The Road Ahead

I have often said being an entrepreneur feels like you are a circus clown on a unicycle, riding on a tightrope and juggling 5 different things at the same time.

Yep, that’s pretty much what I am doing right about now and it feels a bit crazy.  My hope is that it settles down a bit as we get these things in motion.

Below is a glimpse into the road(s) I am looking down right now and if all goes as planned it will be most of my career focus.  They might be general – on purpose – but they are the trends of the next 20 years and industries I am both interested in and feel are at inflection points historically.

Payments – mobile and otherwise

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Most of you know I have been in the mobile payment space for a few years now.  Our first try with Seconds payments didn’t go as smoothly as we had hoped.  BUT, we learned something really valuable – remote mobile payment/billing is going to be huge.

We learned this from realizing the act of forcing someone to make a payment with their mobile device while standing in line at a coffee shop/target/local market/etc actually takes more time and is more complicated than giving cash or card.  The end solution just has to save all parties valuable time.  It will be years before this becomes commonplace and who knows how much it will take (billions invested) to make it happen.

But, you know all those letters you received (or still receive) from utility companies, munipalities and other entities basically telling you 1) here’s the total you owe and 2) here’s where you send the check or 3) log in at this url to pay?  Well, we can save people a lot of time and hassle with a new direct mobile billing experience.  That can all be achieved by a simple notification on your mobile device informing you of a balance due, should you opt into receiving it.  And with your payment credentials already in the system all you need to do is simply respond with “pay” and it’s all taken care of.   Business gets paid, consumers account is cleared, no re-entering payment credentials… Simple.

Yep, we got that in the pipeline.

Cryptocurrencies – Bitcoin

Since I am in the payment/financial space I have been watching the rise of Bitcoin for some time now.  It’s very interesting to say the least and everyone has an opinion.

Here’s mine: the world needs a new mechanism for payments to flow around the world and Bitcoin feels like it’s the one.  As both a currency and a technology, it will not only transform money as we know it is but also its place within this new digital/mobile/worldwide economy.  As a speculative commodity, no one knows if the value will hold ($500), massively increase ($100k) or completely tank ($1).  We’ll have to see, but my guess is that its value will not be the greatest impact Bitcoin will have on our world.  As for regulation, the government will have to figure out how to play nice and guide it towards positive impact on our country and world.  I don’t see it completely taking the role of the U.S. dollar so I think that argument is flawed and used politically to take a side, similar to the silly spat between Republicans and Democrats in this country.

So please remember today’s incarnation of Bitcoin will not be tomorrow’s…  merely turning your head and shushing the noise is the wrong answer.  Just as there were many naysayers in 1994 and 1995 about the web, we are seeing something truly transformative take shape and I don’t want to look back in 10-20 years and kick myself for not getting involved in the movement.

That being said, yep…. the road also includes some things around Bitcoin.  It should be an interesting year.

Internet of Things – API’s of life

Another interesting phenomenon starting to take shape is the so-called Internet of Things.  I am not sure I like that term but we’ll agree it means a world where everything is “smart” and “connected” to everything else via the web and sensors.  Just imagine what can be automated or programmed when devices and objects – previously “dumb” and non-economic actors in our world (tables, chairs, driveways, houses, bikes, cars, etc…) are brought online and provided an identity.  Then include an economic identity (hhmm like using something like bitcoin…. now are you are starting to get it?) and allow humans to communicate with and pay and be paid by machines.  The possibilities are endless.

Even more basic is the ability to start automating things in your life.  If you have heard of IFTTT (If This, Than That) you know what I am talking about.  Basically, it means you can set triggers in the world, that when activated, will result in an action you previously determined.   These triggers are offered by various web based components in the form of API’s (Application Programming Interface) which allows you to tap into and easily integrate with other technologies.  For example, if I leave the house (known because my GPS on my mobile) then lower the temperature in my house by 5 degrees.   If Bitcoin falls below a certain price ($300), purchase X more for me.  You get the picture.

Yep, something like that’s in the works as well.

Health Technology – Wearable devices

An amazing area for innovation using connected and wearable technologies is health care.  We are wondering what is possible once people wear something(s) that are able to monitor and collect up to the second data regarding our vital heath?

Given my background in health I am immensely interested in the future of preventative health tracking, and we are in the process of laying out our first attempt at it.  Imagine wearing a small device that, when it senses a certain vital sign has fallen out of the standard deviation for this specific individual, sends a notification to family and medial team with actionable instructions?  Imagine how many heart attacks could be prevented if we knew the second someone was “about to go there”?  Now, I know this vision could collide with the scary notion of Big Brother NSA, but I have a feeling the pendulum will swing back toward a better equilibrium of personal safety and information security.

Yes, although it might be a bit on the horizon this is down the road for me as well.

Content Creation – Founders RAW

The last one is video.  We are starting to see more online video created and watched each day, month and year.   And it’s easier than ever to create and distribute video, especially through social media.  I intent on continuing my work on Founders RAW and experimenting with online media.   Founders RAW is a great playground, since it falls inline with entrepreneurship and founding of technology companies.  My goal is to continue to talk to founders and put out high quality content for all of us to enjoy and benefit from.  It will be interesting to see how content and video grows from here, how we all can take part in it.

So there you have it.

If you are tired from simply reading it, how do you think I feel?  My mind is spinning with all these possibilities and opportunities.  While it may seem like I have some random form of ADD (might be true) it’s more like all these opportunities came to me in the last few months.  Some are being built as we speak.  Some are on their way.  Some are in brainstorming and prototyping stages.  Some might not make it into production, but all are well thought out and well positioned to become something great in the future.  I hope to be a part of them all.

It’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur.

Image by Flickr user oatsy40.

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5 Tough Questions To Ask When Starting Your Company

So, you want to start a company?

Awesome.  That’s a very exciting decision but first you must make sure it’s the right decision.

Startups are hard and have been referred to as “a full contact sport” by others so deciding to be a founder is only the right decision if you are ready and willing to except what comes with founding a startup.

Coincidently I am going through this same thinking process right now.  Even though I have started a few companies before, I find myself at the starting line once again evaluating a new “dent in the universe” idea with a fellow co-founder.  Here are five questions I am asking myself right now to help determine if it’s the right decision.  I believe they can that help you too along your path to starting your next company.

thinking-manAm I really an Entrepreneur?

Risk is the heart of entrepreneurship — which is defined as “the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” Your relationship with risk is the sole determinant whether you will succeed or fail as an entrepreneur.

Are you ready to take a risk?  I encourage you to think of yourself as an entrepreneur in the adjective form, not a verb.  What do I mean?  Well, during my first startup I struggled – a lot, and for a long time – and it really bothered me because I didn’t really know why I was struggling.

Then it finally hit me.

It all changed when I re-thought what the dream actually was.  I realized my dream wasn’t about what I was working on at the time, but more about the person I was becoming in the process.  The dream is about being an entrepreneur – the adjective – not the noun.

Entrepreneur – noun.  A proprietor who owns their own business.  A title.

Entrepreneur – adjective.  A person who embodies the qualities of being Courageous. Risk Taker.  Innovative.  Persistent.  Agile.  Intelligent.  Savvy. Strong.  Personable.  Creative.  Excellent. Fighter.  Winner. 

Once I realized all I needed to do is change me perspective of who I was, everything changed.  Also, I realize being an entrepreneur was all about how I viewed and embraced the world of risk.

Fellow entrepreneur and billionaire Sir Richard Branson follows a principle called “protecting the downside,” which means that by looking at any situation and determining all options before making a decision, one can identify the worst case scenario and work backwards from there to find the optimal route forward. Protecting the downside is really just identifying and understanding risk.

So your first step is all about asking if you can handle a world full of risk.

Am I ready?

Once you determine you are cut from the entrepreneurial cloth, you must ask yourself if you are actually ready.  Is it the right time to embrace a life of high risk and high reward?

Question yourself on things like: Do I have more important responsibilities, such as family obligations, debt to repay, volunteer work, coaching youth sports, or things that require your time and energy?

The reality is startups take pretty much all of your time and energy.  They are like rockets going to space – it takes A LOT of energy to take off but based on physics it takes less energy to keep going as it gets higher and farther away from earth.

Step 2:  sideline some of these major responsibilities if you are to start a high growth company, and  then pick them back up once things really get going.

Am I passionate about the idea?

Once the commitment has been made and you believe you are ready to take the plunge, you should ask if this is something you are really interested in, passionate about, and willing to give it 5-10 years of your life.

This is somewhat of a controversial topic.  Some say founders need not be passionate about a startup, simply because only possessing passion for a subject does not guarantee success.  And I agree.  Just being fanatic and uber-excited about something is not a shoe-in for startup success.  But consider the opposite: if a person is not particularly interested in a subject and not emotionally driven to solve a particular problem in the world, will they be able to make it through the trough of sorrow?

I think not.

Step 3 requires asking yourself if you posses energy, curiosity and passion about what you are doing so you can withstand the inevitable challenges and be able to push through the hardships you will face.

Is it a big and growing market?

Startup fact: Investors are looking for home runs, not singles.

One of the biggest mistakes first time founders make is not evaluating markets correctly and picking a market with low potential for growth.  Most investors and potential acquirers evaluate startups on the recipe of future potential.  A founder who desires a successful outcome for their company should look for solutions to problems in growing markets.

What is a growing market?

Growing markets are ones with an accelerating rate of competitors, users, revenue potential, and aligned with emerging technologies/platforms.   Founders should build their solution with forward thinking perspectives on technology and societal norms.  (ie: mobile usage vs desktop usage,  network platforms vs non viral sites, portable vs non portable tech, etc…)

Even if a founder is not planning to accept outside investment and wants grow from a bootstrapped position, it still makes sense to look for market that is big and growing.

Step 4 requires one to ask themselves, “no matter the size of my ambition, am I building for tomorrow, not just today?

What are my unique gifts?

Startups are difficult and require one to utilize their unique talents and gift in ways they may have never imagined before.  When a founder starts their company, it’s important they take some time and take into account their naturally gifts.  Are you uniquely technical and have the ability to quickly whip together a simple prototype?  Or are you more social, amazing with people, a natural salesman and can easily work a room full of investors?  Are you a visionary or an operations person?

This is probably the hardest question of the bunch, but the most important because the answer to these questions will point to your next phase of the company – recruiting others.  If you are non-technical and (most likely) better with leading people, you will need to find a technical person to balance your founding team out and help you build products.   If you are highly technical and can easily hack together websites and mobile apps, you will need to find someone who is less technical but more gifted in the business and people operations.

The last step pulls you inward to understand yourself, what your talents are, and who you should look to bring on and join you in your new venture.

Asking yourself these 5 tough questions should not only help determine if this decision is a good one, but if it is the right one for you at this time.

Yes, Youth Can Be Entrepreneurs Too

Adam Lieb, founder and CEO of Duxter, started his entrepreneurial journey at a very early age.  He founded and sold his first company at the age of 11! Not too shabby, eh.

I sat down and talked with Adam during one of my recent Founders RAW conversations where we covered what it’s like to start a company so early in life, the value of Law School and how easy (or hard) it is to raise money for a growing startup.

What a great conversation!

Thinking Without Interruption

By chance have you noticed how often you are interrupted each day?

I am sure every minute or two you are dinged or buzzed with a new text message, IM, email, phone call or Facebook message.   If you are not dinged you are probably grabbing your phone incessantly and checking it yourself, thus breaking from the normal pattern of thought.

In a one word, it’s annoying.  I know life has to continue and we need to communicate with each other but the ever increasing pace of interruptions is definitely becoming more obvious.

I wonder if this Is this good or bad for us humans.

I recently read how Paul graham viewed this phenomenon, as he tied it into the larger addiction conversation.  He ends by saying:

I used to think running was a better form of exercise than hiking because it took less time. Now the slowness of hiking seems an advantage, because the longer I spend on the trail, the longer I have to think without interruption.

…We’ll increasingly be defined by what we say no to.

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I fully agree.

I recently went on a weekend excursion into the Cascades with a group of friends, spending 3 days with my hiking boots, pack and tent.  We hiked 10 miles into glacier lake and set camp for two nights,  We hiked a total of 26 miles in 3 days – all without checking our phones once!

It was refreshing.

I believe we need to schedule into our lives a few days/weeks every so often to be off the grid, just so we can remember what it’s like to not be interrupted every few minutes.   And just so we can be taken back to what a long, winding and challenging conversation with another person feels like without grabbing a device a solving the argument by “googling” the answer. I cannot tell you how great it was to be on the trail, talking with my friends about anything and everything we wanted, without interruption or having to pause because one of us was responding to a text or grabbing a quick phone call.

Remember, technology is there to augment our real world relationships, not replace them.  The nuance is in how we gracefully use technology to enhance our world, not negatively impact it. I was beautifully reminded this on my weekend backpacking trip and then again today as I read Paul Grahams words.

Do yourself a favor and plan off-grid experiences, your health and sanity will thank you later.

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Hang In There

I tend to get a bit emotional when I find myself looking back over my almost 2 years of full time, full contact entrepreneurship.

Why?

Well, it’s been such a crazy ride.  It’s been up.  It’s been down.  I’ve been in.  I’ve been out.  I quit my last full-time job over 2 years ago with basically nothing to jump to but my own gut instinct, which told me – akin to Field of Dreams – “if you jump, they will find you.”

I jumped.  And they found me.

It was incredible to jump into my company full-time, but in reality it hasn’t been all roses.   Mostly I’ve hung in there and “weathered the storm”  as they say, until brighter days came.

It was then I realized what this entrepreneurial journey is all about – hanging in there.  I was reminded of this recently as I was chatting with GeekWire founder John Cook.  He mentioned it as I asked him about some of the lessons he has learned over the last few years building GeekWire.

He said something to the extent of “if you just hang around long enough you will make it.”

What I think John is saying is you need to be patient enough to give yourself the opportunity to encounter success.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  It sometimes doesn’t happen over a year.  Fortunately (or unfortunately) some people must wait many, many years before the seeds they have planted actually grow into something they can reap benefits from.

But you just have to hang in there.

John is a perfect example of this in action.  He spent about 10 years working for an old traditional newspaper, the Seattle PI.  At the time, he was covering tech and could see what was about to happen (or happening) to the newspaper industry due to the growth of the web.

In fact, he and his friend Todd actually came up with an entire plan, shared it with the PI and suggested they go another direction, embracing the web as opposed to fighting it.  John and Todd told the PI they would run it.  Those executives didn’t listen the John and Todd, which at the time I am sure was frustrating to the both of them.

Yet, today…. GeekWire is an up and coming digital media resource, has a great presence in Seattle and beyond, and is growing strong.   The Seattle PI?  They shut their doors on their physical paper a few years ago and are struggling to stay relevant in this new digital world.

Lesson: It will come soon enough if you just hang in there.

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.

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.