up.  Problems arise in a founder’s mind when rejection becomes more than just a no.  To a rejected founder, an unreturned email from a potential partner becomes more than forgetfulness.  A no from a potential investor becomes a fatal rejection, such as a shove off a large cliff meant to kill an opponent.  A customer discontinuing their service is akin to a tribe shunning you from their tight knit society.

To an outside individual, these small insignificant acts are commonplace and normal during a business day.  But to a founder who is teetering on obscurity and rejection – they can indeed be the straw that breaks the camels back.

By all accounts I am homeless – I find myself sleeping on family/friends couches and spare rooms so I don’t have to deal with rent during this chunk of time.  I have been living on a few dollars per day and being really creative on staying alive.  I have no car or personal transportation, casualty of my decision to be an entrepreneur.  I have strained my family life to a place it has not been before.  I also have strained my financial position to a place it has never been before.

Truth be told, it’s a tough time right now.

But I’ll be alright.  As hard as it has been the last 6 months, I made the decision I was going to live through it.  I have committed to live through the toughest of times so whenever I do get back to normal I will be stronger and more humbled than before.  I decided that if I choose to end it now – to quit on life – they will have won.  All those people who say it’s impossible, snickering cowardly behind a twitter account or tolling comments on blog posts and news articles will have triumphed over us.  That would be the tragedy.

Life is worth more than the ignorant comments from cowardly people.

I remain committed to becoming a successful entrepreneurial story no matter how long it takes, even if it means I need to join another company in the near term.  Why?  Because the world needs more examples of people overcoming hardships.   Also because we don’t need more people driven to suicide purely because they feared what TechCrunch, PandoDaily, The Verge and Business Insider (and the idiotic cowardly commentors) were going to say once it was known they failed.

We’re better than that.

Fail.  Learn.  Live.

How A Biz Dev CEO Is Learning Design And UX On His Own

Biz dev founders get a bad rap in the startup community.  We are looked down upon by our more technical brethren, brushed off as amateurs and mostly considered non-essential to starting a company.

How do I know?  Because I am one and definitely sense the slightly negative vibes coming from my own community.

I guess they may have a point, besides the fact that someone on the team has to organize the legal formations, talk to investors, man the PR station, create the business and marketing plan (and execute those plans) at some point get customers/users/investors/advisors on board and generally keep the ship pointed in the right direction.  But I digress….

As a non-technical/biz dev founder, I do not possess any of the technical chops engineers see as essential to building a product.  Yet this has not affected me one bit.  Outside of handling all the responsibilities listed above, I noticed myself wanting to be hands on with the products I build from day one.

So if I can’t code, what I am doing?

ui-paradeI am focusing on the user experience and the look and feel of the app, more often referred to as Design and UX.  I tend to have a lot of the ideas about what our products do and how they should function from the end user’s point of view, so that is where I stay when we are building it.  I make sure I keep at least one foot planted in the average-Joe-end-consumer’s-shoes to make sure the final product will make sense and appeal to those people.  (This is due to the fact our target market is consumer oriented and we are building consumer products).  The lesson here is make sure at least someone on the team is entirely focused on how the target market will see and experience the product.

If you are the non-technical founder I feel it is your responsibility to holistically own the product from start to finish.

Most likely you are the CEO, or the leader of the team, and with that responsibility comes knowledge and understanding of all sides of the project.  Knowing you cannot get your hands dirty in code, you need to be on top of other areas of building the app, namely design and user experience.  You will not be laser focused on one thing in the project like front-end or back-end developers, but will be focusing on the entire process and how all areas of the application are coming together from the outside-in.

How does the interface look and feel?  What happens when I tap this button?  Would this action make sense to the average user as opposed to a technical engineer?   Does the interface emote a positive or negative feeling when someone glances at it for the first time?  What about when something goes wrong, what do the error messages say?  What about the emails I receive from the service?  Do they make sense?  Are they human?  Do they come from “your company name” 0r does it say “DO NOT REPLY”?

I have come to realize those questions are not usually asked by highly technical people but the answers greatly affect how users respond to the earliest versions of your product.  The beauty of being a non-technical person is the natural ability to see things in more human and emotional ways, as opposed to highly technical and non-emotional ways.  I am sure you can guess which ones have a greater positive influence on how regular people interact with your apps.

The answers to those questions can also be identified as early as the beginning of the design/development process with wireframes, mock-ups and prototypes.  It turns out, non-technical people with adequate design and UX understanding can greatly enhance the team by owning the wire framing and mock-up stages, opening up the dev team to hack together other areas of the project.

Once you decide to build a product, form a company and get all the initial stuff (listed above) out of the way, the main focus is building and launching the product.  PR, press, customers, investors, and all the other stuff doesn’t matter if you don’t have a world class product.  Suffice it to say you – as the CEO/non-technical cofounder – must orient yourself as the Chief Experience Officer.

Through recent studies, I have started to gain a better understanding regarding design.  It’s not just the colors of your site and the placement of buttons on your app, it’s how the user experiences all aspects of your application.  There’s too many considerations to list here but having a holistic view of what you are building and the quality of experience a user will have is paramount to your app’s success.

So as the non-technical person, you can’t code but you still need to make yourself valuable during the initial stages.  You don’t want the rest of your team  sitting around without you and wondering why are you actually still around and a major shareholder when you aren’t really doing anything productive…

I spend time each day reading articles to gain a better Design perspective, also working through workflows of design features we are focusing on right now.  It’s not perfect stuff but it’s a start.  And it’s actually quite fun.  Below are some of the ways have I been learning Design and UX recently:

52 weeks of UX – This is a year long blog (2010) broken up into 52 sections, each one sent out once a week and covering all aspects of Design and User Experience.    It is a tremendous resource to not only provide a solid understanding of these topics but the more you read the more you start to think like a designer.  (I guess that’s true about anything but I definitely noticed it here).

Hack Design – “An easy to follow design course for hackers who do amazing things.”   Hack Design is also a weekly series of emails sent chock full of design lessons, articles and unique topics.  I would suggest starting from the beginning and making it a habit to do one a day or week.

UI Parade – I stumbled upon UI Parade a while ago and it has really helped me with ideas and perspectives on the appropriate interfaces to use.  They provide a huge list of examples, anything from Nav Bars, to buttons, to drop downs, to sign in forms.  Sometimes it helps to just skim through and get ideas on various looks and feels.  (Tip: pick on, open your favorite design tool and commit to making your own copy of the visual you just picked out.  It’s fun!)

Inspired UI – Here you will find an exhaustive list of all the mobile designs you can imagine.  It’s a great place to go when you are evaluating in the early stages what you want your mobile interface to look like and how it should function.  Trust me, you will definitely be inspired.

Spring Is In The Air And Something New Is Upon Us

This post is part wind-down announcement and part new product news.

We started Seconds (back then called Order SM) in September 2011 with the goal to experiment around mobile – text ordering at local restaurants.   Our assumption was people would want to simply text “burrito” to their local mexican restaurant and then be able to swing by and grab it without having to wait in line for their food pay with a physical credit card.  Everything would be taken care of in the background on the web.

We learned a ton, but the biggest thing was both merchants and customers really liked being able to just pay for something by sending at text and not mess with all the other communication crap, so we ended up moving towards specifically focusing on a mobile payment system.   We changed the name to Seconds and rolled it out in Jan 201n2.   We saw a dramatic market interest in our unique take on payments, receiving inbound request from almost every continent in the world.   Unfortunately, we weren’t able to secure capital it required to scale our team and out product and so we basically stalled out at the end of the year.

Rather than being a Zombie-startup, I decided it was best we make better use of each members skill set (go get paying gigs) and wind down the operations on Seconds, as a mobile payment startup.  This means we are not taking new customers or putting in new work around the product.  It also means we are retaining the IP and tech, placing it on the shelf for a while as we determine the next phase for our ideas.  As I said to the team when we made this decision, “with each passing day, people will only get more comfortable with mobile payments and we’ll make more and more mobile payments as the months and years go on.  I don’t think this is the end of the line for our ideas, just not the right time and place for Seconds as it is today.”

This was definitely a tough decision and one I probably put off for a few months not wanting to accept the reality of the situation.

For all you who know me personally you will be quite familiar with my challenges as I built Seconds.  It is not easy to be a founder, no matter how “rock star” it may be described nowadays.  It’s lonely.  It’s stressful.  It stretches you in ways you will never imagine.  It mentally challenges you to the point where you actually think you are crazy (and probably could be) yet just normal enough to not be committed.

Frequent readers will recall my many posts on what it’s like to be a founder.  Rollercoaster is an understatement, mainly because when you get off the ride you say to yourself “wow, that was crazy fun” and then simply go back to your normal, unaffected life.  No so when you jump head first into your life as an entrepreneur.  There are scars from this journey that will take years for me to fully recover from.

With that said, we are not finished.  Strangely, I am scarred yet more excited and more prepared for future success.  A backstory will help you understand what is about to transpire from here on out.

About 7 weeks ago the Seconds team took the Super Bowl Weekend and entered Sports Hack Day, a 3-day hackathon to see who can build to coolest thing using sports oriented data.  What a weekend.  It was full of late nights, massive brainstorming and beer infested hacking.  Although we didn’t end up winning any prizes or awards, we emerged from the weekend with a kernel of a cool idea that as sports fans we just wanted to use as we went about our life.

“What if you predict – or make a call – on any stat, play or outcome of a sporting event, and in Twitter fashion simply be able to shoot it out into the social sphere telling the world you think ‘X’ will happen in this game.  If correct, your score would go up.  If wrong, it would go down.  You could then challenge friends with a simple finger swipe on your phone and then go back to watching the game.  And what if we could then determine who knew the most about sports by this running number, similar to a Klout score but for sports.”

We liked the idea so much we decided to continue to work on the concept after the weekend concluded.  I couldn’t get it out of my head and as a sports fan I wanted to use it – like really bad.  I don’t normally play fantasy sports leagues because it feels like such a commitment of time and mental energy.  But if I could simply make a few predictive calls on my mobile as to what I think will happen in the Bulls vs Knicks game tonight, and show my friend I know more about sports than he does, I’m into that.  It’s addictive.

So the 3 of us wondered what it would look like and continued to build it out.  It ended up more of an undertaking than we realized and has required many late nights over the last month.  We are now almost ready to release it to the world and see what happens.  That is all I will be saying until we announce the release very shortly, but needless to say we are interested to see what the world thinks.

As for me, I will be hired here soon and will have new daily responsibilities with another company.  Am I excited to join another company?  Yes.  Do I wish I was full time (and paid) in my own company, not having to work for someone else?  Yes indeed.  Will it just take a little more time until that happens?  For sure.  Will I give up on pursuing my creative side as an entrepreneur?  Hell no.  Do I realize my time building Seconds is pretty much the only reason I will be hired into this next position?  Yep.  It’s not lost on me all this has been worth it no matter the financial outcome or the pain associated.

Spring is in the air; no better time to emerge towards a new direction and pursue an exciting new opportunity.

The Code Of Culture

Culture is a interesting animal.  It can be the difference between attracting world class talent or settling for sub par standards.  In a word, it’s paramount to a company’s success.

Just as an engineer uses a specific language and types characters into the terminal to create a product, so does the founder as he embeds certain principles and characteristics into an organization to create a unique company culture.

Culture happens if you know it or not.  Be careful founders, you reap what you sow.  Better plug in the right code as early as you can.

Today I stumbled upon the greatest presentation on company culture I have ever seen.  It’s great.  It’s comes from HubSpot, and accomplishes its goal of making me want to work for them.

In fact, it also accomplished its goal of helping me form my perspective on how to cultivate culture within my own organization.

I hope it does for you too.

Why Do We Do Our Best Work For Free?

Why do we do our best work for free?

The question has been sitting in my mind lately as I contemplate the current entrepreneurial climate in addition to my current situation.  I don’t have a job – I own a company.  As an un-funded startup at the moment we are not paying any salaries to anyone on the team, thus we are working for free.

Let me say it another way: we are working long and hard hours, quite often late into the night or early into the morning, and doing it all for no money at all (well, none right now anyway.)

So why do we do this?

It goes against normal human motivations, which includes the “you give me X per hour for me doing Y for you” mentality.  The thinking seems to go something like, “well, I don’t really want to show up here to do this thing each day but since they are paying me money I guess I will do it.”

That’s the workers mentality.

There’s nothing wrong with it and people who think that way are rightfully doing their duty as a family member, societal member and taxpayer.  And it allows the circle of life to continue around and around…

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is another motivation that drives human behavior and it’s called creativity.  People who are Creatives have a yearning to build and create something from nothing – to see the future before it happens and then go forth and create it out of thin air.  Often times this happens outside of work and does not originate from the “doing X for Y” agreement so the result does not create immediate monetary value for the individual.

Yet they keep doing it.

mad_scientist_at_work_come_on_in_funny_door_sign_ornament-p175291926278339191b7flz_400And more often than not this is the area they excel in their life.  It’s the area they are most excited about and can’t wait to get back to once they are off the clock if they have a day job or other responsibilities.

It’s also the area where they do their best work.

I think they do their best work in these areas because it’s driven by passion, not money. Do you think Thomas Edison clocked his hours in his laboratory?  Or looked at his watch and said to himself “phew… only one more hour and I’m free to go grab a beer with the dudes!”

No way.

The time he devoted to his craft was driven by curiosity, passion and purpose.  He was a scientist first, capitalist second, employee never.  And amazingly, he was paid handsomely for his work in the end because of the quality.  I believe this was due to the fact his motivations were rooted on his standards and not anyone else’s.

This can be said about any artist, musician, entrepreneur or individual who pursues their passion regardless of immediate returns.

I noticed this in my own life recently, as we were diligently working on some new things.  No one is paying me, expecting me to show up at a certain time or demanding the project be done on a certain date.

No one but me.  It’s my standard I am working against.  It’s my passion to work on something challenging, to see it through and learn a hell of a lot in the process.

I noticed this last night as I walked to the coffee shop where I was meeting up with my CTO.  Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything or anywhere else I wanted to be at the moment.  I had to just stop and appreciate the realization we are all not quite so different than Thomas Edison cranking away in his laboratory.

And the craziest thing about it is the fact that when we hold ourself to the highest standard possible, we tend to deliver a high quality finished product.   To do otherwise would be to go against your very self, against your own standards and integrity.

This is when you know you are onto something and in due time you will see the rewards.

If you want to do high quaility work, do it for free.  And when you start to work for free you may eventually be surprised at who will pay you handsomely.