Working from Home: Week Twenty
Today marked the end of my twentieth week of working from home. Here are my takeaways from week twenty:
- Month five – I’ve officially hit five months of working from home. This experience has taught me a lot about myself and my working style. A change of environment is important to my ability to mentally switch gears from home to work. I’ll be thinking more about how I can accomplish this safely going forward.
- Pace – This was a busy week. I’ve heard my fellow entrepreneurs talking about how busy they are too. I’m curious about whether activity will continue to pick up in August.
- Sharing thoughts – I shared an early thesis about a business topic with some other people. I wanted to find out if I was missing anything. I’m glad I did. They told me how they saw it and pointed out some things I’d overlooked. I’ll continue to refine my thesis.
Week twenty was a busy week that passed quickly. No major takeaways this week. I’m just glad I had a productive week.
I’ll continue to learn from this unique situation, adjust as necessary, and share my experience.
So What Do I Do With All This Knowledge?
In the early days of CCAW I knew what I wanted to build, but I didn’t know how to get there. I was determined to figure it out, and I thirsted for helpful knowledge. I read all the articles and books I could get my hands on and attended all the learning events I could. Eventually I found the right books and events, the ones that provided targeted knowledge about building a company. Accounting . . . finance . . . sales . . . marketing . . . strategy—all those great things.
I found the knowledge I was looking for. I felt like gaps were being filled and dots were connecting. I became excited, but I was still unsure. I understood fundamental topics better; the nuances in my market, not so much. I didn’t know how to apply my new knowledge in a way that moved CCAW forward. It was daunting. I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. I spoke with other entrepreneurs at a similar stage and they did too.
Eventually, with mentoring by credible people, I figured application out. Entrepreneurs who’d successfully scaled their companies shared their experiences with me. In the end it all worked out. My team and I were able to scale CCAW to over $10 million in annual revenue. As I reflected on this, I realized how important application of knowledge was to CCAW’s early success. Knowing about and understanding key concepts is essential, but if you don’t apply them effectively, your company goes nowhere.
I’m always mulling over how we can provide more opportunities to Atlanta entrepreneurs to increase their chances of success. Application is an area where we can do better, I think. Much better. Our community has done a great job making information more readily available to entrepreneurs. However, we’re not focusing enough on helping entrepreneurs apply their knowledge to their situation. Entrepreneurs still have to make their own decisions and walk the journey. No one can do it for them. But if we accelerate that process, they’ll be more likely to get to the finish line.
Incubators and Accelerators: How to Decide
Whenever I meet a rising entrepreneur, I like to understand their journey to date. I especially want to know how they’ve attempted to fill their knowledge gaps. First-time entrepreneurs are constantly trying to figure out what they don’t know and what they should be doing. I regularly hear them mention various incubator and accelerator programs they’ve considered.
When I started CCAW, the financial crisis was going on and these types of programs weren’t abundant in Atlanta (as far as I know). The ecosystem wasn’t established, so knowledge about building startups wasn’t readily available. Whenever we found a resource, we jumped at it because we were desperate. Today, though, entrepreneurs in Atlanta have a variety of options. Online programs catering to entrepreneurs nationwide also are available.
With so many options, how do entrepreneurs pick the right program? I’d start by thinking about the following things:
- Segment – Understand what segment of the journey the program focuses on. The idea stage? These programs help turn concepts into MVPs. Product–market fit? These programs will help you figure out how to validate your assumptions by continually adjusting and improving your MVP until customers will readily pay for it. Most programs focus on one of these two early stages. It’s best to choose one that aligns with the segment you are in.
- Length – How long is the program and how often will you be interacting with someone? It could be a day long. It could last several months. Of course, more frequent interactions and more time provide more opportunities to go deeper.
- Success – Consider how the program defines success for its participants. Does this work for you?
- Application – Does the program help you apply teachings to your specific situation? Or does it expect you to figure out how to do so on your own time?
This isn’t a comprehensive list, just a few things to consider.
I’m encouraged that there are so many options for entrepreneurs to choose from. I hope we’ll continue to help newbies fill their knowledge gaps so they’ll have a better chance of being successful!
Why Is This Recession So Uneven?
The impact of the current recession is uneven. When I talk to fellow entrepreneurs, some are having the best year of their lives. (I know entrepreneurs who have more cash than ever.) Others are struggling to meet payroll. I’ve thought about this, and I have a theory that drastic revenue redistribution is causing recession pain to be felt unevenly.
The pandemic has caused a sharp decrease in economic activity. I don’t think anyone can argue with that. Revenue is down for most businesses. However, I think something else is having an equal, if not greater, impact. Consumer habits changed almost overnight. The threat of contracting COVID-19 changed how we socialize, work, and do normal everyday things. In my opinion, this changed how consumers spend money, which is the true root cause of the unevenness.
Companies that were positioned to take advantage of changing habits are benefiting. Let’s take my eating habits, for example. Pre-pandemic, I ate out for lunch every day and had dinner out many times a week. I usually picked up groceries once every two weeks from a variety of grocery stores. The pandemic changed my comfort level with these old habits, but I still need to eat. So, I’ve changed how I go about doing it.
I no longer feel comfortable in confined spaces with people I’m not familiar with (no offense to anyone). Nor do I want to go to the grocery store. For the past few months, I’ve had groceries delivered exclusively from Whole Foods Market via Amazon Prime Now.
My overall spending on food has deceased, but only slightly. But the distribution of my spending has changed drastically. I spend $0 at restaurants. My spending at Whole Foods Market has increased 5X. My spending at other groceries is $0. Instead of many companies helping to feed me, I’m relying on just one. Whole Foods Market gets all my food dollars because it was positioned to meet my needs better than other companies were. There are lots of cons to this approach—reliance on a single source—but it’s my reality.
I think this scenario is playing out across our economy. It’s causing some industries (many of which were already struggling) to experience unprecedented pain, while others flourish.
What are your thoughts on why this recession is uneven?
Rookie Mistakes 101: Not Asking for Help
Over the last year, I’ve been more intentional about giving back to rising entrepreneurs. I try to help fill their knowledge and relationship gaps. I share my experiences and connect them with other people who can help. I remember how difficult the early segment of the journey was for me. Help was pivotal. I’m not sure that I would have progressed to the next segment without it.
One thing I’ve noticed in my mentoring and advising caught me off guard. Some early entrepreneurs don’t ask for help. When connected with people who want to help, they never make contact. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this. I’ve spoken with program managers at accelerators focused exclusively on helping early stage founders who’ve noticed a similar pattern.
I decided to think about the early stages of my own entrepreneurial journey. I was curious about whether I was guilty of the same behavior. I dug through old materials and correspondence and sure enough, I was! I didn’t ask for help after meeting people, or I took much longer to do so than I should have.
I think there are a variety of explanations. Bandwidth is the first. Early-stage founders are wearing ten hats and just don’t get around to everything. Imposter syndrome is the second. I was inexperienced. I felt embarrassed about asking certain questions. I was afraid people would realize how much I didn’t know or how little traction I’d made. I eventually got over this, which changed my life.
Founders should never feel ashamed to ask for help. It doesn’t matter how silly they fear their questions are. Anyone who’s made the journey and is offering to help knows better than to judge. After all, they were in the same place back in the day.
People with experience who want to help are a great resource that founders should take full advantage of. So many don’t ask for help that when you do, you stand out. In a good way. It shows that you’re willing to take action.
The next time you’re introduced to someone with experience who you have reason to believe wants to help, ignore that little voice in your head that urges caution (it’s the voice of fear). Ask them to help you with your most pressing obstacle. They’ll probably be glad you asked and delighted to help!
Perseverance Precedes Greatness
When I read biographies of people who’ve had an impact on society, I’m always amazed. Their journeys were full of extreme highs and lows that most people aren’t aware of. Somehow, they hung on through the tough times and accomplished something great. The ability to do that is rare, and it stands out. I characterize it as perseverance, and I think the relatively few people who make it big all have it.
The early days of building CCAW were tough. I had no help, the financial crisis was full blown, and there was so much I didn’t know. There were stretches where everything would go wrong. No matter what I did, things blew up in my face. I believed in what I was trying to do, but I’m only human. It became more difficult to keep pushing through failures. When I struggled, I’d try to take a pause to clear my head. The gym was usually my escape. I’d blow off steam there and think about things unrelated to work. It was a mental reset of sorts. The next day I’d get back to work with a fresh mind. That helped.
In my opinion, perseverance isn’t a common trait. Failure hurts, and most people don’t want to experience that pain repeatedly. I think that’s why most people don’t carry on through tough times and keep going. When they fail, they regroup and avoid paths that could end in more failure.
I’m thankful that I pushed through some of my early pain at CCAW. With the help of others, I went on to accomplish some great things and learn more about myself than I have from any other experience in my life. It wasn’t always fun, but I’m glad I didn’t give up.
The next time you face a setback and aren’t sure how to proceed, remember that perseverance precedes greatness!
Working from Home: Week Nineteen
Today marked the end of my nineteenth week of working from home. Here are my takeaways from week nineteen:
- Month five – It’s been almost five months. This experience has been surreal and there’s no end in sight. Looks like I’ll be working from home for many more months. I won’t be surprised if I’m still doing it next year.
- Focus – A unique opportunity came up this week. I chose to focus on it and forego making progress in other areas. I’m glad I did. But next week, I’ll try a more balanced approach.
- Communication – I use Zoom and email every day, but I’m starting to wonder if there are other communication methods that would also be effective. I’ll do some research on this over the next few weeks.
Week nineteen was a good week. No major takeaways.
I’ll continue to learn from this unique situation, adjust as necessary, and share my experience.
One Step at a Time
Today I met, virtually, a rising entrepreneur. The pandemic has negatively affected Sarah’s company, but it’s also presented her with an opportunity: programming created specifically for a niche audience and delivered OTT. She’s working on this idea and asked for advice on her operational plan. She wants to have her ducks in a row and be able to answer every question her team members might ask her.
Sarah hasn’t yet turned this idea into a product. She needs to secure a small amount of funding before she can afford to pay her team to build the MVP. Like most entrepreneurs at this early stage, she has tons of ideas and a lengthening to-do list. As we talked, I realized that Sarah is focused on the wrong things. She’s working on tasks that won’t help her turn her idea into a product. It’s too early for an operational plan—there is no product and therefore no operation.
This is a common challenge early in the entrepreneurial journey. I was guilty of it and so were many of my successful peers. Entrepreneurs hear about many random things they should be doing to “make it.” They usually pick the things that resonate with them or worry them the most and start working. They don’t know about these important concepts:
- The entrepreneurial journey is made up of sequential segments.
- You usually need to make it through one segment before working on the next.
- The work of each segment comprises different tasks.
- What you’re working on should relate to the segment you’re in.
- Your time and energy are limited. Train them on what matters most. Ignore the rest . . . for now.
Sarah and I talked about what she should focus on to progress from where she is—the idea segment—to the MVP segment. She clicked off with actionable things to do and she’s shelving others that won’t move her closer to an MVP. I’m excited for her and can’t wait to see her MVP in the hands of users.
Focus is important when you’re trying to do the impossible. Especially when it’s your first rodeo. When you’re trying to accomplish something big, focus on what you need to do right now to move to the next stage. Before you know it, you’ll look up and have accomplished something great!
Becoming More Risk Tolerant
When I started CCAW, I left a pretty comfortable corporate job. I spent four years getting a degree, worked every summer as an intern, and did tons of networking. All so I could land a “prestigious” job at EY. Not only did I quit that job, I did it with impeccable timing. I quit in the midst of the financial crisis.
When people hear that story, they assume I have extremely high risk tolerance. I don’t. I’m wired to have little tolerance for risk. I think in terms of logic, facts, and probability. So how does a guy with low risk tolerance quit his great job to start a company during a recession?
Easy . . . I saw a clear path. I understood the needs of automotive consumers and the struggles of parts distributors and manufacturers. I figured I could solve all their problems by connecting them. I tested my thesis while I still had a day job. I eventually figured out how to convince people to give me money. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d loosely found product–market fit. With paying customers, I thought my chances of success were pretty good. I saw quitting as a low-risk decision (everybody else thought I was crazy).
I now think of risk tolerance as being natural or adaptive. By nature, I’m risk averse. But my experiences (both successes and failures) have made me comfortable with embracing more risk. My adaptive risk tolerance is medium in most situations and high in areas where I’m experienced. I still don’t bet the house on a single decision and I try to use guardrails where appropriate. One thing that helped me get to this point is recognizing that succeed or fail, what I learn from any experience will be immensely valuable. I accept that it will be painful to learn some things—painful, but valuable. That knowledge sets me up for eventual success, which happens only if I continue to take risks.
I guess the old saying is true. No risk, no reward.
The next time you’re skittish about doing something risky, consider the value in what you’ll learn. It could be the stepping-stone to breakout success!
How Lunch Saved Me
As I built CCAW, I wore multiple hats, especially in the early days. It’s part of the entrepreneurial journey and I was fine with it until we reached $5 million or so in annual revenue. As the team and the company’s complexity grew, I began to struggle. It was common to have back-to-back meetings, approve large payments, take calls, and talk to a steady stream of team members who wanted my feedback on an idea. Every day. I was mentally exhausted at the end of most days.
One day when I took time to reflect, I realized what the problem was. Not wearing multiple hats—I was used to that and often enjoyed the variety. The issue was constantly switching between mental modes. One moment I needed to think strategically and high-level. The next moment, tactically about a specific problem. And then back to strategic thinking. I’d often be working on something requiring deep concentrated thought and abruptly stop because someone had a question or I needed to run to a meeting.
Over time, I concluded that I couldn’t keep working that way. I was functioning, but it was wearing on me. I felt like the quality of my work had declined. I decided to address the issue and make a change.
I tried a few approaches that didn’t help much. Eventually I hit on something simple that worked. I realized that lunch was the most consistent part of my day. It also served as a natural mental break and change of scene. So, I segmented my days: before lunch and after lunch.
I could focus better in the morning, so I decided to work on things requiring concentration (strategic planning, presentations, new initiatives, etc.) before lunch. I’d find a quiet space in our co-working building most mornings and work until lunch. Just before lunch I’d join the rest of the team in the office. After lunch I worked in the office on tactical tasks, held meetings, and did everything else.
The difference was like night and day. My days were productive and proactive instead of chaotic and reactive. I was able to make consistent progress on all fronts. Because I wasn’t constantly shifting mentally all day long, I no longer felt mentally exhausted. I was back to enjoying the variety in my work.
I doubt if this approach will work for everyone, but it worked for me. If you’re juggling lots of things, consider: are you managing them proactively or reactively?