Steve Ballmer Talks Life Lessons At Harvard

This is a great 45-min video of Steve Ballmer talking about some of his life lessons to the CS50 class.  If you can handle his antics, there’s a lot of great entrepreneurial nuggets in here.

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What I Learned Launching A ‘Crazy’ Bitcoin Startup

The months leading up to the announcement of our new company was chock full of lessons learned.  We launched Coinme on May 1st at Spitfire in Belltown during a well attended launch party, complete with our first Meetup and an entertaining expert bitcoin panel.

It was the culmination of many long days, phone calls, emails, re-designs, re-brandings, and all sorts of other seemingly frustrating things.  Below I have detailed three of which helped me realize a few things – namely the biggest risk of all is not taking a risk.

Setting a deadline is essential

Setting yourself a deadline – be it a launch party, a internal team milepost or some other marker – is the single best thing you can do to push yourself and your team to execute and actually complete what you set out to complete.  We set May 1st as our launch party, and determined the machine needed to be there, dressed in its new costume and ready to take live transactions in front of more than an hundred people.

photo (9)We also – very importantly – needed to get passed through the State of Washington as an officially licensed money transmitter business before this date.  You have no idea what was required for all these pieces to come together, and before we began this process I didn’t either.  But given we had committed to launch this company, we held ourselves to the deadline and pulled through right at the end.

I have painfully seen it time and time again with other startups in Seattle… they never release their feature or finally launch their company.  Crazily, they just keep working on things.  In the end, they simply don’t set themselves a deadline to stick to so they just remain in startup purgatory. This is not the right place to be as a startup – trust me.

Being early is both good and bad

One big thing I have learned is it’s very early in the bitcoin world, probably too early for most consumers.  Most people still have no idea what it is, why they should purchase it, and why they should use it for payments.  Although the answer to those questions will be left for future posts, suffice it to say the entire world is still trying to figure it out.  Coinme, as a company, believes in the transformative nature of the technology and feel it can influence not only financial transactions but many more industries.  And again, it’s way too early to tell.

But we feel our opportunity to influence such an early industry was/is too great to pass up.  We see areas where we can help educate and inform people about the positives, negatives and in-betweens of this new cryptocurreny world.  We’d rather be early to the party than too late.

Being early to the market can be good for a startup, but it also can be not so good.  If you are too early to the market you risk spending all of your available capital without generating enough revenues (assuming at some point you need to run on revenues, not invested capital) which will ultimately end the business.   Successful businesses are able to time the market in a way where they achieve both early mover advantage and customer adoption.  One without the other spells doom for any high growth company.

Calculated risk is worth it

I touched on this last post but I feel so strongly about it I think its worth addressing again.  Taking a calculated risk – hopefully a number of them – is one of the best things entrepreneurs can do to accel their careers.  Doing what no one else is willing or ready to do places a person in a very select group of people, a group where things are created, companies are sold and millionaires are made.  Even if the venture ultimately fails, the business (or tech) community will consider the founder a leader, an innovator and a healthy risk taker.

And you know what?

That’s exactly the person investors want to invest in.  That’s who others want to follow when they take their next job and join their next company.  That’s who the media wants to cover when they write about the next generation of business leaders.

No imagine if you don’t take that risk…

Trust me, what I learned over the last few months is that the biggest risk of all is not taking a risk.

 

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.

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

Startup Death Valley: What It Is And How To Get Out

I’m sure a large number of teams reading Techcrunch or other tech blogs right now are in the same situation my company found itself recently.  It probably goes something like this: you have a startup, a product, users and a maybe little revenue.  You are growing month over month but really you aren’t where you want to be.

Most likely you are answering questions with reflexive responses such as “well, we are just testing some assumptions right now” or “we’re heading in the right direction, just need a few more engineers on the team.”  Or, how about this one, “oh, we’re still in stealth, you could call it alpha…”

Give me a break.  Quit lying to yourself.

To put it bluntly, you are in Startup Death Valley.  And you need to get out as soon as possible.  If not, your startup will certainly die.  It might make you feel better knowing Death Valley is where most startups end up – not quite done but definitely not making anything happen.  If you do feel better thinking you are not alone, you are most certainly destined to fail.  Finding yourself in Death Valley is scary and should result in only one question: “how long until we’re dead?”


You and I know it wasn’t always this way.  Not too long ago your team was driving forward toward a goal, excited as hell to be at the office until midnight or later hammering away to the launch your latest concept.  And you absolutely knew, once you launched, millions of users were going to flock.  Revenues were supposed to grow.  Investors were most definitely going to call you back.

And then… Crickets.

Now, it’s become a lot more difficult to get out of bed.  You’ve noticed it’s not as exciting to load up the email or go into the office, and definitely not as fun to field questions about your startup.  Reading all the media out there you just wish you could be on the other side, reaching milestones and attracting investment dollars at record levels.  But you’re not.  You get up each day wishing things would be different instead of actually doing anything about it.  In a word, you are complacent.

If this is how you are feeling, you are currently in Death Valley and have little time left.   So, how do those select few companies – the ones gaining all the attention and money – get out (or stay out) of Death Valley?

First and foremost, they make their own luck.  They pick up the dice and roll them again – quickly.  They get out by putting it all on the line and betting the company, just as we did recently.  Oddly, when faced with inadequate growth too many startups just keep heading blindly toward danger only to drive right off the cliff.   This is, quite literally, insane.  They are not self aware enough to sense what needs to change, when, and how fast.  The ability to sense market shifts and adjust accordingly is an incredible skill that can be found in all of the successful founders, especially ones the ones you don’t find in Death Valley.

Without going into detail about my startup, here’s the playbook we just used to redesign and deploy a brand new product within a month’s time, reviving our company and paving the way for a whole new market opportunity.  If you are a founder or early employee of a stagnant startup, maybe this playbook will help you too.

Make a commitment to change
The first step is to determine what you are going to do and how you will go about it.  To get clear on those issues, you need to take an account of what you have or have not accomplished up to this point.  This requires a long and painful look in the mirror by the founding team, revealing truths that will hopefully save the company.

Has your vision changed since the last big development?  What has the larger market and your existing user base told you since your last product release?  What features are engaging users on the existing product?  What is not engaging and not being used.  Point blank, what’s not working?   What assumptions were proven true and what didn’t pan out?

Then it’s pretty simple – keep what is working and throw away what doesn’t.  Really, just scrap it.  In our experience it was smarter to cut the fat and trim features rather than just add new ones we thought might work.  For a number of reasons we actually decided to rebuild rather than make additions to existing codebase.  Contrary to popular belief, this is more challenging than it sounds.  Why? Inherently, humans tend to be scared and freeze when making drastic changes on things they spent long periods of time working on.  It all comes down to our natural fear of change.  This is no truer as an employee of a Big Co. than as it is as a startup team reviewing their V1.0 product.  The reason is we fear change.  Yet, this is exactly where we found ourselves with our product – growing but not growing very fast. Ultimately, we decided we weren’t scared of the consequences since we knew if we did nothing, nothing would change.  Actually, that’s not true.  It would have been the end of the line since “good enough” is actually not good enough in the big leagues.

State it VERY publicly
Almost nothing gets done until there’s a deadline.  Although dates set internally are the start of it, they are only as good as your team’s integrity.  Unfortunately, it’s way too easy to fudge on commitments when they are loosely agreed upon between a few team members in a private meeting. Fully committing to a new product release required establishing a public event and trying it to our new product.  To make it even more drastic of a commitment, we also stated this publicly and promised a large group of people they would be using our system, the very product that wasn’t yet built. This was really the only way to move the needle.  Similar to launch parties, larger public commitments set solid deadlines teams must respect.  In fact, DEADline is a great word since that is what you will be if, in fact, you don’t meet it.

Do whatever it takes to deliver
Staying at the office until wee hours of the morning, having intense discussions of where buttons and other little details should be placed, and not spending time with friends or family because a deadline is fast approaching, these are all signs you are doing whatever it takes to make things happen.

The biggest sign: you are more afraid of not delivering and failing in public than anything else in the moment.

We found ourselves performing at levels we hadn’t reached in quite some time, if ever.  The last few weeks were a blur, and we didn’t sleep at all the night before our release, not because we were excited like Christmas Eve, but because we HAD to deliver.  Although not amusing at the time, the moment media was suppose to go live (6am EST) announcing our latest release, our site was actually down.  How fun!  Even more challenging, throughout the entire launch day our system was incredibly buggy due to a DNS change and other small issues.  Yet I was as proud as any startup CEO could be watching our entire team set aside all other distractions, doing whatever it takes to push out a successful new release.

The lesson here is simple – without a predetermined public commitment connected to a larger event we would never have pushed ourselves as hard as we did.  We would have stayed in Death Valley, remaining complacent like the other 90% of startups out there.   We smartly made a commitment others outside our organization could hold us accountable and expect us to deliver on.   It was very risky.

Yet, through the very late nights and stressful moments an awesome feeling started to emerge:  Damn right, we will most definitely make this happen.

image via Flickr user Michael Ransburg.

The 3 Entrepreneurial Lessons My Father (and his wedding) Have Taught Me

This is a special day in my life as my father is getting (re)married.  In fact I am extremely honored to stand by his side as his best man to celebrate and witness this great commitment.   Recently I have had the opportunity to think a little deeper about what my father, Jim Hughes, has taught me.  Many things graced my thoughts, but 3 things stick out and continue to be huge influences in my life each day.

If you are an entrepreneur maybe they will help you as well.

Devotion- Live What You Love

As long as I can remember my father has lived his passion and his work has been his life.  Amazingly, his faith is part of his work as well – he is the the Director of Stewardship & Development for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise, ID.   He lives, breathes and speaks faith.  He does not try to convert one who may not be aligned with his way of seeing the world, but anyone who meets him can sense the calmness his faith brings to his life.  He is the most dedicated and devoted person I have ever met.  His faith is his life and his work is his faith.  You will not meet anyone doubting my father’s devotion and commitment to his cause.

Basically my father raises money to support the expansion of the Diocese just as a CEO would raise money to extend the life of his company.  Say what you want about religion, faith or “believers”, this post is not a sermon; it is a lesson on how to fully devote yourself to a cause or purpose.  If my father was not fully devoted, it would be unlikely people would feel empowered to give money towards an important cause.  When spotted, an entrepreneur needs to take note of someone who is fully devoted because they are rare in this world but the best of examples.  How are investors supposed to put their faith and money in you when you aren’t fully devoted you your cause?  Show me a devoted person and I will show you someone who is making things happen.  Life just does not work any other way.

Appreciation – Life is a Gift

If you have met my father you would know exactly what I am talking about here, his appreciation for life and people is like a potent fragrance that can fill an entire room.  You know it when you shake his hand and look him in the eyes.  It’s piercing.  You sense a respect that falls like a warm blanket on the connection between the two of you.  He appreciates you for just being… you.  When you talk with him he looks right at you, transfixed on experiencing all of you and the conversation at the moment.  It is this endearing respect for all people I intuitively picked up on as a young boy watching his father, and I cannot thank him enough for the unspoken lesson which has helped me navigate through life possibly lighter than others.

As an entrepreneur I think the principles of appreciation is often overlooked, which can be a big mistake.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in our own situation and look out for number 1 first and foremost.  But here a few thoughts to ponder:  When you meet people, what do you think you look like – from their point of view?  Do you look them straight in the eyes?  Do you give them all your attention?  Do you let them know – without saying anything – they are the most important person in the room at that given moment?  I guarantee you will attract better talent with this approach.  Even if you are talking to your newest hire or old janitor, not understanding this principle will be an Achilles heel in your life as people will come to learn deep down you might not think so highly of them.  Success can only be found in respect and appreciation for others.

Patience – Good Things Come in Time

After my parents were divorced my father remained single for roughly 25 years and we all were wondering if it would ever happen again!  He took his (sweet) time to find the woman he felt he could commit to for the rest of his life.  But I never doubted he would end up happily ever after with another person.  As everyone started asking him what he was thinking, who would he end up with and when it would happen.. he quietly understood the principles of patience.  Patience (knowing the right thing will eventually present itself) is what brought him to today – the right time, the right person and the right perspective.

All too often we rush into something too quickly, forcing our will onto the situation thinking that if we just force the square peg in the round hole, it will fit.  Ironically this is the exact trait for which makes for an entrepreneur – sheer will.  The will of an entrepreneur can at times be a positive force, working to help us overcome challenges and move forward.  Yet many times sheer will clashes horns with a silent, but stronger patience.  Sometimes it just isn’t the right time for your vision to come together and you must pull back a bit and take a different route.  Indeed this is tough.  But smart entrepreneurs understand heeding patience and know good things always come with time.

These principles my father taught me have been life changing, I hope they may have the same impact on you.