To All The Doubters Out There: My Past Does Not Determine My Future

Today I was informed by one of my advisors someone I previously spoke with in the investment community thought less of me, or looked down upon me and my business mainly because of my background and my previous career as a personal trainer.

This is after the individual had been very forthright in the meeting about how unique our concept was and how impressive we are currently positioned.

Let me be perfectly clear: my past does not determine my future.

Whatever someone studied or whomever they previously worked for has little effect on what they will do going forward.  Does it influence them, yes.  But does mean they are not capable of achieving other things outside of the specific industry?  No.

It’s what we have determined we will do in the future that has the greatest influence on what happens in the future.

For all the doubters out there, let’s go ahead and get it all on the table.

No, I am not a CS major or a Stanford grad with an MBA.   Yes I studied exercise physiology in college, and became a strength coach working all levels of the industry – from professional sports teams to athletic clubs and on to corporate fitness centers.

No, I didn’t come directly out of college and join a fast growing technology company.  Yes, I bumped along as a trainer only to use any and all spare time (ask any of my past girlfriends) reading and studying the latest developments in technology and the web.

No, I didn’t succeed at my first attempt at a startup.  I didn’t sell my first company to Google or Microsoft and I did not make F-you money in my early 20’s.  Yes, my first startup failed.  We failed miserably.  We had no idea what we were doing and naively thought we could actually launch a company when we were all still working full time.  Boy were we wrong.

No, I was not raised in wealthy family so I would be close to seed capital and afforded the luxury of launching my company with my grandfathers/fathers/uncles/stepfathers/father-in-laws/bothers/cousins money.  Yes, I am now learning the “intangible” game of raising money by networking, connecting with people, illustrating our unique value in the marketplace and proving we are actually a great business opportunity.  And heads are starting to turn.

No, we are not launching a social site that within the first few weeks is amazingly spreading throughout the Harvard campus without any of our help… and magically is a hit with all the college kids.  And one where you have no idea the business value for the first few years of existence.  Yes, we have built a platform so valuable we see small mom and pop shops as well as large corporations wanting to be a part of it.  One in which we figured out how to make enough noise in just 3 short months after launching our product that we already find ourselves sitting across the table from NOT ONE BUT TWO multinational, multibillion dollar corporations – in different industries – wanting to somehow work together.  The one I talked with today is probably in the back pocket of most of my doubters.

For all the doubters out there who are still reading but think I might still be missing something I will put you at ease and let you know that even though I studied exercise physiology in school, all is not lost.  Here is my take away and how I see it in the business world.

Business, like the Human Body, is all about efficiency

Inefficiency will kill any living organism and it’s also true with any business organization.  It’s the bane of any corporations existence and it’s also why you hear about six sigma, downsizing and social collaboration tools.  Finding ways to make internal processes less laborious and easier to navigate will make employees more efficient.  Fixing bugs and reworking the user experience of a website will streamline transactions and generate more revenue.  Anyway you look at it, the human body always seeks to carry out processes with the least amount of energy possible.  So does a business.

You must keep working or you will fade away

We all understand the concept of strengthening muscles – you must break them down to build them up.  Exercise is vital to the human body and you must keep placing stress on the cardiac system to experience health benefits.  Well, that’s true for the business as well.  Name any business where it’s acceptable to coast along with no input and expecting to get something out of it.  Even a piece of Real Estate needs upkeep if it is going to bring a return to the investor.  You must keep working on a business, on yourself and your team if you are to experience continued success.

Sometimes Pain is good

We all know the feeling… the first mile of the run after a long hiatus, the last two reps of the exercise we though would be way to heavy, or the morning after soreness from a kick-butt workout.  Yea, it hurts all right.  But most of the time its damn good pain because your body is replenishing itself and growing stronger.

Well if you think starting a business is all sun and roses you are in for a little treat.  It sucks.  It hurts.  You get tuned down more times than you can remember.  You have people questioning you, your product, positioning, vision, funding status, your team and everything else under the sun.  It takes twice as long as you think it will to achieve certain milestones.  But the pain is good for you.  See, you learn from all that doubt and questioning and through all of the crappy stuff you get stronger and become a better entrepreneur.  Trust me, I am one strong individual.

I may not be the most “polished” “tie wearing” “Stanford MBA” or “Y-combinator grad” CEO you find strutting around Silicon Valley.  And quite frankly I know I have a lot more to learn.  But I am glad I am not the above described.  I am quite happy with my past, because as I have just illustrated it provided me with a unique perspective I can successfully transition into my new life as an tech entrepreneur.

And for the doubters…. keep on.  I dare you.

@jnickhughes

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Would You Rather Be Undervalued Or Underestimated?

Being a first time CEO can be confusing, intimidating and downright scary.  You have a hundred things to do and no idea which way to look.  You feel the need to talk to a lot of people but it’s difficult to determine the ones you really need to spend time with.   You need to deal with legal, financial, organizational, strategic and other parts of the company on a daily basis yet might not be fully comfortable with each area just yet.

Everything rides on your shoulders.

Although this is not my first startup founder experience, it is my first as a CEO in, shall we say, the “big leagues”.  It has been brought to my attention this will be a significant challenge to me since my background lacks “normal tech startup experiences” and don’t fit the typical CEO path.  They say I will be underestimated.

Well, I say perfect.  Bring it!  I love challenges and believe the great ones are created through immense crucibles, where pressure either polishes them into greatness or crushes them into pieces.

As I ponder the reality I face, a question arose in my head:  Would you rather be undervalued or underestimated?

Undervalued means they have already sized you up and determine you don’t add much value to the ecosystem.

Underestimated means they are ignorantly judging you, still don’t know your potential and will be shocked when you reach it.

I have a hunch where I fall in respect to those two.  Do you know where you stand?

@jnickhughes

How To Stop The Insanity, CEO Style

Being a first time CEO can be confusing, intimidating and downright scary.

You have a hundred things to do and no idea which way to look.  Email this person…. talk to that person.  Introduce yourself to another potential investor or partner.    There are so many different people to connect with but it’s difficult to determine the ones you really should to spend your precious and limited time with.

You also need to deal with legal, financial, organizational, strategic and other parts of the company on a daily basis yet might not be fully comfortable with each area of the business.

You look in the mirror , shake your head and whisper “ha, I’m the CEO?”  Yes, you are and everything now rides on your shoulders.

The crazy thing with being a first time CEO is you really don’t know what you don’t know.  This is a blessing and a curse.  Blessing because if you were able to get a glimpse all the things you don’t understand you would probably turn and run for the door.  It’s a curse since there are quite a few important aspects of building a business which require keen awareness and solid judgment, which by definition rookies just don’t have.   It is at this stage where we lean on others who have gone before us to help give perspective and a nudge in the right direction.   I don’t pretend to know these things since I too am “technically” a first time CEO and on the constant lookout for helpful mentors.  [I say technically because my first startup was a failed attempted at a bootstrapped startup.  We didn’t even get to seed stage so although I grew through it, it really wasn’t much more than a warm-up.  It’s safe to say I am now entering the open seas with only my compass in my hand.]

So how do you keep your sanity amongst all this madness?  I reached out polled a few fellow young founders and asked them to give some thoughts on the matter.

Phillip Estrada Reichen, CEO of LocalUncle.

Maintaining focus is all about saying “NO”. Sounds easy in theory, but in practice it’s harder than most people think. Saying NO means leaving out product features that you’ve been dreaming about because you have to hit a certain deadline. It means saying NO to reading everything that is being written/said about your industry and accepting the fact that you’ll have to maneuver the best you can with the limited information that you have. Saying NO also means not working on your other five great ideas and keep executing just this one thing that you chose to do at this point in time. Even when you hit your lowest lows (oh, and you will hit them) and you’ll want to throw everything away, saying NO means not giving up and stick to your initial idea.

In order to stay sane and not be overwhelmed and burn out you need to get off the grid regularly. Exit the Matrix. Don’t do anything work related. This is especially hard if you work in mobile/web because you can work from anywhere at anytime. Go running in the park without iPod or iPhone (no music allowed! just listen to the “real”, offline world for a couple of minutes). Get home after work and do not go online till the next day. Read a book, cook a meal or draw a painting. No matter how much work there needs to be done, you have to have non-electronic, non-work related hobbies or activities like that to stay healthy and balanced. 

Chris Lynch, CEO of Thoughtful.co

A friend of mine said it best: a startup is a marathon, not a sprint. Know where you’re going, and then tell yourself it’s going to be hard. But even then, know it will be more difficult than you imagined. That being said, I’ve noticed that people deal with stress in a number of ways, but there is a common trait among CEOs in startups that always is true: they can take a lot of stress and keep pushing forward. In some ways it doesn’t surprise me, because a startup is a Herculean task.

Great advice from emerging leaders in their respective industries.  I will provide four strong points to consider and add my perspective for trying to stop the insanity.

Movement

Philip alluded to this one and I strongly concur – getting off the grid and back into the physical world is probably the best way to stay sane.  Get outside [or on the treadmill] and get some movement.  Expending energy is the best way to decompress and release all the pent up tightness within your body.  Basically, when we sit at a desk in front of our screens all day long our bodies are placed under continual stress.  This stress, if not released in a healthy manner, constantly builds up and will cause us to crack under pressure.

If you are feel like you have “had it up to here” and just need a break, you are burned out and need to start moving more often.  I mean every day.  Go on walks, hikes, run, play a recreation sport, unplug… whatever you do, get away from the office and just do it.  Your body and mind will be so much clearer when you return.

Prioritize

As I stated before, most CEO’s just feel overwhelmed.  It helps if you can list out the top 3 things you need to get done each day, and only focus on those things.  I mean don’t think about any other task.  Only when you accomplish those top 3 things should you move on to doing anything else.  How do you determine the top 3?  Look at the overall direction of your company, determine what is mission critical and what YOU, THE LEADER, can only do and go do it.  Then delegate the rest.  Try this for a week and see what happens.  I guarantee you will feel like you are doing less yet more seems to be getting done.  Amazing.

Socialize

Getting out and connecting with people [should be] a CEO’s main objective.  Why?  Since they generally are the face of the company and it is up to the leader to fill out the team, socializing connect you with more people quite frankly, it just comes with the CEO territory.  The side effect of socializing is you will start to learn more about how people work, how they think, and whom you would like to eventually join your team.

Being social also releases chemicals called endorphins, which are required to carry out natural processes within your metabolic system.  Interestingly, if you lack adequate amount of social interaction your body will start shutting down.  That might sound a bit drastic, but the premise is still true – we all need social interactions to maintain our sanity.  Get out and have some fun every once in a while.

Mentorship

First time CEO’s have it tough: we lack the foresight to understand what is in front of us at the same time lacking the hindsight of lessons learned from a previous experience to help us make better decisions.  Amazingly, there are individuals who have gone and done it before and look to pay it forward by mentoring young leaders in their field.  If you are a first time CEO and serious about moving forward in your life, you must go find someone willing to give you some of their time.  Ask them questions, detailed and specific questions related to your unique situation and then shut up.  Just sit and listen.  Record the conversation if possible.  Then check in with them every few weeks or month and provide them some context of how you are using their lessons to positively influence your life.

Oh, and one last thing: if you respect someone’s time, they will give you more… if you disrespect their time, they will never give you another minute.

Now, stop the insanity.

@jnickhughes

Image courtesy of Flickr user My Melting Bryan.

One Leader Steps Down, This Leader Steps Up

Today I learned the hard news Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO of Apple, the worlds most valuable company and the envy of any honest person in the business of technology.  Like most people, I looked at Jobs as more a Saint, Monk, or Prophet; less of a businessperson.  Is this fair or even right?  Who knows… but he is truly one of a kind and I really don’t know what to say at this point.  What I do know is he set a damn high bar for me and all other leaders.  Thanks Steve.

So much is being written regarding the amazing performance of Steve Jobs I think I will leave it to them to tell you his story.

Instead, I will tell you mine.

You have no idea how many sleepless nights (in Seattle no less) have been spent tossing and turning, just wishing a great engineering team was standing behind my vision.  I have known for some time now a grand and transformational “something” is stuck deep down in my soul and needs others to help pull it out.  For so long I felt I just needed the right pieces to fall into the right place.  For so long it felt like a hope, a dream or a far off story only found true reading through Inc. magazine or TechCrunch or Silicon Alley Insider.

Well that dream has finally come true.

I have chosen to accept an offer to become CEO and co-founder of a promising startup here in Seattle, one just about to hit the public radar.  It really is like a dream come true and the vision we are setting forth is nothing short of transformational.  Keep an eye on this one.

A little Background – Loyaltize

Years ago something hit me like a ton of bricks and I had a vision:  The local economy was one of the one the last holy grail industries of the internet, not fully transformed by the consumer web as we know it today and ripe for change.  I also realized businesses function by and large through customer loyalty.  Most people intuitively understand 80% (or a majority) of a businesses revenue comes from 20% (or a minority) of their customer base.  This is natural and it will never change, you can ask Vilfredo Pareto on that one.

I also noticed local consumers have distinct relationships with specific businesses, and come-hell-or-high-water they will do business with them.  People have favorite restaurants, coffee shops, wine stores, clothing retailers, gyms, etc…  Why not reorganize the local economy around the consumer and their ability to dictate relationships and interactions with their favorite entities.  Allow them to choose who/what to follow and who/what to stay connected to and receive information from.  Ya know, around the loyal customers and their view of the local economy.   Why not Loyaltize?

Understanding that fact, it baffles me why the hell new “advertising” and “group coupons” and other crazy schemes keep popping up every day claiming to increase revenues, profits, customer bases and all other things push media in an effort to bring MORE customers in the door.  It ain’t about “offers” people.  To me, that is just ass backwards to how it actually works.

Businesses don’t want more flaky one-night stands, they want more long term relationships.

When I looked at the current technologies, business practices and the state of the local economy I saw inefficiency, ineffectiveness and little change from 20 or even 30 years ago.   I am sure I was not the only person who saw an opening, but I am positive no one has my exact vision.

Except This Guy

I was recently approached by a talented local engineer here in Seattle who wondered if I would be willing to talk about my ideas on Loyaltize.  He thought we had the same vision.  What he didn’t know was I had as so much given up on my dream of Loyaltize as the summer had progressed.  You see, I did have a startup at one time – a bootstrapped company we threw together called Loyaltize – but after failed attempt on version 1 we backed off and the team dispersed early this year.  Trying to build a startup while being employed full time is not the path for success (at least not for me).   Trust me, after almost 5 years of blood, sweat and tears, it’s a little tempting to throw in the towel and walk on home.

As some of you may know, in May I said “F-it“, kicked my full time job to the curb and doubled down on myself as an entrepreneur.  I figured one thing out – if I don’t fully believe in myself and do whatever it takes to succeed – why would anyone else believe in me?  Why would they believe enough to join or invest?  I also figured I would rather die knowing I tried everything possible to make my vision come true rather than feel regret as the years went by.

Side note: I also started writing on here, Business Insider and other publications, proving to be the smartest decision of my life.  No joke.

Throughout this summer I entertained different business ideas, different roles, different industries and even different approaches to business.  Nothing felt right.

Well, as we spoke that day something woke up in me and it felt as if an old friend had just come back into my life.  I am sure it was obvious to him as well.   The blood started rushing to my head and the vision started to come back to life.  I said to myself “I am home and it is time“.

Since timing is everything I will refrain from naming the company or any others involved.  But keep your eyes open, you will soon start seeing and hearing about it.  Our vision is eerily similar to what you read above and mark my words: your local consumer experience will drastically change in the next five years. 

Today I enter the next phase of my life.  As CEO of a new company, with a new life and a world of potential in front of it. I am set to make the best of it, whatever that means… be it lessons learned, acquisition, IPO or lifelong employment/retirement.

As I step up to be the leader of this company – and a leader in the technology industry as a whole – I cannot let go of the irony this day holds with the greatest leader the business world has ever witnessed stepping down.  But I must since life always has it’s way of moving forward.

It seems fitting that Steve Jobs said it so eloquently: “We believe that people with passion can change the world… for the better.  And it’s those people who are crazy enough to believe they can change the world, actually do.”  

Will do, Steve.

@jnickhughes