Just responded to this press inquiry.
Q: What misconceptions did you have about the startup life before becoming an entrepreneur?
A: From giving to asking was the hardest leap to make as an entrepreneur.
One thing I underestimated is how much time you spend asking people for things when you start a company: time, money, and trust. It wears on you, especially if you came from an environment where at one time you controlled resources (a budget), or managed a team and had the ability to promote and reward.
Depending on your personality this can hit you hard or really hard, and finding a way to give back to people in other ways is key if you tend to be someone who needs that to fulfill their basic psychological needs.
How I deal is I spend time on the weekend scrolling through LinkedIn looking for people who I can help, either by supporting a cause or putting them in touch with someone who is in my network. I also volunteer with a nonprofit, since it helps you practice asking for something on behalf of an organization that is not your own and has direct positive effects (read: you don’t have to “sell” it).
You have to find a way to meet your emotional needs as an entrepreneur, or you’ll find yourself drinking vodka for breakfast and slow dancing to Richie Valens with your cat.
Mentors matter, but with a little self-reflection, you can develop yourself at work. Here’s how WSJ suggests you build yourself up (and get promoted).
Steps to self-reflection and development:
• “Compile two lists to use as an action guide. One should itemize what you do well and the second should list improvements others would like to see in you, says Gabriela Cora, an executive coach in Miami. ‘You have to be open for that feedback and willing to work on those points. And don’t just ask people that you’re friendly with. Ask a couple of people that you’re always competing against or people that you butt heads with.’
• “Learn to control your emotions, and you should see a quick improvement in your working relationships. Uncover what your emotional triggers are so you can predict and head off any potentially rash or embarrassing responses to peers or bosses. Emotional outbursts aren’t viewed favorably in most workplaces, which is why you should just excuse yourself from meetings or work if you feel emotionally overwhelmed.
• “Know your limits. This can not only preserve your health and sanity, it can keep you from exceeding your limits and making mistakes that can hurt your career. If you can only handle five of seven tasks, for instance, that’s something you need to talk to your boss about…”
If marketing is the act of creating lots of emotional touch points that convert into monetization points — as my friend Regan tells me it is — ideas and products that have local resonance with us will have a leg up.
Being from Ithaca and having lived in D.C. for many years, most things Ithacan and most things D.C. resonate with me. Because of this, I’m more likely to attach to products and ideas I associate with these places. I will be more loyal to them and more likely to pay for them (e.g., local music, coffee, etc.). That’s the idea behind community-based marketing, which I have been doing a lot of thinking about with some musician friends who want to extend their community.
Community-based marketing, as I’m calling it, connects people with their places and the things created there. Tech-based and people-based networks are the clear winners in terms of promoting a place and its products, but local businesses and creators aren’t doing enough to connect with diasporic networks — both to learn from (mentors) and to market to (customers).
I live in D.C., but drink Forty Weight Coffee and listen to Sim Redmond Band to connect where I’m from with where I live now. These products become part of my identity, which is hybridized by my two homes. I really think there is something to this.
Years ago I took a public speaking and presentation class given by The Actors Institute (my former employer CEB offered it to its consultants). It helped me enormously, and I still try to abide by TAI’s presentation rules.
The Real Purpose of Slides
1) To visually illustrate a point – to say something that will not be clear if it is only expressed verbally.
2) To allow you to reinforce an idea through an image.
3) To allow you to connect an idea to an image.
4) To support what you have to say, not to be the presentation!
Try to avoid having more than 10 slides in an hour-long presentation.
Adjust the amount of slides for other presentations accordingly.
Remember, there are two kinds of slides – the ones you create to help you remember what you want to say, and the ones that you actually show! You can use one set for notes and the other for presenting.
If possible, try not to give out the slide deck until after your presentation. Then it can be a follow-up and reinforcement, rather than a distraction.
Questions To Ask Yourself When Inserting Slides:
- What does this slide really add to my presentation?
- What is it illustrating that I cannot just say verbally?
- What is its purpose?
- How does it enrich what I am trying to communicate?
- How does it connect to the objective of my presentation?
(If you can’t find an answer to any of these questions, you should probably not put that slide into the deck.)
- Can this slide be easily read and understood by my audience? (Including the size of the font and pictures)
- Does it visually illuminate my point?
- Does it clearly relate to the topic – can people see what the picture or icon connects to in the theme of the presentation?
(If the answer to any of these is, “no” then you need to re-work it.)
Most of all, remember that you run the presentation and the slides; they should not run you!
Last week DC Startup Forum hosted Jim Bankoff, Chairman and CEO of Vox Media for a talk on, well, startups.
Some of Bankoff’s ideas are over-played at tech meetups, but others were helpful.
Find your niche. One thing that startups can do that legacy brands cannot is create niche content for a specific audience. The Verge, helps readers “understand the culture of now” (e.g., what’s the impact of google glass or the future or drones). SBNation focused on sports, obviously. And Polygon is for gamers.
Think like a tech company. Bankoff advised all companies, even BMW, to think about their brand as an information/tech/social company and consider how these tools can deliver a better product/experience.
Be opportunistic. Simultaneously launch verticals, instead of focusing on a single site since you can package advertising better for larger brands across platforms.
Be efficient in sales. Sell across all your platforms (Bankoff’s sales teams sell for Polygon, SBNation, and The Verge), which is more efficient and allows for bigger contracts and fewer account managers.
Don’t be low-end. Information is a commodity, and you can only differentiate if you scoop other sources, tell the story better, and provide a unique perspective. Ideally, a media startup does all of these things.
Make your tools multi-purpose. What can you consolidate? Bankoff had all sites working off the same CMS. He added this important insight: Don’t treat CMS/tech as simply meeting a predetermined need, give tech a seat at the table and design internal software platforms to align with purpose and mission.
Focus on one thing. While there was an opportunity to license SBNation’s CMS, Bankoff opted not to and instead use the software for its competitive advantage (better site —> more visitors).
Offer marketers something different. Instead of offering better metrics in terms of reader click-throughs to advertisers, position your site as one that enables marketers to create positive perceptions of their brands (always helps if your readers are young and rich). Help them see the importance of this approach and they will keep coming back.
Aside: He calls his businesses “investments”, but he largely built the enterprise through acquisition (albeit, early stage).
While I haven’t always ascribed to Christensen’s disruption theories, particularly as he’s applied them to journalism. (He ignores demand for high quality news products that new market entrants aren’t positioned to provide.) I do buy Christensen’s point that high-end brands are in danger if they don’t position themselves across more of the market:
“If a newcomer thinks is can win by competing at the high end, the incumbents will always kill you.
If they come in at the bottom of the market and offer something that at first is not as good, the legacy companies won’t feel threatened until too late, after the newcomers have gained a foothold in the market.”
Future victims: Tesla, Apple, academic institutions.
How to protect your legacy brand: develop a flexible strategy, establish partnerships with cutting edge businesses (read: don’t just acquire, since prices are high and acquisition value is highly uncertain — here are some rules for when to buy vs. ally).
Art: The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Crowdfunding is not appropriate for every endeavor. Startups still can’t seek money from non-qualified investors (except for friends and family) until the SEC hammers out new rules for these types of investment to protect investors (largely from themselves) and loosen capital.
But despite the narrow definition of a qualified investor, and the fraught nature of giving and receiving, Kickstarter’s process of letting people validate ideas by asking for support fulfills a crucial part of the business development process.
Businesses and bands should front-load this step; it’s what all startups have to go through, and it’s the process by which you learn how stup[endous/id] the idea is.
Social network analysis tells us that the very best outcome is when a project gets funding from its immediate and extended or once-removed community, since these tiers represent the highest potential audience/customer base and the most likely scenario for “viral” or inter-network reach.
I recently gave to a Kickstarter that hit close to home, though I did not know it. I learned about the After School Project initiated by Old Boy Records — which, as it turns out, is in my real-life social network — from Andrew Zimmern — who is part of my online, loose-tie social network. In other words, my online life surfaced a real-world connection. There is strength in loose ties! (Thanks, Mark Granovetter.)
Art: social network analysis nodes: strong ties and weak ones.
Boeing and Lululemon are learning this quarter about the importance of knowing their supply chain, and the tradeoffs suppliers are making on their behalf.
While Boeing’s troubles have an air of danger (burning batteries on their Dreamliner), Lululemon’s are just embarrassing (with its suppliers defending their see-through yoga pants). While I don’t know about these particular cases, they point to a misapplied supplier management strategy.
Both cases underscore a simple principle that scores of Chief Procurement Officers of the biggest companies have told me about in my former role as a consultant in the procurement space, “you may ask your suppliers for speed, low prices, and quality, but the reality is that you have to pick two”.
Hitting the trifecta is impossible, for obvious reasons. To figure out which two you should ask your suppliers to focus on, you have to figure out what your core advantage is and what your customers care about.
Patagonia has done amazing things in terms of ensuring supply quality (and sustainability), because those reflect core principles of the company. Walmart, on the other hand, has to focus on cheap and ensuring speed of distro. This is where your organization’s mission and vision come into play. Choose wisely!
Art: Thank you to this wonderful blog for the art: http://donschaffner.tumblr.com/post/44708995218/half-asse
I had the pleasure of seeing the *mahvelous* Michele Norris interview the indefatigable Sheryl Sandberg at D.C.’s Sixth and I Synagogue last week about her book Lean In, which I have queued up for my long train ride this weekend.
Norris asked the audience to weigh in, as well as lean in:
“In her book, Sandberg looks back at her life, her choices, and her efforts to balance work and family life. For many of us, that balance is a constant challenge, akin to juggling chainsaws on a fast moving train. If you could reach back and give advice to a younger version of yourself, what is the one key piece of guidance you would offer?”
I can’t pick just one, but four come to mind from a recent post I wrote on how not to be a horrible employee (like I was):
1) You are an investment, not a perfectly-formed thinking thing.
2) There is no such thing as a stupid question, but there are under-informed questions.
3) You can’t opt out of a project just because you don’t like it.
4) Try to listen and learn from those around you. I beg of you!
The one I would add is to be fair to the other women in your work life. We’re all struggling together and it doesn’t behoove us to cut each other down.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Photo cred: NPR
Katya Andresen, who is COO at Network for Good, has this advice on improving communications that applies to your sales efforts as well.
“1. Make your goal action, not education…
…The job of communications isn’t to impart knowledge; it’s to connect. Instead of starting with information to communicate, begin with what’s getting in the way of action. Speak to that and solve for that.
2. Tie your topic to something that already has someone’s attention…
…If you really want to communicate, understand that attention scarcity by either 1) linking to the priorities people do have or 2.) becoming a solution to constraints by showing how your idea saves time or money or effort.
3. Remember they are not you…
…The messages that appeal to us aren’t the ones that necessarily resonate with others. I think it’s easy to forget that every assumption should be suspect until we understand what others do.
4. Be clear in what you’re asking…
… Be sure to be crystal clear what you are asking, how to get started, and what comes next. It may be people want to be on board - but aren’t sure how to climb on.”
My former employer, CEB, recently published this research:
“To ensure continuous growth in productivity, organizations need to rethink their traditional definitions of performance as well as the usual levers that they pull to get people to perform better.
Networked environment, flatter organizational structures and more dispersed workforce mean that employees’ performance in individual tasks is now only one part of the performance equation. Employees network effect – their ability to improve others’ performance and use others’ contributions to improve their own performance – has become equally important. As a result, employees are now expected to not only do well in their own job, but actively contribute to and enhance others’ performance as well.”
It’s up to the manager to ensure he/she has the right team to get the job done.
Art credit: Yup, that’s a Titian.
When you’re starting a company, so much of your life is spent asking people for things: time, attention, feedback, and even money. It gets exhausting and can make you feel like a persona non grata in your social circles.
The challenge, as you know, is that people are generally not motivated to do things now that could prove useful in the future, but are driven by their more immediate needs — like figuring out where to have lunch.
Convincing people to change their behaviors and try something new starts to feel like beating your head against a wall. I’m learning that it’s a sign we’re doing it wrong. Pitching the business should always be about meeting explicit needs, which is a matter of helping people surface them.
In a world focused on viral messages, we underestimate the importance of the personal story and close-network connections and niche needs-meeting when we pitch our company. By focusing on cultivating a few significant relationships with people who believe in us and are excited about what we can do for them, we’ve gotten a lot farther than with a big and unsuccessful marketing blitz.
Founders, try this the next time you’re pitching your company: “We help our clients solve ________ [insert challenges]. If you tell me about what you do, I can apply our model to that to help you better understand.”
I’m learning that promoting the company is not an endurance game but a question of contextualization.
Two ideas I took away from a recent meetup with the founder of HelloWallet, Revell Horsey, who was a banker/investor for many years prior to his company’s founding.
1) Investors won’t take seriously a company that bills itself as both B2C (consumer-facing business) and B2B (enterprise-focused business). Anyone who aims to do both should narrow their focus to one, and keep the plan and pitch simple. Every successful company has to started squarely in one camp or the other.
He also noted that B2B is really B2B2B2C, and that the distinction is really one of marketing: does the company acquire relationships? Or does it invest heavily in SEO and SEM?
Depending on how you describe your company, investors will look for marketing strategies that reflect your customer acquisition strategy. Side note: There is a dearth of investors who fund B2C businesses with under $10 million in sales, which is good to keep in mind when you are making the B2C vs. B2B decision.
2) Investors are going to be very interested in your company’s higher-level goals — namely, how the company’s technology or services will change behavior for the better, improving customers lives and even the world. (Think big!) The reason is: It’s good to be critical to your customers and, to the degree that it’s possible, position your company/product as one that is needed to ensure the lives, operations, and growth of your customers.
One of the biggest challenges of the work environment — no matter who we are, or where we’re employed — is balancing the fact that work is inherently a transactional relationship. We give our time, energy, mental facilities, and we derive a paycheck. But work is also where we spend the majority of our lives, so there is also a high degree of emotional connection and need that is wrapped up in our jobs.
Balancing the transactional and emotional is a constant at-work theme for us all when we clock in or boot up our laptops. We are all working simultaneously to support our organizations and establish ourselves within the social hierarchy, which relies heavily on real power and perceived power. The former is the strength of our contributions and our social relationships, while the latter is elusive for some and nebulous for all. Our real power is established by real work. Our perceived power swings depending on how we play our cards, so to speak.
We struggle most with perceived power, as it’s wrapped up with our ego and it can make us act in ways that are not true to our personal values. Let me give you an example. Say you’re a manager and an employee underperforms, there are formal steps you can take to address the issue. If you work as a member of a team, and someone underperforms, and you have no formal mechanisms to address, it’s easy to feel slighted, taken advantage of, under-appreciated, or even used. It’s easy to try to inflect power, or try to undermine the other person (especially if you believe he/she acted in bad faith), but it’s the wrong move.
The irony is, we undermine ourselves when we react, and reduce our perceived power and even our real power. Our emotional attachment to our perceived power misdirects our actions. To maintain it, and to create a better work environment for yourself (first) and your colleagues (second), we should keep some principles in mind:
1) Every day we show up to work because we chose to (we are free to leave for other jobs/companies, putting aside some structural rigidity that may make this difficult). We have agency, we can choose how to respond to our situations, our colleagues, and the structure of the organizations for which we work.
2) People will fail us, and even actively undermine us on occasion, but we get to choose how to respond to this. One of the best managers I have known put it this way: Stop thinking about how things are allocated and how you can get credit, and put your team ahead of your personal ego, and you will be paid greater dividends for your efforts. I interpret this to mean that the actual role of the manager is to create leaders in every single person on the team, and only then will you be successful.
3) The way to make others care is not to demand it, but to encourage them to find it within themselves. Not everyone is aware of what their actions cause, but asking people to explain why they are there and what they aim to accomplish in their roles, and how their roles fit with what they care about in the world can help them (re)connect with the mission and vision of the team and take a stake in the outcome.
4) Now for something truly radical: how can you maintain grace and give to others without expectation? The whole idea of giving is wrought when even charity isn’t entirely self-less, but what if you didn’t ask for anything from your colleagues, what if there was no expectation or disappointment. What would this do for others’ sense of agency and their contributions. Would this create greater trust? Likely. Would this make everyone happier at work? Definitely.
Photo copyright: The Atlantic
Intellectual copyright: My friend Regan, who brings the Ithaca/T-Burg perspective to capitalism. Xoxo.