Outsize Success Takes More Than Luck
Someone made a point in a debate I listened to today that gave me pause. He said luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that first, and I agree with him. The debater took this one step further, though. He said you have to be willing to take risks to capitalize on luck. He gave the example of a backup quarterback who practices hard and is ready when the starting QB is hurt. The backup gets a lucky (for him) break to show what he can do on the field. But playing involves risks that he must accept to take advantage of his luck. He could fail by performing poorly (this trips a lot of people up) or being injured.
I spent more time thinking about this and I generally agree with what was said today, but think they missed something. In speaking with entrepreneurs (not just techies) and investors who’ve had outsize success, I’ve noticed a distinct pattern. They all have the ability to recognize when they’re in a lucky situation and take action—rapidly, if they’re among the best. (Most lucky situations aren’t as obvious as the backup QB’s was.) Sure, things can go wrong, but they mentally set that possibility to the side, focus on the upside, and accept the risk.
When I think about what it takes to succeed, I view it as a two-step process:
· Preparation + Opportunity = Luck
· Luck + Recognition + Action (i.e., accepting risk) = Success
Following this two-step process doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be successful. But being aware of it will make success more likely.
If an athlete practices hard and finally gets the chance to play, that’s not enough. He has to jump at the opportunity, play his best, and risk failing or being injured. Otherwise, his luck isn’t going to lead to success.
For the Next Billion-Dollar Idea, Think about Workflow Management
I’ve seen founder friends build massive companies that started with a simple goal: to improve workflow. They took a manual process and developed software that made it simpler, more visible, and more conducive to collaboration. This great startup approach for nontechnical founders can be the secret sauce that propels a company to success.
Today I met with a founder who’s pursuing an idea about improving a very specific and highly technical process involving lots of parties (internal and external to the company). The costs of errors to many stakeholders are high. He’s spent over a decade learning the space and has deep relationships (his unfair advantage). He has a unique insight that differentiates his solution from that of competitors. And he’s built an early version of his product to test with customers. This founder is well positioned to build a large software company by making a specific process easier for his target customers.
I’m not an idea person, nor are many other founders. Fortunately, you don’t have to be brimming with creative ideas to be a successful founder. Aspiring founders can easily find ideas that could lead to terrific companies by looking around for inefficient processes that take tons of time or cost lots of money to execute. The more painful the better! The next time someone is complaining about something that annoys them about their job, listen. It could be the seed you need to grow the next billion-dollar workflow management company.
Compete Using Your Unique Insight into Your Competition!
I’ve previously shared my thoughts on founders feeling like they have to come up with an Amazon-caliber idea to start a company. That’s a path, but there are others. I often meet with entrepreneurs who aren’t idea people but still make it work. They find (or stumble upon) a problem they want to solve. They research who else is solving the problem and learn how effective their solutions are in the eyes of customers. If customers are only partially satisfied, they set out to close the gap. These entrepreneurs don’t dream up a completely new solution; they make a better iteration of what’s already out there. They know what customers like and don’t like about it, so it makes sense. There are countless examples of companies like Facebook, Zoom, and others who used a similar playbook, and for good reason . . . it works.
If you take this path, you need to acknowledge that’s what you’re doing. When you explain your solution and vision, your pitch will go over much better with investors and recruits if you acknowledge that you have competition and articulate precisely how they fall short of customers’ expectations. You’ll be demonstrating that you have a unique insight that the market has missed. Your unique insight differentiates you from your competitors and will become the flag that others rally behind in support of you.
Unless you’re creating a new market, you have competition. Find a way to understand what your customers think of your competitors’ product or service. Being able to articulate this insight clearly could change the trajectory of your entrepreneurial journey!
Too Many Priorities
Today I had a conversation with an entrepreneur about their 2020 plans, which they’d clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. One thing jumped out at me. They have six objectives in the first quarter alone. A similar number of objectives were listed for each of the other three quarters. The plan was extremely aggressive, especially considering the considerable uncertainty that characterizes the economy at the moment.
Based on my experience, it’s hard to get a team to focus on more than two or three objectives in a short time (e.g., three months). When I spread myself or my team thin with too many priorities, it usually didn’t turn out well. Either nothing was completed or a fraction of our goals were reached, which still felt like a failure. Over time I learned to distill things down to the two or three most important things and focus on those areas. The trick for me was figuring out what the two or three things were that would move the needle.
If you’re starting 2021 with a long list of priorities (or none!), consider taking time to craft a list of the two or three things that will have the biggest impact.
All Customers Aren’t Good Customers
I had a conversation today with a friend who’s also an entrepreneur. He has a consumer-facing business. He told me about a difficult customer who has unrealistic expectations on a shoestring budget. I had this exact same situation many times in the early days of CCAW. We tried to work with customers who had tight budgets and priced our products aggressively. In the end, we accomplished our goal of attracting more customers. What I didn’t realize was that some of them weren’t a good fit for our business. The time and energy required to service these new customers skyrocketed. Many of them were unprofitable and impossible to please.
As CCAW grew and we had more resources, we developed a more sophisticated pricing strategy and implemented it in a dynamic pricing engine. The strategy was aimed at attracting customers who wanted a fair price but also wanted high-level customer service. These customers were OK with paying a little more for peace of mind. Over time, our data told us they were also more agreeable and easier to work with when unavoidable circumstances arose (e.g., bad weather). We ended up building a large profitable business by targeting this type of customer.
When you’re starting out, you’re figuring out how to solve a problem in a way that people are willing to pay for. Once you do, it’s worth stepping back and thinking about whom you want as customers. You can’t be everything to everybody. All revenue isn’t good revenue. If you’re intentional about the customers you want to serve, you can steer clear of those who aren’t a good fit—who, frankly, are more trouble than they’re worth—and build customer loyalty.
Focus on What Matters Right Now
In the early days of CCAW, I often found myself distracted. I call it founder squirrel syndrome. It’s common—maybe, I’d argue, the norm. I poured tons of my energy into things that wouldn’t get me closer to my next milestone. I distinctly remember spending a great deal of time improving our order fulfillment process—which wouldn’t keep the lights on. We needed to get to a certain revenue threshold to be at the cash flow break-even point. We needed paying customers. I should have focused on landing new customers, not making things pleasant for our few existing ones. Over time I learned, albeit in a painful way, and it all worked out.
Early founders have so much coming at them that it’s hard to focus on, or sometimes even identify, what matters most. The early startup days are chaotic. Everything is all over the place. Nothing goes as planned. Constantly calling audibles. Reacting to new information. In the midst of all this, tending to what matters most can be the difference between success and failure because resources are precious. There are only so many hours in the day and dollars in the bank. Use them wisely. Less critical things can be dealt with later.
This is one of the hardest[ concepts for early founders to grasp and also one of the most impactful. If you’ve founded a company or are considering it, learn to set a few milestones and focus your efforts on activities that help you reach them. If you don’t know how to go about doing this, reach out. Ask for help. Learning this skill early can be a game changer!
Can’t Find a Technical Cofounder? Some Things to Try
Finding a cofounder is difficult, especially for nontechnical solo founders building tech companies. The pandemic has made the task even harder. Hearing so many founders struggle with this has kept it top of mind for me. Here are a few resources I’ve recently heard founders mention when they describe how they found technical cofounders:
- AngelList – A community focused specifically on startups. There’s area place to post jobs. The site’s focus on startups should help in reaching people who want to work with an early-stage company.
- GitHub – A development platform that helps technical teams with collaboration, version control, and a host of other things. A community forum mostly counts developers as members.
- Slack – This is specific to Atlanta (kinda). There’s a workspace for the Atlanta tech community called "tech404." Many developers are in the workspace, and there’s a channel specifically for jobs and another for gigs. I’ve encountered people who are part of the workspace but don’t live in Atlanta. I assume these kinds of workspaces exist in other major cities or regions too.
- Network blast – I’ve heard of founders sending out descriptions of the type of experience they were looking for via emails or texts. Potential cofounders were often suggested by people the founder would least expect to be helpful. You never know who someone else knows.
- Virtual events – This is harder, but I’ve heard of founders attending startup or technical events that offer virtual networking. Events that use platforms like Hopin can give you the chance to network one-on-one with people you might not otherwise meet.
I’m always surprised by the creative ways people connect with cofounders. I thought it might be helpful to share some of these. I can’t say if these will work for everyone, but I do know one thing for sure. If you don’t take action, you won’t find a cofounder. Be action-oriented and creative and you just might end up finding a technical cofounder who complements you.
This problem won’t go away, so I’ll update and share this list periodically. I hope it’s helpful.
To Achieve Goals, Reflect on What Matters and Measure Your Progress
At the end of each year, I think about what’s important to me that I want to focus on during the next year. I usually come up with a short list of three or four things—some personal and some professional. For each one, I identify the metric that will help me gauge how I’m doing and what success looks like (i.e., a target value for the metric). For example, I wanted to be more intentional about personal relationships in 2020, so I tracked how many activities I initiated with friends and family each month. My goal was five.
I don’t do this in isolation. I do it with a group of entrepreneurs so we can hold each other accountable. We track our goals in a central place and discuss our progress every month. If someone isn’t moving in the right direction in a particular area, we dig into the reasons for that.
When I set my targets in December, I’m nowhere close to achieving them. And I usually have no idea how I’ll reach them. I just know they represent what’s important to me and that I want to improve in that area. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m committed to figuring out how to move the needle through the year.
Today I reviewed my October metrics with my group and looked back over 2020. I had set a few stretch targets that I wasn’t confident about achieving. I was pleased to realize that I’ve achieved each stretch goal, even those that seemed unattainable. I thought about why and came up with a few reasons:
- Cadence – The regular rhythm of revisiting and discussing goals every month keeps them top of mind.
- Accountability – I don’t want to be the slacker in my peer group. Especially concerning goals I set for myself! I push harder so I don’t embarrass myself.
- Motivation – Taking time to pinpoint what’s important is key for me. When I identify the right things, it feels natural to work at improving them.
- Short list – I measure four things, max. I don’t think I’d be able to focus on more than that.
- Balance – Including personal and professional things helps me feel like the progress I’m making is balanced. It’s too easy to do well in one area to the detriment of the other.
It’s rewarding to monitor my progress throughout the year and the positive effects it’s had. I’m looking forward to settling on what’s important to me for 2021 during the holidays.
What about you? What do you want to work on in 2021? How will you measure your progress?
Founders Shouldn’t Be the Glue Forever
In the early days of a startup, the founders are the glue. The vision for the company is in their head. They understand better than anyone how all the pieces fit together. With minimal resources, they’re usually involved in all aspects of the business because the team is so small, junior, or part-time (e.g., composed of contractors or interns). Founders are holding it all together and driving it forward. Founders are the duct tape and the bubble gum. If they aren’t around, things go sideways or screech to a halt. Fear becomes ingrained in their head: if they don’t do it, it won’t get done or it won’t get done right.
This is normal and can be beneficial in the early days. It can be the key to finding product–market fit. Being involved in everything allows the founder to get feedback directly from customers and adjust the entire business quickly. They can continually do this until product–market fit is achieved. Achieving product–market fit before the company runs out of runway is many times harder if the founder isn’t around.
Once product–market fit is achieved, though, this quickly starts to work against the company. Once you’ve fine-tuned your solution and your customers see its value and readily pay for it, it’s time to scale. As you scale, or try to, everything gets bigger. The team, number of customers, and initiatives all grow. With this complexity, the small startup that once relied on its founders is now it’s own living thing. It becomes impossible for the founders to have their hands in everything. There’s too much going on for it to all flow through founders. There aren’t enough hours in the day. If founders insist on continuing to be the glue, they become a bottleneck. Decision-making and growth slow drastically. Team members may become frustrated and leave.
Lots of founders don’t realize their insistence on being the glue is thwarting growth. It happened to me at CCAW and to many other founders I know. Once a founder figures this out, they should adjust quickly. I did this at CCAW, putting my trust in direct reports to make the right decisions to achieve our metrics. I was relieved. It was hard to not know everything, but I soon realized that it freed me up to think more strategically and see the business through a different lens. I was no longer in the weeds. I wasn’t even worried about the trees. I was looking at the forest!
If you’re a new (or newish) founder, you should understand that being the glue for your company is important. But when the company has entered its next phase, you need to put the right people, systems, and processes in place to allow the company to grow. It’s OK if you don’t know everything, and you’re not involved in everything. It’s means you’ve done a good job and your baby is becoming an adult!
Workflow-Management Tech: A Good Business for a Nontechnical Founder
A few months back, I shared that CCAW’s technology became the secret sauce that allowed us to scale quickly. At a very high level, our technology focused on workflow management. We built it for internal use over many years. It was customized to our needs, so we never considered offering it for sale.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a few conversations with entrepreneurs who also built workflow technology internally. They now believe their technology has broader applications, and they’re building platforms to help other companies standardize and automate aspects of their businesses. I think they’re on to something and will build large businesses themselves.
Workflow-management technology is a great foundation upon which to build a tech company. The concept can be applied to numerous aspects of a business. And many things are still done manually or inefficiently, so the opportunity for improvement with technology is significant. A number of technology companies have built wildly successful workflow-management technology businesses that serve as blueprints for early entrepreneurs. (Click on the link to my previous article, above, for specific companies.)
I’m a nontechnical founder, but with my team I was able to build a large company underpinned by technology. And I’m not the only one. Nontechnical founders who want to build a great technology company as their second act can do well basing it on workflow-management tech. If they’ve lived the problem in their first company, they’ve amassed invaluable knowledge. With it, they have a ready-made founder–market fit, and they’re perfectly positioned to solve the problem better than others. (If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you may recall that I’ve talked about this—a founder’s unfair advantage—before.)
This organic knowledge also helps these founders clearly articulate a compelling vision that they’re genuinely passionate about. They’re usually looking to create a world without XYZ problem in it so other people don’t have to experience the pain they did. Such a vision is a great recruiting tool, especially for attracting a technical co‑founder. Their remembered pain can also help these founders empathize with what their potential customers are experiencing, which can help drive the vision for the product.