Welcome and Invite Critiques
Today a friend reached out and offered a suggestion. He’s watched me share more over the last few months and had an idea. He sent me a text about it and we hopped on the phone. The suggestion was a small tweak that would expose my content to more people. I had no idea it was possible. I thanked him and asked if he had seen anything else I could do better, and he made more suggestions. All of them were great.
I reflected after the call. In ten minutes, he told me things that would have taken me weeks to figure out. What a huge amount of time saved! I just had to open my mind and be receptive to someone pointing out an area I could improve in.
Early in my entrepreneurial journey I was overconfident. People would make suggestions, but I wouldn’t heed them. If I had a vision for something and a suggestion didn’t mesh with it, I wouldn’t take it seriously. Instead of listening to what the person was saying, I would fixate on their not buying into my vision. Often, I learned the hard way. Eventually I’d do what they had suggested, but only after my vision had failed. Over time, I learned to appreciate credible people and listen when they make suggestions.
My friend is a very credible entrepreneur and respected in his field, so I was receptive when he reached out. In fact, I was excited to be critiqued by him and hear his perspective. Sure, he pointed out things I wasn’t doing well. But more importantly he showed me a better way and explained why it was a better way. I thanked him for taking the time to contact me and implemented the change while we were on the phone. I wanted him to know that I took his suggestions seriously.
The next time someone credible offers to critique your work, jump at the chance and listen to them. If such offers aren’t coming your way, consider asking someone credible to critique your work. You could save yourself a lot of time and energy and learn things you might not have otherwise!
Getting Investors Isn’t the Goal
I chat with rising entrepreneurs regularly. Some have nothing but an idea. Some have built an MVP and are fine-tuning it based on customer feedback. Almost none of them have validated that customers are willing to open their wallets and pay for their product or service. Translation: they don’t have product–market fit.
These founders usually ask me about raising money from investors. A few hundred thousand is what I usually hear. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with raising money. Progress requires capital. Building an MVP and modifying it based on customer feedback takes time and energy, which requires people. People don’t work for free. Customer revenue this early in a company’s life cycle is minimal. This means founders need capital from other sources, such as investors.
I usually ask these rising entrepreneurs a few things:
- Do you have a working product or service?
- How many paying customers do you have?
- How do you plan on spending investors’ money?
These questions usually spark a good conversation. My objective is to get them to focus on their goal and see if raising money aligns with that goal.
Raising investor capital is important, but early-stage founders should focus on developing a product or service that customers are willing to pay for. Investor capital should be viewed as a tool to help them reach their goal, not the goal.
The Pattern to Success
I recently connected virtually with an investor based in San Francisco. He said the area has an extensive network of investors with early-stage experience who are willing to invest when a company is two people and an MVP. There’s a deep bench of subject-matter experts who have firsthand experience with a company going from an idea to a material liquidity event (I define that as $250+ million). And because there’s a lot of capital available for entrepreneurs, investors compete.
He’s visited Atlanta a few times, attending events like Venture Atlanta and trying to get to know more about the city’s startup ecosystem. His first observation was that his assumptions were completely wrong. He assumed the Atlanta community of investors would be more diverse than San Francisco’s, but he found them to be similar. He thought the ecosystem would be united, with everyone working together. Instead he found the city to be somewhat fragmented by geography. Overall, he likes Atlanta and thinks there’s lots of opportunity here. Unfortunately, he found it difficult to locate great Atlanta companies to invest in without physically being in the city.
I think most of his observations are accurate. The city can be challenging to navigate if you don’t live here. However, I believe Atlanta’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is on the cusp of something big. Just a few things are needed for it to be top-tier.
Every city has unique qualities that make up its identity. Copying a successful city won’t yield the same results. That said, I believe there is a pattern to success. Certain foundational elements are common to cities with strong entrepreneurial ecosystems, and they should be implemented by cities that want to replicate that success. Here are some of them:
- Abundant knowledge about the entrepreneurial journey that’s readily available to everyone regardless of their background
- A desire to establish bidirectional relationships with people, even if it means going outside one’s comfort zone
- Available capital and mentoring for talented and capable entrepreneurs of all backgrounds
I’m hopeful that Atlanta (and other cities) will add these foundational items. Doing so could change the trajectory for the city and all the people who call it home!
Working from Home: Week Fifteen
Today marked the end of my fifteenth week of working from home. Here are my takeaways from week fifteen:
- Awareness – Knowing my weaknesses and asking people who are strong in those areas for help was beneficial this week. One person pointed out one of my blind spots, which allowed me to make a better decision quickly.
- New things – I learned a lot of new things this week. Personal and professional things. I’m excited about using what I learned. I like learning, and this week reminded me of that.
- Catching up – I talked to a few people I hadn’t spoken with in some time. It always feels good to catch up with folks. Every time, I’m surprised by how much I get from these conversations.
Week fifteen was a good week. It hit me that it’s been almost four months. That’s a third of the year. I’m starting to wonder if where we are now is the new norm.
I’ll continue to learn from this unique situation, adjust as necessary, and share my experience.
How Do Accelerators Work without Density?
Today I had a great conversation with a local venture capitalist. We mainly discussed opportunities to improve the Atlanta startup ecosystem. The subject of accelerators came up. Atlanta has a few accelerators that play an important role. They provide education, mentorship, and introductions that help fill entrepreneurs’ gaps (in knowledge, relationships, and capital). They also foster community and camaraderie by connecting entrepreneurs who otherwise wouldn’t know each other. Working in close proximity to peers in co-working spaces is a big part of the accelerator playbook.
The venture capitalist pointed out that accelerators as we know them have an uncertain future, which could affect the ecosystem. Working in close proximity now is risky because of COVID-19. If that risk isn’t eliminated, what will that mean for accelerators? Virtual communication is a good alternative, but it doesn’t give entrepreneurs the chance to build the bonds that develop when you’re working side by side. Other serendipitous interactions are also limited. If accelerators can’t operate in dense spaces, their ability to accelerate entrepreneurs’ success will be limited. If fewer entrepreneurs are successful, the momentum of the overall ecosystem could slow.
I’d thought about this before but hearing it from a venture capitalist highlighted the importance of accelerators. I don’t have an answer to this problem, but I’m starting to think about it more. How do you accelerate entrepreneurs’ success if physical interaction is limited and the accelerator model is less effective? How can you fill their knowledge, relationship, and capital gaps?
Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I’d love to hear other people’s ideas about them.
What Will Your Epitaph Say?
Years ago I read a post by Steve Blank that stuck with me. Steve is a serial entrepreneur, author, and professor at Stanford, Berkeley, and other schools. He’s a very credible person when it comes to entrepreneurship. Today I thought about the post and read it again. It’s titled Epitaph for an Entrepreneur, and it reflects on his entrepreneurial journey. In it, he shares things he learned about balancing his personal and professional lives.
One thing I took away from it was Steve’s evolution from a philosophy of “live to work” to one of “work to live.” I can relate. When I started CCAW, I went all in. I worked lots of hours and didn’t have much time for anything else. It was success or bust. Work was my life. Well, CCAW was successful and now I’ve entered a new phase. Not quite the same as Steve’s, though. Now, I work to help others be successful. My hope is that they will do the same when they can, creating a flywheel of sorts over time. I also work to enjoy experiences and time with people I care about. Tomorrow isn’t promised, so we have to make the most of today. I guess I work to live now—or at least I’m moving toward it.
Steve’s post is insightful and thought-provoking. It shows how the entrepreneurial journey (and life for that matter) evolves over time.
This life isn’t practice for the next one. Steve decided that he would prefer his epitaph to say, “He was a great father” rather than “He never missed a meeting.” What will your epitaph say?
Crashing an Alumni Meeting Worked Out!
Last year I attended a conference in Atlanta. One panelist was a black venture capitalist. I hadn’t heard of him and was intrigued. He has experience at various venture firms and recently launched a $40 million fund to start his own. His firm is a hybrid that invests in emerging venture capital firms and early-stage companies. This hybrid approach was new to me. I set a goal of connecting with him and learning from his experiences. Unfortunately, he lives on the West Coast (like most VCs), so it hasn’t happened.
I try to read everything that’s published about him. One piece mentioned that he would be giving a talk to alumni of his alma mater via Zoom. I didn’t attend his school but figured I’d try to register anyway. Worst case, they reject my registration. Best case, they don’t, and I get to learn something. To my surprise, they let me in.
The talk was great—well worth the time. He shared his unique perspective on various things and discussed the challenge of raising capital for his firm. The highlight, though, was an unpublished resource he shares with firms he invests in. He offered to share it with his audience upon request. Naturally, I asked for a copy. Had I not attended, I would never have known this golden nugget of information was available.
I haven’t been able to connect with him in person, but I didn’t let that discourage me. I did the next best thing. I went to where he would be sharing his experiences and listened. Today, it happened to be on Zoom. It wasn’t what I envisioned when I set my goal, but it did the trick. It filled some of my knowledge gap, and I now have a great resource that will continue to do so.
Sometimes it isn’t obvious how you can accomplish a goal. But if you’re clear on what your goal is, persistent, and open to creative solutions, the universe usually presents you with an opportunity. You just need to recognize it and take advantage of it.
Why I Didn’t Buy a Commercial Building
I recently spoke with a friend who happens to be an entrepreneur. One of his businesses is in commercial real estate. We talked about my journey with CCAW and how my real estate needs evolved. When I started CCAW, it was a small desk in the corner of my apartment. I worked from home for about three years. When I expanded the team, I sublet space from a much larger company for a few years. Next we moved to coworking space at Atlanta Tech Village.
My friend thought about all the rent I’d paid over the years and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t bought a building. In fact, I considered purchasing a commercial space and drove around many times looking for the perfect place. Each time I decided against pulling the trigger. Here’s some my reasoning:
- Community – We had a very small team, so creating a sense of community was difficult. Subleased and coworking space provided instant community, which was a huge plus in recruiting. Learning events, socials, friend groups, etc. boosted team morale. People liked coming to work.
- Flexibility – I couldn’t predict the future. Being in a space that could accommodate change was appealing. We grew and contracted many times over the years. Not owning space helped minimize the stress of those periods.
- Location – I couldn’t afford a building in a nice part of town. Subleasing and coworking allowed CCAW to be located in a desirable, walkable area. This was a huge plus during recruiting and visits from vendors.
- Amenities – Being in a space used by many companies allowed for amenities we could never have afforded if I had bought a building. A gym, a rooftop deck: density made them possible.
- Facilities – We didn’t have to worry about maintenance or upkeep because building management handled everything. Owning a space would have introduced a set of issues that I wasn’t interested in.
- Serendipity – Working alongside other companies made regular chance encounters possible. This may seem insignificant, but some of our luckiest breaks came from those encounters. Owning would have eliminated any chance of such luck.
- Founder relationships – I built solid relationships with other founders who worked in the same space, often through random interactions. Over the years, these relationships have helped me navigate challenging times and have turned into friendships. Owning would have made this many times more difficult.
Could I have paid a lot less per square foot by owning? Yup. Could I have built equity in a real estate asset? Absolutely. Looking back, do I wish I’d bought? Not a chance.
My criteria weren’t based on cost. They were based on value. I regularly asked myself if the value CCAW received from not owning exceeded the cost. The answer was always yes. In the end, the way most things are priced ensures that you get what you pay for.
Next time you’re considering a purchase, ask yourself if the value will exceed the cost.
Contrarians Make Groups Better
I tend to be a fact-driven independent thinker. I enjoy hearing different perspectives, though, and I’m happy to be persuaded by sound logic. Today I had two great conversations about group decisions that got me thinking. How do you get the best decisions from a group?
Groups of credible people are powerful. They can make great decisions. Each person brings a perspective shaped by their unique experiences. When they share it, everyone else glimpses the world through their lens. Incorporating the views of disparate people produces a better, more comprehensive decision. Will it be a perfect decision? No. Will it be stronger and more cohesive? Absolutely!
I’ve often found that it’s difficult to get every member of a group to speak up. A confident, perhaps dominant, person who shares their opinion early on can sway others too easily and discourage them from sharing their thoughts. Groupthink is the result, and it’s not a good thing. If everyone rallies behind a single perspective instead of discussing different ways of looking at the problem, the result is a consensus decision that is weak.
I’ve read lots about this and I believe consensus decisions can be dangerous. One of the conversations I had today affirmed this. The lack of a contrarian perspective in a group is a warning sign. If everyone sees the issue the same way, the group may be overlooking something material. If they are, the decision they settle on will be flawed and probably wrong.
The next time you’re working in a group and you have a different opinion than others do, let it be heard (respectfully and collaboratively). Even if the group doesn’t agree with you, you’re adding value. You never know—your contrarian view could be the difference between a disastrous decision rooted in groupthink and an amazing one!
The Cycle of Growth, then Efficiency
This past week I talked with two founders. Both of them have wildly successful companies that are still growing. But they told me they’re reducing head count. For most companies, the customer landscape has changed—but for these companies, not so much. They’re still growing at a healthy clip (just not as fast as they were). Even so, I wasn’t surprised. Their need to get leaner is rooted in decisions made during a period of rapid expansion.
Both founders have hired aggressively over the last few years as they’ve grown rapidly. In that scenario, roles can be created without anyone knowing whether they’re needed. I’ve seen companies hire someone to do manual tasks that custom software could handle. The person responsible for the department doesn’t have time to delve into what each person is doing or how they’re doing it. They just know their team is maxed out because of the company’s growth, so they go to HR and ask to add more people. And even if they knew that software could help them, it probably wouldn’t get built. Engineering teams are focused on customer-facing work to increase revenue—new product features, bug-fixing, etc. They don’t have time to consider projects that would make internal teams’ lives easier.
Quality can slip, too. Instead of hiring an A player in a two-month recruiting process, you add a B player because you have just thirty days to fill the role. Over time, the quality of your team falls, which has all kinds of ramifications down the road.
One day you look up and see people who aren’t fully utilized . . . employees without a clearly defined role . . . team members who aren’t carrying their weight.
Both of these entrepreneurs see staff reductions as a way to address these issues. In my opinion, they’re able to consider layoffs because their focus has changed. They know it’s easier to keep a customer than find a new one (especially in this environment). They want to better serve their current customers in order to reduce churn. At this moment, efficiency, not growth, is the goal.
Business is cyclical, and I suspect that despite the pandemic, what’s happening with these companies is part of the normal business cycle.