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Google Supports Black Founders with $5M

Earlier this year, Google’s CEO expressed the company’s commitment to racial equity. One of the initiatives it created was the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund. The fund provides Black founders with a share of $5 million in non-dilutive cash awards (i.e., Google has no ownership interest in the recipient companies). The grants were for $50,000 to $100,000. Each founder will also receive hands-on support from Google to help grow their company. Here are a few Atlanta companies that received awards:

  • Clubba – Virtual after-school clubs for kids ages 7 to 13 led by college-student counselors
  • Countalytics – Computer vision and machine learning to help clients save money by managing inventory more efficiently
  • Kommute – Video messaging platform that helps teams communicate, collaborate, and connect remotely using the power of instantly shareable video
  • MantisEdu – Immersive high-tech learning activities for students
  • Musicbuk – Virtual education marketplace that gives students access to trusted, vetted, professional musicians for one-on-one music lessons

The full list of companies, with founder contact info, can be found here.

Congratulations to all the founders who received awards. And kudos to Google for this initiative and the impact it will have on the community. I’m excited for these founders. The sky is the limit!

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The Southeast Is Home

I previously shared my journey into venture capital. On that journey, I had an unexpected insight. As I was networking with venture capitalists on the coasts, I noticed a strong interest in Atlanta. Not just startups in Atlanta, but the city. I was peppered with questions about housing prices, social events, sports, schools, and the diversity of neighborhoods. I asked about their cities, too. Most of the people I chatted with were in coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.

When I described Atlanta and the quality of life here, many people said something like “man, I wish.” I was surprised. Many of them (not all) didn’t necessarily see their current coastal city as their long-term home. The reasons varied, but the pattern was clear. My impression was that they’re where they are because these coastal cities provide the best professional opportunities in venture capital. Not because they feel like home.

Outlander Labs focuses on investing in founders who operate in the Southeast. We view the Southeast as a region with amazing talent and great founders. And something else, too: home. It’s a place where founders can have amazing entrepreneurial success and also the quality of life they want. It’s a place they see themselves being in for the long haul.

The Southeast has some great venture capitalists, but not nearly enough of them (as compared to the coasts). I hope that Outlander and other firms can lead by example and change this. Through our performance and our diverse team, I hope we can show that the Southeast offers not only amazing professional opportunities for all in venture capital, but also a place to call home!

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More Digital Communities?

Last week I listened to an entrepreneur describe her vision for her startup. It’s an online community tailored to a specific group of people with a common passion. She created it because broader communities like Reddit can make certain groups of people feel uncomfortable. I don’t know much about the interest these people share, so I was surprised to learn that she has tens of thousands of active monthly users after launching in early 2019. That’s impressive growth in a short time.

Thinking about this conversation, I remembered the role that niche online forums and communities played for me in high school and college. I used message boards and forums to feed my automotive curiosity. I learned about new products and the best sources for them, which positioned me well for my first company (more of a side hustle, really). I used an online blog to crowdsource my transition to corporate America. I was passionate about things and wasn’t able to find like-minded people or enough information in my local community. These online communities helped fill those voids.

Niche digital communities have exploded since I was in high school, and one could argue they’ve become too important in our society because they contribute to keeping us on computers and away from human beings we know—or could know—in “real life.” The pandemic, another force that minimizes face-to-face contact, is undoubtedly enhancing the popularity of niche digital communities.

Putting philosophical quibbles aside, this expanding market presents an amazing opportunity. Entrepreneurs who take the time to deeply understand specific groups who are looking for their peeps could build wildly successful companies.

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Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day!

I hope everyone had a safe and healthy holiday!

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How Do I Find More of You?

Today I was the (virtual) speaker at the Founders Journey Lesson Lab for the latest cohort of It Takes A Village. The program is a pre-accelerator focused on helping female founders and founders of color be successful. The program lasts four months and culminates in a graduation/demo day event.

I chose an informal approach that allowed for a candid conversation. I shared my background, my transition from corporate America, and the highs and lows of my CCAW journey. I also learned more about each founder, the problem they’re solving, and what they’re currently struggling with. It was a good conversation. At the end, I let the founders ask me anything.

One of them asked me a pointed question.  He wanted to know why he’d never heard of me before today and how he could find more founders of color like me who have experience building sizable companies. He said that hearing from someone he could relate to who has built a big company was inspiring. He wants more inspiration and to learn from the experiences of other successful founders of color. He doesn’t know where to find us.

I absolutely loved his question because it hit on a very important area where I’ve fallen short. Here’s how I responded:

  • Personality – I’m a private person by nature and don’t like the limelight. I shy away from attention because it makes me extremely uncomfortable. But, through conversations with others, I’ve realized how impactful my journey can be. This far outweighs my personal comfort. I’ve started telling my story more.
  • Heads down – Founders trying to build something big don’t have a ton of free time. They’re busy building a business. In my opinion, founders who devote time to giving interviews and getting press do so at the expense of their company, which will make substantially less progress because the founder isn’t as focused. Because founders building something great aren’t out and about and you don’t read about them, you don’t know they exist.
  • First gen – Tech founders of color who started a decade or so ago (I call them the “first gen”) didn’t have a blueprint. No coworking spaces (e.g. WeWork) and few accelerators were available in Atlanta. It was a different time and we figured it out as we went. We did the best we could with the information we had at that time and learned as we went along. We got some things right and some things wrong. Some (not all) tech founders of color are realizing, looking back, that we made a mistake. We were too heads-down trying to make sure we didn’t fail. We didn’t spend enough time sharing our experiences in our community.

I’m so glad that founder asked that question. He was spot-on. The question reinforced that I need to continue doing more chats like the one today. No excuses. I should have shared more over the years. I’ve pledged to do better. I’d like to inspire and motivate rising founders of color to do something great. And I hope that other founders of color do the same if they can.

From those to whom much is given, much is required!

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How I Prepare to Present

In the past few months I’ve given two presentations, one for Start It Up Georgia and one for Start It Up Summer School. Before these, I hadn’t presented to an external audience—one not affiliated with CCAW—in a decade. I was recently asked how I prepare. I didn’t have a ready response, and I recognized the value in thinking it through to answer the question. I decided to share my approach with everyone.

Keep in mind that I was doing what felt right as I went along. I didn’t have a written process. This post is the first time I’ve documented my approach to presenting, which plays to my strengths of being analytical and deliberative. Here’s how I go about it:

  1. Research – I develop a deeper understanding of the topic and recent developments. I check to see if I’ve written any relevant posts (they’re useful because they capture my thoughts).
  2. Reflect – What is the topic? Why do people want to hear a talk about it? What do I want the audience to walk away knowing? I jot down random ideas.
  3. Perspectives – If I know people who’ve presented on the topic or are familiar with it, I ask for their perspective. I share my thoughts and ask for their feedback.
  4. Outline – I create a high-level written outline. What are the major points I want to cover? Does this flow make sense? This helps me logically organize my thoughts.
  5. Deck content – I create the first version of the deck. Some content is new; some is borrowed from previous presentations. Visually it’s ugly, but the material is there. I run through it to evaluate the logic and flow.
  6. Visual design 1 – I send the deck to a designer. We go back and forth until we have a V1 draft that I like. Nailing down the overall look and feel of the presentation is the goal.  
  7. Deck V1 – I create notes for each slide. I detail the main things I want to convey and any relevant stories from my past experiences. I practice the presentation a few times. I start to get a feel for my pacing, total presentation time, and logical flow. I adjust my notes and content and make a list of desired visual changes.
  8. Visual design 2 – I send the change requests to the designer. We tweak until we have a final version.
  9. Rehearsal – I rehearse the presentation until I feel comfortable with it from beginning to end. Every time I run through it, I make small changes to my slide notes. I know I’m done when I feel relaxed with the timing and delivery and can’t think of anything else to change.

This seems like a lot, but it really isn’t too bad. It can take as long as I need it to or as little as two or three days. I do multiple steps simultaneously. I try to be respectful of the time of other people who contribute, such as the designer, and avoid a last-minute fire drill. (Sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way.)

Public speaking isn’t something I enjoy. It makes me nervous. The butterflies don’t go away until the presentation is over, but this process helps me build the confidence I need to deliver a good presentation.

What’s your approach to preparing for a presentation?

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Hard Knocks Founder Lesson: Focus

During yesterday’s Start It Up Georgia lesson lab, I shared tips that if implemented will increase an entrepreneur’s odds of success. Usually they’re learned by enduring painful mistakes. I hoped to help these aspiring entrepreneurs avoid some pain, save time, and succeed sooner. One of the tips was to focus. It seems simple and straightforward, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. Here’s what I shared:

  • Squirrel syndrome – Entrepreneurs are optimistic people who see opportunity everywhere. This glass-half-full perspective is great, but it leads to short attention spans and being “all over the place.” Try to focus on one opportunity at a time. One problem at a time.
  • Niche – Don’t boil the ocean. Solve a narrow problem first. When you nail that one, you can expand and solve related problems. If you try to do too many things at once, you’ll get nowhere.
  • Target customer – Define and understand your target customer first. Identify the root of their problem and solve it. Once this customer is happy, you can expand to others.
  • Metric – Measuring progress is important. Pick the one metric that matters most. Ideally it will be customer-related: number of new customers, revenue, new users, etc. Measure and focus on moving the needle on that metric.

When you start something new, you have limited time, energy, and resources. Efficiency is crucial to progress. Focusing on the things that matter most is a great way to maximize what you have. Yes, some balls will get dropped when you focus, but that’s OK. You can only do so much at once. Develop this habit and you’ll be on your way to success.

Take it from me—I learned the hard way!

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Today I Taught: Start It Up Georgia

Today I taught the inaugural lesson lab for Start It Up Georgia. This twelve-week virtual program introduces participants to all facets of starting a business, from testing an idea to forming a company to operating the business. Participants are matched with mentors who help them turn what they learn in each week’s lesson lab into actionable steps. The goal is to help aspiring entrepreneurs understand what it takes to be successful and educate them about the steps they should take to make entrepreneurship their reality.

When I was asked to teach the course, I wasn’t sure that I could make the time commitment. In the end I said yes, and I’m glad I did. My topic today was Entrepreneurship: Do You Have What It Takes? More than 340 people attended. I was shocked! I’ve never taught so many people. The team at Atlanta Teach Village did a great job making sure the event ran smoothly and successfully.

I appreciate being offered the opportunity to teach and hope I was able to inspire others to pursue entrepreneurship. It’s exciting to be part of something with so much potential and I’m looking forward to seeing what new companies come out of it!

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We All Win When We Pay It Forward

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on a project that’s important to me. I realized in its later stages that I don’t  have the skills required to complete certain tasks. I humbly reached out to others and asked for help.

Over the years I’ve had many opportunities. Most came through other people. Some of my luckiest opportunities weren’t the result of my hard work. I just knew the right person. I’ve always been mindful and appreciative of the help these people provided. They didn’t have to help me, but I’m grateful that they did. For this reason, I try my hardest to be there to support others in their time of need.

My requests for help this week were received openheartedly. My time frame was tight, and I made sure to communicate that (so people could opt out). Everyone said no problem; they’d be happy to help.

Healthy relationships truly are bidirectional. They require regular goodwill deposits by both parties. The responses I received to requests for help on short notice qualify, big-time!  Entrepreneurs (and everyone else, for that matter) should be mindful of this.

Doing things for others out of the goodness of your heart with no expectation of getting anything in return is one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships and communities. I think it’s also the foundation of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem. Your good deed today will inspire someone else’s good deed tomorrow. If everyone operates in this manner, the ecosystem will be strong and everyone can go farther, faster!

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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.

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