Stay True To Your Roots Regardless of The Competition

I love the way John Cook describes how he maintains the GeekWire focus and brand among stifling competition.  Basically, he says

If you want to differentiate yourself you need to stay focused on your unique DNA – your roots if you will – and why you started in the first place rather than just copying whatever the other competitors are doing.”

That’s an awesome statement and one I try to live by as a founder as well.

But how?

I think there are a few fundamental methods of staying true to your roots.

1)Deeply Know Thyself

It’s important to know why you started your company or built your product in the first place.  Was it something that occurred to you through a life experience?  Or did you see numerous other startups doing the same thing and raising money from investors so you thought you might as well jump in and do it as well?  Really evaluating and understanding the why of your pursuit will bring you closer to your roots, which will inevitably lead to differentiation from the rest of the pack.

2) Talk To Your Users and Customers

Rather than looking at the competition, you need to look at your users.  Very early on you need to talk to your customers or users to determine why they are using the product and what value they are deriving from it.  The insights from your users will open your eyes to aspects of your product you may have not seen before.  This Customer-centric practice will keep you internally focused on your product/vision/future rather than what all the other competitors are doing in the space.

3) Be A Leader, Not A Follower

One of the best ways to stay true to your roots is to be a market leader, one who blazes the trail vs finding someone else’s trail.   Leaders usually have unique insights on an existing model and are doing something new and different than the competition.  They don’t care what others think or what the competition is doing.   They are independent thinkers and use their own models as testing for what works and what doesn’t.  In this manner, Leaders typically are the unique and original brands the other competitors are trying to copy – to little avail.

Listen to John touch on his perspective of staying true to GeekWire’s roots.   Go to Founders RAW >>

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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.

Founders RAW: John Cook of GeekWire Tells His Awesome Startup Story

“If you just hang around long enough… you’ll make it.”

In the latest installment of Founders RAW I recently sat down with John Cook, co-founder of GeekWire, a growing media resource here in Seattle covering technology and startups.  It’s a great conversation, ranging from his memories of his entrepreneurial parents to his lessons from youth sports and onto his crazy startup experience with launching GeekWire.

Founders take note, John is not only a budding entrepreneur himself, but since he covers other successful founders he knows what it takes to make things happen.

Some Of The Best Video Content Is Never Actually Captured

I just finished a great Founders RAW conversation with John Cook, founder of GeekWire.  As we were wrapping up and had already turned the cameras off, we ended up chatting for a while longer.

I wish we hadn’t turned those cameras off!

It was then we dove into some of his more challenging times, including the story of how when he was still working for the newspapers and struggling to expand TechFlash (precurser to GeekWire) when him and his co-founder Todd decided to launch GeekWire.  He said they actually had to rush the launch of GeekWire because they were basically creating a competitor to their previous employer.  He reminisced about the day of turning on their new site, describing how he even jumped out of their car (which was sitting in traffic) and ran to their office where they were going to flip the switch and launch the site.  He was so excited he couldn’t wait another 10 or 15 minutes!  He said it was pretty crazy times.

It was a lesson for this video newbe to always be ready and don’t stop filming until you really are done.

He also spoke about the challenges of being a founder while a parent of very young children, something I don’t envy.  When asked what is the key to being a founder + parent, John simply said “an awesome wife.”  Below is a quick picture capturing our post interview conversation.

We’ll have the entire conversation out and posted in a few days.

John Cook

My Dear Founders: Please Don’t Lie – The Truth Will be Found Out

New flash: Honesty is the best policy.  This is true in relationships as well as life.  But you bet your ass it’s especially true in public business dealings.

Long story short, a Seattle founder just attempted to pose as a 19 year old girl who apparently actioned off 10% of her income for the next 10 years for $125,000 investment in her startup.  But she turned out to be a he and it was all a lie.  And he was busted by GeekWire.

(Nice job GW, you totally redeemed yourself.)

Reading about the latest hoax this morning for some reason boiled my blood more than normal. Is it because I – like a lot of other Seattle founders – actually work my ass off to build great products and earn the right to be covered by media outlets? Is it because I am on high alert from the recent attacks in Boston last week, resulting in false flames and untruths thrown all over Twitter and leaving us wondering which way is up or down?

Is it because another 19 year old founder actually did make news a few weeks ago by selling his startup to Yahoo for $30 million, making me just a bit jealous he is now a millionaire before the age of 20?  Or is it because the tech media is so desperate to break the latest story they will gloss over details and hit publish too quickly – leaving openings for people to take advantage?

Who knows any more…

What I do know is honesty is the best policy.  Given the fact (and I am assuming here..) we are all adults, it’s somewhat disappointing we need to have the honesty conversation right here and in public.

Yet here we are.

False truths and lies might slip through the cracks and get you a little media coverage but they will absolutely ruin your credibility.  What Skipsnes may or may not realize is how bad he shot himself in the foot and how much more difficult it just got for him to become a successful entrepreneur.  Do you think anyone will ever believe anything that comes from his camp again?

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice….  In business, there is no twice.

Founders take note, you cannot lie or mislead and get away with it anymore.  Your every move and every dealing is now recorded.  You now have hundreds, maybe thousands of PI’s to deal with whenever you make news.  You are probably more intelligent than perpetuator #1, but even if it’s a small fudge of a story it better be true.

As we saw with the Boston bombings, today there is no way the truth will not be found out.  Once your story hits the web and news blogs you better believe people will search you.  They will google you.  They will search your Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.  They will search the domain registry.  They will make calls and verify your story.  If you are lying they will find the inevitable cracks in your story however small they may be.

Today, you cannot hide.  We will find you.

Skipsnes’ attempt to lie his way to fame and fortune has actually placed all our integrity in question.  He is trying to concoct a story about someone he is not in an attempt to generate attention for his website/business in hopes that in the end he will benefit financially from it.

Steinar confides in his admittance post:  “I want to grow and build a business more than anyone can understand.  When you want something bad enough, you’re forced to create a path or quit.”

Yea, don’t we all want it that bad.  And aren’t we all trying to create a story and gain attention?  The difference between him and (hopefully) the rest of us is where the motivation is coming from.

So all that his actions have really accomplished is placing all of us even more under the microscope.  Skipsnes probably doesn’t realize  how this reflects on all of us other founders, the honest ones.   Are the stories we are pitching to media outlets going to be believed and covered?  Or will they brush us off and take the “more trusted” story from Amazon or Microsoft so this doesn’t happen again?

His actions now make it that much harder for honest early stage founders to gain media coverage.

So founders, get ready for much more scrutiny.  Maybe that is a good thing, since in the end a high quality product coming from a high quality team deserves media coverage.  But get ready for higher standards.

We should all be ashamed it has come to the point middle aged men are posing as teen girls to get attention from the tech media.  Should we not?

In a surreal moment, my heart sank at the same time my blood boiled as I realized this man stooped this low simply to get attention from the media.

Maybe we should step back and take a look at what our goals are as early stage founders and what media coverage actually means.  Is it the end?  Or is it a means to an end?  Do we just want to see our names or our apps on a screen among other successful companies? If we think a blog post and media coverage is our ticket to success and abundance, I think we need to take a strong look in the mirror.

If lying and posing as a young teenage girl is our only option to get noticed in today’s world, god help us all.

Make No Mistake, Seattle Needs More Events Like The GeekWire Gala

If you had the opportunity to attend the recent GeekWire Gala you will probably agree with me when I say it was awesome.

Was there some crazy entertainer or cool band?  No.

Were there fireworks or a kick ass pyro-technics?  Nope.

Was it for a special occasion like a reunion or anniversary?  Not really.

Yet  more than 500 people showed up in attendance from various pockets of the tech community.  Investors to startup founders to lawyers and aspiring entrepreneurs gathered for a night of talking tech and socializing.  I know it sounds like a normal Seattle Startup event, so you might be wondering why it was so awesome?

As I looked out over the crowded event I started to realize all these people, in just this one room, can help me become successful if they get to know me well enough.  And this is true for all of us in that room.

I give a very big thanks to the entire GeekWire staff and all others who helped put on the event.  Although most people arrived, had a drink or two and then left without realizing how important this gathering was for the health of our tight-knit community; it was not lost on me.

Every so often the “Seattle vs. Silicon Valley” argument boils up to the cognitive surface with various differing opinions shouting about who is better at the top of their lungs.  Regardless of your stance it’s fair to say we – Seattle –  have our own identity with our own startup and investment characteristics, for better or for worse.

Yet I cannot shake an off-the-cuff comment given to me at a startup event this fall from someone close to me at the time.  They said “Nick, go down to the valley and you can find something like this going on pretty much every single night.”  I was immediately taken back by the comment but once I thought about it a little more I started to grasp the deeper meaning of the statement.

It wasn’t about “the valley” at all.  It was about community.

And it is with that statement I come to the conclusion: if Seattle is going to continue to grow as a serious technology, startup, and investment epicenter we need more events like the GeekWire Gala.  We need more opportunities to come together and get to know each other – as individuals and as a larger community.  And it desperately needs to happen more often.

From Wikipedia, The term community has two distinct meanings:

  • a group of interacting people, possibly living in close proximity, and often refers to a group that shares some common values, and is attributed with social cohesion within a shared geographical location, generally in social units larger than a household. The word can also refer to the national community or international community, and
  • in biology, a community is a group of interacting living organisms sharing a populated environment.

Notice the bold word interacting.  It is an important word – as a verb it indicates what we should be doing as a group of people.  We gather.  We interact.  We get to know each other.  We socialize.   We share common values.  Only when we are able to interact are we then able to possibly collaborate and do deals.

Interacting.  Hmmm, that’s an Interesting word  we find there, shall we dive a bit deeper… and find out what that word actually means?

  • communication of any sort, for example two or more people talking to each other, or communication among groups, organizations, nations or states: trade, migration, foreign relations, transportation,

Ah… there it is!  Communication – the one thing that will make or break any relationship.  So it seems to build a robust community we must continue to sharpen the communication lines between the individuals within our larger group.  As a relative newcomer to this scene, this makes a lot of sense to me.

What good is the “tech” or “startup” community here in Seattle if we just remain in our own silo’s, sitting behind our monitors in our own little offices.  An easy habit to form these days is thinking you, as an individual company, are building one something isolated from the outer world.  So we tend to want to stay within our own walls and this is a big mistake.  If you are apart of a large company or even a startup here in Seattle, you are a very important piece to a large organism.  Just as cells of the body must stay in constant communication with each other to remain in healthy stasis; so must we here in Seattle continue to communicate and interact so we can build a strong and healthy tech community.

What about using technology to virtually communicate?  Yes, we may banter back and forth via email and on Twitter but those are only extensions of community.  They don’t actually create a community.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying we don’t have events and activities to cultivate the ecosystem.  Currently there are a number of events happening on a monthly basis in which we can participate.  To name a few:

  • StartupWeekend events
  • Poker 2.0
  • WTIA Events
  • Morning Coffee’s
  • Pitch events
  • Meetups

I am suggesting even more events need to be put together to create and foster the tech community here in Seattle.  We all are responsible to do something for the health of the larger community – that is if we are going to voice our opinions on the subject.  And the Gala illustrated larger events bringing together a lot of people can spawn interesting and advantageous opportunities, just as a being a part of a small group playing poker will do.  This is why I organized the Startup Crawl, it was a great time to relax with a beer in your hand and just talk openly with people you might not otherwise interact with.  Sometimes these events are the start of something special.

Do they all have to revolve around drinking alcohol?  No, not at all.  Whatever the event, it should enhance the strengthening of existing relationships at the same time encourage new comers to attend and make some initial and important connections to help them get further ingrained in the community.

We may not be able to have much impact on the investment macroeconomics here in Seattle but we sure as hell can do something about the over community interaction.  And interestingly enough… I believe the later will pull the former along towards a better day.

Here’s A Happy Thanksgiving To The ‘Dudes’

Here is a short Thanksgiving message I sent to my team today.  As I re-read it, it become apparent how thankful we must be for the “lucky” turns life can take.

Happy Thanksgiving dudes. I am thankful for being a part of this great team and this most incredible opportunity. A simple article from me and a quick email from Jacques changed my life forever… and I am very grateful for that to happen. Also, as I look around us and think of what we have done in just a few months, we have been blessed with some great people as Advisors and others coming out of the woodwork offerring to help us. Never forget some things are inevitable. Let’s keep working our asses off.. great things are going to happen.

On a random day in August 2011, without a job and without much money in the bank…. I wrote an article titled“Ice cream is great, but utilities make the world go around” and got it published on GeekWire here in Seattle.  Amazingly Jacques Crocker, aka @railsjedi, read it and quickly emailed me requesting to meet and talk about some ideas.  At that meeting he mentioned reading my stuff and believed have similar visions and would work well together.  He wanted me to join and lead the team that would ultimately found the startup Seconds.  Immediately after that meeting, I knew my life was going to change forever.

I take little credit for this happening at the time it did.  Yes, working hard for many years afforded me the perspective and knowledge to be able to write articles such as that one.  But sometimes we are in the right place at the right time and luck just takes over.  In this, we need to be grateful and thankful for where we are in life.