Talk To Enough Successful People And Patterns Emerge

I am truly grateful for what have the opportunity to do each and every week.

We started Founders RAW a few months ago and are almost to our 10th full conversation with entrepreneurs here in Seattle.   For those who aren’t aware, Founders RAW is a new multimedia property where we showcase videos of casual conversations with other startup founders.  When I realized I was having great conversations with my founder friends at local startup events I decided we need to record this stuff and push it out to others.  Maybe you can learn something as well.

Check it out for yourself >  Founders RAW.

I typically sit down with one person each week, grab a beer and dive deep into what it’s like to start a company.  One of the big things I have taken away thus far is how patterns emerge during these conversations.

Founders RAW behind scenes

Sitting with Simon Crosby during our Founders RAW conversation at the WTIA TechNW event in Seattle.

What do I mean by patterns?

By patterns I mean in how these founders identify the challenges they face and how they dealt with and overcame them.  Not to say all entrepreneurs experience the same things, but as I peer deeper into my conversations and read between the lines, certain characteristics or principles seem to be emerging.

The founders also seem to allude to similar experiences of company near-death and despair – yet they continued forward when all seemed lost.  So yes, no one is immune to the inevitable challenges and tough times ahead.

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Sitting with Carlos Guestrin during our conversation at the WTIA TechNW event in Seattle.

Vision

Each founder I talk with embodies a strong sense of vision – they know where they are going and what they want to accomplish.  Vision is what sets them apart from their competition and allows them to navigate changing waters when their market matures and shifts with the times.  John Cook had a vision of digital media even when he was working  as a reporter for a traditional newspaper.  Amazingly, he pitched them on rolling out a whole new concept involving the web and digital properties, only to be shot down my management.  So he left and started it himself!

We know now who had the vision and who was stuck in the past.

Strength

The founders I have spent time with all have the quality of strength, meaning they are able to endure and deal with the challenges ever-present in entrepreneurship.   Whether it be dealing with co-founder issues, standing up to advisors and investors when their business model is challenged, or when push comes to shove they determine to out innovate the competition.  Adam Lieb, founder of gaming social network Duxter, displayed a strong sense of character as he detailed out his experience raising money from angel investors.  It’s not easy for startup founders to raise money, especially here in Seattle vs down in the Valley.   The lesson I took was investors want to invest in strong, vision oriented founders, not weak leaders who will bend at any sense of difficulty.

Flexibility

Lastly, as market forces change the tech landscape founders must be flexible and change with it.  Advancements in technology are only speeding up and drastically influencing how we build our companies.  Just a handful of years ago AWS/Amazon was nowhere to be seen.  Now, because startups can now host in the cloud using services like AWS and Heroku, startup costs have dropped dramatically and thus have allowed a founder to launch a company in under $5K initial investment.   Bob Crimmins made a huge point regarding this as he spoke about what he is seeing with the TechStars companies he mentors.  “They act quickly, test frequently and iterate often.”  That is why the successful ones are growing – the lowered cost to start and grow has allowed for more/quicker iterations of web products and services.

It’s been fun thus far and I can’t wait to see what happens next.  And I think you should do this too!  No, you don’t have to record your conversations like we are but I think Mark Suster was onto something when he says you should take 50 coffee meetings this next year.

John Cook

Chatting with John Cook of GeekWire during our Founders RAW conversation.

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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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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.

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.

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.

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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.

An Intriguingly Utopian Vision For The Future Of Technology

You may have seen this two-year old video but I saw it today and thought it’s worthy of highlighting.   It puts together a quite intriguing vision of how we’ll interact with the web and technology in the future.

Entrepreneurs, you might want to look for ideas of how you can get involved building some of these things starting today.