You Can Handle More Than You Think, but It Takes Time
Recently I was sharing with a buddy best practices I used to manage CCAW. Technology systems. Team alignment frameworks. How I structured my day to juggle my multiple hats. And we talked about how my responsibilities expanded as the company grew. When I finished, he seemed dazed. “Sounds like a lot to deal with,” he said. “How do I get the point where I can handle all that at once?”
As I rattled off all the things I did, I realized it was a lot. The days were packed and the to-do list was never-ending. CCAW was a ship and I was the captain, responsible for it sailing smoothly. With so many moving pieces that kept increasing in complexity, it was no small task to manage it all.
I was always busy. There was never a time when I was like ”Hmmm . . . I don’t have enough stuff to do; I think I’ll go find more to add to my plate so I can keep busy.” As the company grew, we were confronted with new challenges that forced me to rise to the occasion. It was uncomfortable, and each hurdle forced me to take on a little more than I thought I could handle. After years of this, my capacity was many times larger. I was able to handle much more than I thought I was capable of when I started CCAW.
My journey as a founder was one of gradual growth—over years—that came about because I kept being put in uncomfortable situations that tested my limits.
If you’re looking to do something great but aren’t sure if you have what it takes, know this: most people who were once in your shoes didn’t have “it” in the beginning. They grew along the way, and you can too!
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!
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!
Today I participated in an idea session with my Outlander Labs teammates. No agenda, just a topic and a conversation about ideas. It was a topic that I’m not knowledgeable about, so my goal was to listen and learn. And boy, did I! The team’s collective knowledge was vast and we ended up with great ideas. Today was an opportunity for me to fill a knowledge gap, and it highlighted something else for me too.
As I listened, I noticed a pattern. Idea compounding. Sounds weird, so let me explain. Our team is composed of highly intelligent people who, individually, have great ideas and unique perspectives. As one person shared a thought, you could see the wheels turning in everyone else’s head. Then someone else shared an idea inspired by the previous one. This went on for an hour and resulted in more great ideas than we can possibly execute. A high-class problem for sure.
Our idea-generating exercise was highly effective because we approached the topic as a team. Had we assigned it to one person, I have no doubt that their ideas would have been really good. But approaching it as a team resulted in ideas that are great (or so we think).
I wish I had had the benefit of idea compounding in my early days at CCAW. I chose the solo founder path, and it was difficult. I was forced to come up with all the ideas, which were far from great. Years later I hired high-level thinkers and our idea compounding led to some of CCAW’s greatest breakthroughs. We overcame enormous hurdles and made tons of traction in a relatively short time.
Idea compounding is one of the many benefits of working with a team. And great ideas can be the difference between success and failure for early-stage companies. For any founder wondering why you should consider recruiting a co-founder: idea compounding is one of the many reasons you shouldn’t go it alone!
Making Better Decisions by Removing Emotion
One of the things I had trouble with for a long time was making a personnel change when someone wasn’t a good fit for their role. Once I hired someone, I’d invest time getting them up to speed and getting to know them as a person. When goals weren’t being met or performance wasn’t up to par, I struggled with what to do. The data and other facts were telling me one thing and my personal connection with the person was telling me something else. In most instances, the personal connection prevailed—often to the detriment of the team member.
Looking back, I was prolonging the inevitable. Most of these team members were great, smart people; they just weren’t good fits for the roles they were in. The more we tried to pound a square peg into a round hole, the more frustration swelled on both sides. When I recognized this and made a change, things started to go better for them and the business. Sure, there was short-term discomfort, but they transitioned to a position they were better suited to (with CCAW or another company).
I see now that my emotions have sometimes hindered me from making tough decisions. Subtracting feelings from the process is difficult. It requires taking a situation at face value, deliberately ignoring what you’re feeling, and reaching the appropriate decision. That’s no easy task, especially when the decision affects others and isn’t popular.
This is something I’ll probably never master, but I can aim to get better at it. I do a better job now of identifying when it’s happening—the first step. When I think it is, I get input from credible people (sometimes writing down my decision-making process and sharing it) before making a decision.
When I was in the corporate world, the path was clear. You show up and do good work and you’ll be promoted. I didn’t have to put much thought into it. It was known. Chatting with a friend today reminded me that I had to unlearn this and take a different approach as an entrepreneur.
My first few years at CCAW, I worked hard. That hard work was rewarded with (in my eyes) marginal progress, and I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. I couldn’t see a path to get there, either. I’d applied what I’d learned in corporate America, but it wasn’t working very well. Our revenue was growing, but I was struggling in many areas. It felt like I was on a hamster wheel spending more time working in the business than on it. I was stressed and working a ridiculous number of hours.
I eventually decided to take a step back. I realized that I was hoping things would just fall into place. It wasn’t working out like that. I spent time crystalizing where I wanted to be and pinpointing what was preventing me from getting there. I realized that to reach my destination in a healthy way, I would have to be much more intentional. I would need to rebuild our operational foundation and change our pricing strategy. I estimated that it would take a few months and that our revenue would decline during that period.
The process ending up taking a year and reduced revenue almost 30%, from $688,000 to $485,000. It was extremely painful and I was scared. I wasn’t sure that we’d survive this self-inflicted pain. Vendors were asking why we weren’t buying as much and we faced a cash crunch. Ultimately, though, it proved to be the right call. We built a stronger operational foundation and were positioned for growth. The next year, annual revenue was $793,000 and the following year it surpassed $1 million. We were rolling. I was still stressed, but I felt like I could work on the business more and continue to grow.
My takeaway from this experience was that intentionality is powerful. If I want something, I need to articulate it clearly (to myself and others), put in time and effort, and align my decisions with what I want to make happen. That means that sometimes I’ll have to endure short-term pain to reach my ultimate destination, but that’s OK. I have to be intentional about what I do in the present to reach a particular destination. I won’t just miraculously end up there.
Will They Be a Good Cofounder?
Yesterday I shared some ideas about how to position yourself to find a co-founder. If you’re like most founders, you’re a first-timer, and you may not have hiring experience. You’re ill-equipped to evaluate whether a potential co-founder is a good fit. So what do you do?
At CCAW I was in that situation. I was on a hamster wheel and desperately trying to get off. I was looking for my first in-office hire (we had distributed team members), and I was struggling. Trying to figure out whether a candidate was a good fit was much harder than I had expected.
At the time, I was subleasing office space from an EO Atlanta member. He’d been an entrepreneur for almost two decades. I regularly talked with him about things I was trying to figure out. Those informal conversations were invaluable. When I told him about my hiring problem, he made an amazing offer. “How about I interview one of your candidates and you sit in. I can show you better than I can tell you.” I happily agreed. I was able to watch him in action, and I learned a ton. He was able to help me realize the candidate wasn’t the right one.
Finding the right co-founder is critical. If you have someone in mind, consider getting input from credible people. If you and the candidates are having conversations or doing things together to get to know one another, consider inviting someone to join you—a credible entrepreneur would be good if you know one. If you’ve raised capital from credible investors, consider getting their input. Whomever you ask to join you, make sure they have a track record of evaluating talent or some experience with entrepreneurial partnerships. Your goal is to have them compensation for your blind spots.
Finding a co-founder is no walk in the park, but there are things you can do to make it a bit easier (notice I didn’t say easy). Getting the perspective of credible people can help you avoid a bad partnership and quickly confirm when you’ve found someone great!
Solo Founders Should Hang around the Hoop
One of the mistakes I made early was choosing to be a solo founder. Over the last year, I’ve been intentional about sharing with early founders the importance of having a founding team. Some still think the solo route is best, but most tell me they want a co-founder. But finding one is easier said than done—especially for nontechnical founders seeking a technical founder.
Nontechnical founders who want to build a technology company face a dilemma. They can’t build the product. They must find a technical co-founder (or a senior developer they don’t have to manage closely). Otherwise the company never progresses beyond the idea stage. Technical solo founders face a host of other challenges, but they can at least build the product. Putting the product in users’ hands can generate traction —a powerful recruiting tool. It’s easier to recruit a co-founder when you can show that you’ve already acquired customers or users.
So how does a nontechnical founder find a technical co-founder? There’s no silver bullet, but a good start is to hang around the hoop. The hoop is anywhere good technical talent might be found: meetups, conferences, pitch competitions, slack channels . . . you get the idea. Colleges are also great resources. Loitering around a school won’t help, but you can reach out to computer science professors and leaders of student clubs. If you’ve got a good idea, can tell a story, and talk to enough people, the odds are in your favor.
The difficulty of finding a co-founder is a problem I’ve heard about often enough that it warrants deeper thought. I’ll discuss it with others and, I hope, come up with a more comprehensive set of ideas for solving it. If I do, I’ll be sure to share it!
Do Investors Compete?
Today I was asked an interesting question: do I complete against other investors for deals? I decided to share my thoughts (based on limited experience). Some things to consider:
Rounds – Investment rounds frequently aren’t filled by a single investor (for one reason or another). Investors often work together toward a common goal of providing enough capital for the round to be closed.
Expertise – Many investors are great in one sector (e.g., healthcare) and good in lots of others. When an investor comes across a company in an industry they’re not great in, they may seek the perspective of one who knows the sector well.
Awareness – Investors sometimes make each other aware of founders and companies because it’s impossible to know all of them.
Stage – Investors often focus on a specific stage of investment. Outlander Labs is pre-seed, for example. Other stages include idea, seed, and series A, among others. If two investors are focused on the same industry but different stages, they’re probably not competing.
Community – For investors to do well, the overall community needs to do well. Investors know this, so they tend to cooperate rather than compete with each other.
LPs – Venture capital funds usually raise money to invest by obtaining capital commitments from limited partners (LPs). The relationship between LPs and venture funds is important. Great LPs can be helpful to funds. They can be sources of deals and also provide expertise. Sometimes LPs can be invested in multiple funds, which is useful because having LPs in common can be a relational bridge between investors.
In my opinion, the answer to the question, at least from a high level, is “no.” I’m sure there are exceptions on a deal-by-deal basis. I don’t see other investors as competition. I see them as peers working toward a common goal: helping great founders and companies reach their full potential!
Giving Back to College Entrepreneurs
In college, I had a nice side hustle. It was just me, working with a network of installers and vendors to complete customization projects on my friends’ vehicles. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on to something. The problem I identified for this side hustle was the same problem I would solve with CCAW years later. Hindsight is 20/20, but I wish someone had helped me understand that I’d stumbled on a problem that a big company could be built to solve.
Today I spoke with two bright college students. They’ve launched an early version of an app and are about to start getting feedback from customers. They’re inexperienced and have a long way to go, but I was impressed. They’ve managed to put together a team of twelve people, build a product, and pitch venture capitalists. All while finishing their undergraduate degrees. When I think back to where I was at twenty . . . well, these two founders are light years ahead.
The opportunity wasn’t a good investment fit, but I wanted to help these two grow. Instead of giving them a cold “no thanks,” I (along with my team member) used the second half of the meeting to coach them. I asked them questions that got them thinking about their problem and solution from different perspectives. We discussed alternative ways to achieve their objective. We gave them honest and candid feedback.
When the conversation ended, I was excited. Not about where they are now, but about their future. These two founders have entrepreneurial drive and hustle for sure. They need coaching and mentoring to help them reach their full potential. Hopefully our session today was a step in that direction.
After reflecting on this and my own journey, I’ve decided to find ways to spend time working with entrepreneurial college students. I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but I know it’s something I want to do, so I’m going to make it happen. I have a new project! I’m excited to give back and help entrepreneurial students head toward success.