Working from Home: Week Thirty-Two
Friday marked the end of my thirty-second week of working from home (mostly). Here are my takeaways from week thirty-two:
- Pitch events – This week was busy because of events. Techstars, Venture Atlanta, and others gave companies opportunities to pitch to investors and the community. I wasn’t able to attend everything, but I enjoyed what I did make it to. These events are a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to introduce their companies to a wide variety of people. Lots of companies present when they’re raising capital.
- Outlander event – Our team is working hard to bring interesting events to the Southeast. We have some great stuff in the pipeline. I’m excited about our pitch competition for female founders. Can’t wait to see what problems they’re solving.
- Progress – I couldn’t make progress on everything on my list this week. I guess that was to be expected because of all the events. I’m looking forward to getting back on track next week. I’m going to try Jean-Michel Lemieux’s “1, 3, and 5” approach.
- Relationships – Relationships came to the fore this week. I helped a few connections with projects they’re working on, and others did the same for me. Healthy relationships are bidirectional, and I enjoy helping others however I can. It’s great to see someone become successful and know you played a small role in helping them get there.
Week thirty-two was full of events. I’m looking forward to putting my head down and focusing next week. My goal is to wrap up a few big things before the holiday.
I’ll continue to learn from this unique situation, adjust as necessary, and share my experience.
Blogging Your Way to a Cofounder
One of the biggest mistakes I made at CCAW was not having a cofounder. When I speak with early entrepreneurs, I share my experience and how difficult things can be as a solo founder. Fortunately, many understand the importance of a cofounder—but they struggle to find one. I’ve been thinking a lot about this common challenge. And I recently met a team that was the result of a different approach to solving it.
The CEO was passionate about a particular space and wanted to build a technical product to solve problems he saw in it. He was nontechnical, so he couldn’t build it himself. He let people in his network know what he was looking for, and he also did something else that was highly effective: he shared his thoughts about the space in blog posts. In them, he explained how he viewed the space and the problems customers were experiencing. And he described his vision for how these problems could be solved. The posts showed his passion for the space and that he was committed enough to take the time to write and share his thoughts.
As I got to know the team, I learned that those posts were pivotal in his recruitment of three cofounders. The other founders were also passionate about the space and came across the CEO’s posts while researching it. The blog posts weren’t intended to recruit others, but they did just that. They attracted like-minded people who reached out, wanting to be part of his vision.
There are lots of strategies for finding a cofounder. I really like the blogging approach because it’s a passive way to recruit that continually works in the background and at the same time adds tons of other value for readers and the author. Medium and other platforms make blogging quick and easy.
If you’re a solo founder looking for a cofounder, consider writing some blog posts about your space and your vision. You never know—they just might help you find the perfect cofounder!
Virtual Learning: Venture Atlanta
Today I attended Venture Atlanta. It’s the first year they’ve done a virtual event, but I was impressed. One of the conversations I enjoyed was with Jean-Michel Lemieux, CTO at Shopify and former VP of engineering at Atlassian. Shopify’s platform has made it easier than ever for small and medium-sized business to have an e‑commerce presence. It’s grown tremendously during the pandemic as traditional businesses look for ways to sell online quickly. Jean-Michel shared a few great things:
- Shopify’s leaders realized they couldn’t recruit the talent they needed in Ottawa, Ontario, from tech havens like San Francisco. They opted to hire young and focus on developing talent quickly. They’ve been intentional about connecting their junior team members with more experienced people in the local community from large tech companies like Blackberry and Nortel. And they’ve gone as far as hiring full-time coaches to ensure that the team has the support it needs to develop quickly.
- Jean-Michel begins his week by figuring out what his “1, 3, and 5” are. What’s the one thing that has to get done this week? He won’t leave the office until it’s been completed. What are the three things he should be able to get done? What are the five things it would be nice to get done? If the top thing gets done and some of the should-get-done ones are addressed, it was a good week. Anything more is a bonus.
- He allows zero meetings on Wednesday so he can have an entire day to focus.
- Figure out what’s unique about your location or city. When you know, leverage it. Lean into it. Don’t try to be like other cities. Create your own identity by playing to your strengths, not comparing yourself to others.
Jean-Michel has hit the start-up lottery twice by working in senior roles at two of the larger publicly traded tech companies outside of Silicon Valley. He shared a ton of nuggets, and it’s clear from today’s conversation that he’s a talented person. I’m a fan of Shopify and will be excited to see how it continues to help small and medium-sized businesses thrive digitally!
Capital is one of the highest hurdles early entrepreneurs encounter. Most people won’t work without compensation and most vendors won’t give away goods or services. It’s easy to see why lack of capital can be a challenge. When I meet with founders at the idea stage, though, I often remind them that capital alone won’t lead to success.
Capital is a tool. It helps you acquire the resources you need to build a vehicle that will carry you (and others) to your destination. The tool and the vehicle are cool, but what counts is the destination. Without it, the tool and vehicle have no purpose.
The most successful entrepreneurs I know all had a vision for their company early on. They saw a problem and envisioned a solution. Where others saw obstacles, they saw opportunity. In my opinion, it was their vision that allowed them to become successful. Sure, the capital they raised along the way (if any) was helpful, but the vision was indispensable.
If you’ve identified a problem you want to solve, consider taking time to develop and expand on your vision. If you’re successful in solving this problem, what does the world look like? Share it with people who can battle-test it and help you make it better. This simple exercise will be valuable and help you convince others (including investors) to join you on your journey.
Wouldn’t Change a Thing
Yesterday I caught up with a good friend who’s also an entrepreneur. He said he was recently asked, “What would you change or do differently?” We’ve both been asked this question for various reasons, so we had a great chat about it.
Things will inevitably get challenging during the entrepreneurial journey. Entrepreneurs will find themselves making important decisions based on imperfect information. Having lived this scenario many times, we agreed about what matters most:
- Everything happens for a reason. The reason may not be clear at the time, but there is one. Take time to reflect on what happened, and why, so you can apply what you learn in the future. What seems like a failure today could be a steppingstone to a decision that leads to massive success. Reflection and the understanding it engenders are key to improving your decision-making.
- Neither of us would change any of our decisions. We don’t second-guess them. We didn’t know then what we know now, and we stand by our decisions because we did the best we could with the knowledge and other resources available to us. Don’t continually relive the past. Focus on the future.
- It isn’t over until the clock reads double zero. Stay focused on getting the win. Sometimes you’ll make decisions that don’t pan out. That’s OK. Dust yourself off and get back in the game. Remember that it isn’t over yet and you can still make a comeback. If you win in the end, all your turnovers and air balls don’t matter anymore.
My conversation with my buddy was a great reminder for both of us that we wouldn’t change a single thing. As he so eloquently put it, “All windshield, no rearview mirror over here!”
Virtual Learning: Techstars Atlanta Demo Day
Today I attended Atlanta’s Techstars Demo Day. Techstars Atlanta is a partnership between Cox Enterprises and Techstars. These demo days are held in cities all over the world and historically they’re hosted by each city’s local Techstars accelerator. Accelerators are three-month programs in which entrepreneurs receive “funding, mentorship and access to the Techstars network for life.” Because of the pandemic, all 2020 demo days are virtual (I’m not sure if virtual attendance used to be an option). These virtual events are a great opportunity for people to learn about new companies that are solving problems in interesting ways.
Techstars accelerators give entrepreneurs access to a lot of really smart people—including past and present entrepreneurs in the Techstars network—who can help them fast-track their progress and otherwise support them. Demo days are a great way for entrepreneurs to get introduced to customers and potential investors.
Feel free to check out the latest Atlanta Techstars cohort (and pitches) here.
Working from Home: Week Thirty-One
Friday marked the end of my thirty-first week of working from home (mostly). Here are my takeaways from week thirty-one:
- Month seven – Hard to believe it’s been seven months . . . but it has. Writing these weekly posts has[ been a great reminder of how much time has passed. I’ve settled into working from home at this point, but the lack of separation can still be a challenge. My workday wants to creep into the evening. I’m actively trying to consistently end it at a certain time.
I was happy with week thirty-one. I was more intentional and managed my time better, which helped a lot.
I’ll continue to learn from this unique situation, adjust as necessary, and share my experience.
It’s OK for Founders to Have Weaknesses
Entrepreneurs are sometimes held to a standard that isn’t realistic. Some people think of them as superhuman and hard-charging, with everything figured out. This is only partly true! Most are hard-charging, but they experience the same emotions as everyone. And they definitely don’t have everything figured out—figuring it out as they go is par for the course.
Like everyone, entrepreneurs have to do things they aren’t good at doing. Unfortunately, when you’re building a company your weaknesses are exposed early and how you mitigate them can be very public. For example, if you’re not great at communicating, that will be quickly apparent to your team. They’ll see firsthand your evolution—the ups and the downs—as you become a better communicator.
I myself spent many years unaware of (or ignoring) my weaknesses at CCAW. I thought founders had to be strong and show no cracks. I was trying to live up to an image that was ridiculous. And I wasn’t alone. Other founders (in my opinion) were doing the same. Over time this charade wore on me mentally. I was failing in key areas and trying unsuccessfully to figure out why. It felt like I was drowning.
When I joined accountability groups with other entrepreneurs and listened to them describe challenges and acknowledge weaknesses, my perspective changed. As time passed, I began to open up and share my own weaknesses. I got feedback and learned from their experiences. Being more self-aware helped improve my decision-making and leadership. I no longer expected perfection because I accepted that I’m far from perfect myself.
I’m sharing this because I want to help early founders avoid this kind of self-inflicted pain. From the other side of the table, where I am now, it’s great when a founder is self-aware and willing to articulate what kind of help they need. We know they have weaknesses because everyone does (we’re not shocked or disappointed!) and we appreciate not having to guess what they are. Often, we can help by making an intro, sharing a resource, or describing a similar experience—but only if we know what would be useful.
Taking Technology for Granted
In August, I taught a lesson lab for Start It Up Georgia. The experience was great and the turnout was huge. There’s clearly a desire for something that helps people start companies in these uncertain times. Today I had the opportunity to connect with five entrepreneurs who are participating in the program. One question everyone was asked: “What piece of technology do you take for granted?”
I learned a lot from this discussion. Most of them chose their cell phone, for various reasons. With less in-person communication and people tired of Zoom meetings, phone calls are more appreciated. The ability to do tasks on a phone while walking in the fresh air was also mentioned. Very interesting altogether.
Also mentioned was high-speed home internet. With so many working from home (and spending all day on Zoom), it was a great choice. Without high-speed internet, productivity wouldn’t be what it’s been over the last seven months. I believe it’s one of the reasons many companies are considering allowing working from home indefinitely.
What piece of technology do you take for granted?
Vesting Schedules Protect Company Equity
I’ve written about how important finding a co-founder is for entrepreneurs. But equity (company ownership) is a big concern. Specifically, what happens if things don’t work out? If one founder isn’t pulling their weight, do they own as much of the company as they would if they were contributing mightily?
It’s a valid concern. But there’s a simple tool to mitigate it: a vesting schedule. A vesting schedule outlines when each person’s equity is theirs, free and clear. Keep in mind that equity should be earned, not granted, for early employees and founders. The vesting schedule is a great tool to set expectations about equity.
The most common vesting schedule is time-based. You typically see a four-year schedule with a one-year cliff. What does this mean? No equity vests until after a year of employment. If someone leaves in month eleven, they receive zero equity. On their one-year anniversary, 25% of their equity will vest (they stayed for one of four years, or 25% of the four-year schedule). After that, their equity vests in equal monthly increments until the forty-eighth month. Carta has a good article with details and examples.
At CCAW, we used a milestone-based vesting schedule with revenue as our milestone. As we reached certain revenue targets (while maintaining profitability), equity for leaders would vest. We had a minimum revenue threshold (i.e., cliff) the company had to hit before any equity vested. This schedule was very helpful because everyone was aligned. Our approach was specific to what we were trying to accomplish at the time and may not work for everyone.
Many investors will want to see that founders are on some sort of vesting schedule, which ensures that they’re committed to building the company. There are lots of details that I won’t get into, but the takeaway is that founders should have a vesting schedule (in some form or fashion) if they’re raising investor capital.
A vesting schedule is a great way to protect against someone who isn’t contributing having equity in a company. Finding a co-founder is hard, but vesting schedules overcome one hurdle.