If you’re wondering why I’ve been MIA, please read my last post. Entrepreneurs don’t have enough time to actively blog . Sorry.
“The important thing is this: to be able, at any moment, to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”
Earlier this week I received an email from an aspiring entrepreneur asking about work/life balance for entrepreneurs. By suggestion of this individual, it seemed appropriate to turn it into a blog post.
I found your article about the number of hours an entrepreneur should work particularly about finding your own work rhythm very insightful.
My present difficulty is that I enjoy too many things outside work. I love philosophy, martial arts, taking walks around town. I feel these things bring joy and meaning into my life and yet at the same time are obstacles to my every achieving anything as they take a lot of my energy and focus.
I am sure that I cannot be the only person who has had such concerns and I would be very interested to hear your view.”
Every aspiring entrepreneur reaches a point where they must decide what their priorities are and the sacrifices they are and are not willing to make. One of the biggest sacrifices is the hours – specifically, the things outside of work that you end up missing out on. There is no right or wrong answer, but the decision is what separates the guys that get it done from the posers. For every real entrepreneur, I meet at least 100 posers.
I always tell people that I’ve never met a guy that doesn’t have a business plan. Anyone can come up with an idea and everyone loves the ‘what if’, but only a small percentage of people can truly stomach the reality of being an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous, it requires seemingly unreasonable sacrifices, and is one of the most stressful career paths anyone could ever choose. And while I wouldn’t wish heading up a startup on my worst enemy, I also wouldn’t choose to do anything else. I love it.
Marc Andreessen has a great take on this subject in his post entitled, “Why not to do a startup…” Andreessen says, “Just because you want people to have work/life balance, it’s not so easy when you’re close to running out of cash, your product hasn’t shipped yet, your VC is mad at you, and your Kleiner Perkins-backed competitor in Menlo Park — you know, the one whose employees’ average age seems to be about 19 — is kicking your butt. Which is what it’s going to be like most of the time. And even if you can help your employees have proper work/life balance, as a founder you certainly won’t.”
Sure, there are always examples of guys that did little work and reaped insane rewards (plentyoffish.com comes to mind), but those are anomalies – not even close to what one should expect. If you achieve tremendous success with a wonderful work/life balance, awesome, but the chances are not great.
I’d say to find one or two things that you really love to do, carve out a small amount of time each week to pursue them, and use the rest of your time to build a company. These activities can serve as a way to de-stress, but not take away from your primary goal, which is to build something of value.
These thoughts are really only meant to apply to when you’re heads down with a deal. Plenty of entrepreneurs take time off when/if they have the good fortune of some financially meaningful success.
Bottom line, it just depends on what you value the most. I’m under no delusion that being an entrepreneur is superior to other career paths and that everyone should do it. There’s an enormous amount of value in having a great work/life balance – I guess it’s just not for me.
“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” -Joel Barker
I ran across a post from David Spark on Mashable last week that discussed how to jump start your career by becoming an online influencer.
David’s post has the ability to misguide entrepreneurs.
As entrepreneurs, our goal shouldn’t be to influence by talking. Entrepreneurs influence by doing. Entrepreneurs influence by building products that change the way we live.
How much of the careers of the following tech titans were built (or even jump started) by excessive self-promotion?
- Steve Jobs
- Bill Gates
- Michael Dell
- Marc Andreessen
But, Gabe, those guys built their reputation in the old-school tech world. Fine. What about the guys who built the platforms that we self-promote on?
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Twitter folks: Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams (also built Blogger)
Exactly. We don’t know the names listed above because they self-promoted on FB, Twitter, etc. We know their names because they built those freaking platforms.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t create great content, interact with others online, or do some form of self-promotion? Absolutely not (in fact, I’m going to self-promote by publishing this on Twitter). It just means that we should keep it in check. Make sure that underlying your self-promotion is actual substance.
“There’s no reason someone should outwork you.” -Derek Jeter
Last year I was attending a sports coaching conference, manning a table for lockerdome. My day started around 5:30am with knocking out emails, then meeting one of the organizers, setting up my table, technical checks, etc. At 10:30am we began interacting with the hundreds of coaches roaming the building. Just around 4pm, one by one I saw table after table close down for the day. By 5pm, despite the fact that the event was still going strong, everyone except myself and an 82 year-old coach and entrepreneur, Bob Murrey, had gone home. By 10pm, Bob and I were still both there, on our feet, working the room of potential customers. Like me, the 82 year-old basketball coach owns his own business, USA Coaches Clinics. And like any true entrepreneur, Bob wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to outwork his competition.
The best entrepreneurs, like the best athletes, are fierce competitors. 11-time MLB All-Star and 5-time World Series Champion, Derek Jeter, said it well: “My parents always said to play hard, work hard. There’s always going to be people who are better than you, but there’s no reason someone should outwork you. That’s pretty much the philosophy I had and have to this day.”
So with a baseline that most entrepreneurs will outwork the average person, the question then is how much is enough?
If you work too little, market opportunities will pass you by. If you work too much, you might not mentally last until you can reach a product/market fit and beyond. There’s always something that needs to get done. Sales calls have to be made. The books need to be updated. Bugs need to be fixed. Code needs to be written. Something.
So what’s the balance between too much and too little?
But before discussing what I think works, I’d like to point out two specific categories of people that drive me nuts:
- The ‘I work X amount of hours per day’ guy: There are many people that schedule an exact number of hours they are going to work in a day, regardless of their productivity level. If they are really grooving, they still go home and break their momentum when time is up. If they are mentally shot, they sit at their desk and do nothing just to put in their hours. Trust me, I’ve tried the set hours in the past and can tell you first hand that this school of thought is ridiculously unproductive.
- The ‘work smarter not harder’ guy: 99.9% of the people preaching this philosophy are the absolute laziest, most underachieving people I know. Why can’t you work smart and hard? You see, when you work smart and hard, you get a bunch of stuff done.
My general rule of thumb is simple: work until you are no longer productive, letting your competitive nature – and sometimes Red Bull – be the fuel that drives your productivity. When you cease being productive, go unwind.
More specifically, this means that for Monday through Saturday, outside of setting aside a piece of my day for important activities (prayer, family, working out, etc.), the bulk of my day is open for working until I am no longer productive. Sometimes this means that I end up working 20 hours in a day, while other times it means I work only 8.
And on Sundays I take off so that I can see my wonderful wife because I want to stay married .
While this means that I generally put a lot of hours in, it also means that I only work when I’m productive and besides, it doesn’t always feel like work. A friend of mine, Nate Broughton, makes a great point in his post on this very subject; stating, “What looks like work in 2010 probably looked like vacation in 1980 when our successful friends were building their business. Checking email, responding to customers on Twitter… By that definition, I guess I work like 80 hours a week. But it doesn’t feel like it, thankfully.”
Bottom line, the only thing that matters is productivity. Any startup is an incredible amount of work and an enormous emotional drain. If you want to stay in the game for the long haul (most successful entrepreneurs that are being honest will retrospectively point to perseverance as a key driver for their success), you’ll need figure out what is the best way for you to maximize your productivity.
And know when you need to go have a glass of wine; like I’m going to do in a few hours.
“The goal as a company is to have customer service that is not just the best, but legendary.” -Sam Walton
Mid last year I began having bill delivery issues with my monthly statement from a local utility company. I noticed that I was only sporadically receiving my monthly paper statement via mail and was never receiving any email alerts. Not sure why and annoyed that I didn’t have a monthly reminder to pay my bill, I decided to call their customer service line. The ensuing conversation was not only frustrating, but an excellent example of what seems to be a never-ending trend of poor customer service by companies big and small, despite the fact that we’re in the day and age of transparency thru social media.
During the phone conversation, a middle age rep with an unpleasant attitude, misinformed me that my paper bill was being mailed out each month. In fact, I was told that since she could guarantee that my bill was being mailed monthly, I simply must not be seeing it when it arrives in my mailbox. Nothing was resolved and I walked away from that conversation annoyed.
Now to clarify, my sole goal of the conversation was to simply find an effective resolution for reminding me to pay my monthly bill. In other words, I wanted to make sure that I was giving this company my money on a consistent basis.
Not wanting to deal with another middle aged woman with an attitude, I avoided any future calls to this company, in spite of the fact that the situation remained unresolved.
Several weekends ago, however, I was casually mentioning this story to a friend, who happens to also be an engineer at this company. For the sake of discussion, let’s call this friend Megan. By 9:15am that Monday morning, Megan, whose job has no direct ties to customer service, educated herself on the available payment options and diagnosed why I was not receiving my paper bill- which turned out to be a result of me using one of their 3rd party payment options. Megan then sent me an email describing the problem, offered solutions for resolving the problem, and even attached a PDF of my current statement.
Impressed that Megan went way above and beyond the scope of her job as an engineer, it got me thinking about customer service in general and why all companies need more “Megans”.
What this utility company – and companies of any size – should learn from this experience:
- Do absolutely whatever it takes to win a customer’s respect: I once told a colleague of mine at LockerDome, ”If someone emails you at 4am; please email them back at 4:01am. If someone calls and you’re working out; please walk out of the gym and pick up the phone.” We preach this because as customers ourselves, we appreciate and demand this level of service.
- Don’t ever offer more than you can properly support: The customer service rep that I spoke with had absolutely no clue about the nuances of the (many) payment options and therefore failed to diagnose the root of the problem. Your customer service reps should know your product so well that they can roll out of bed in 30 seconds, awakening from a deep sleep, and instantaneously provide knowledgeable support. And if your rep doesn’t know the answer, (s)he should tell the customer that (s)he’s is going to research the available options and be in touch shortly. Your rep then better make sure that (s)he follows through on gathering information as quickly as possible; customers are not OK with having their time wasted!
- Make sure that all employees are your customer service reps, regardless of their job title: While I describe Megan’s actions as “way above and beyond the scope of her job”, I firmly believe that this should be the norm, at least for the companies that plan on being around in the future.
I don’t care if you’re a technology startup or a regulated utility company, customer perception matters and great customer service can work on any scale. Zappos, an online retailer that sold for $1.2B to Amazon last year, is a shining example of what tremendous customer service looks like on a large scale. In this overview of Zappos’ culture, the author outlines multiple operational tacts that Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hseh, and his company have implemented to create an ethos of customer satisfaction:
- “They encourage customers to call them about nearly everything. Their call center takes 5,000 calls per day, and employees work independent of scripts, quotas, or call time limits. The longest call to date has been four hours. Zappos views the phone experience as a branding device, and speaks to virtually every customer at least once.
- They decided to invest in “surprise” (free) upgrades to overnight shipping for most customers. This means that most orders are delivered within 24 hours, despite the web site indicating it will take 2-5 business days.
- They encourage customers to order as many products as they wanted in order to “try them on,” then offering free return shipping for a full 365 days
- They only list products on the site when stock was in their own warehouse (which actually lowered sales by 25% at a time when the company was still in the red)
- They decided to run their warehouse operation 24/7 to deliver super-fast turnaround on orders, despite it being an inefficient way to manage fulfillment”
Still wondering how customer service translates to your bottom line? Let’s just put it this way: with great customer service, nearly any price point (within market expectations) and the majority of product flaws are OK, but with bad customer service, no price point is low enough and even the tiniest of product flaws won’t be ignored.
Yesterday, I was the unfortunate recipient of a massive spiderweb crack in the screen of my iPhone 3Gs. After brushing off my gut reaction – which was to use this an opportunity to rationalize buying a Google Nexus One phone – I did a quick Google search online for “fixing cracked iPhone screens”, thus learning that I had a few options:
- Apple Store Genius Bar
- DIY kit
- Shady send-it-in-and-we’ll-fix-it online offerings
- Shady fix-it-in-a-parking-lot guy
I laid out my options.
OPTION #1: Apple Store Genius Bar
Upsides: A near-immediate fix without precious time away from my primary post-pc device.
Decision: Let’s be serious, there’s not a chance in the world that I’m dropping $199 at an Apple store to repair a phone that is halfway through its product life-cycle. FAIL.
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“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” -Mark Twain
A fellow entrepreneur, David Garland, wrote a post worth reading entitled, “Don’t Entrepreneur Alone: The Importance Of Mentorship For Young Entrepreneurs.” As I thought about the subject, it seemed necessary to expand upon David’s thoughts and touch on the importance of ‘quality’ mentors.
A common misconception is that all mentors are helpful. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s fairly difficult to find a mentoring team that adds any real value. The wrong mentors will actually be detrimental to your startup. At best, bad mentors will waste a startup’s already limited time. In worse situations, poor mentoring advice may actually sink a young, susceptible startup.
So how do you go about qualifying a solid mentoring team? There’s no specific formula, but here’s a set of loose rules I have found useful in finding mentors that add real value (please note that this set of rules applies more so to business mentoring than it does to purely technical mentoring):
- Find at least a few mentors that have endured the wild ride of a startup: Avoid the career, mid-level corporate guy who recently retired and wants to give back. While he’s probably well-intentioned, it’s hard for this individual to offer practical and realistic advice in a world he’s never spent an ounce of time in himself. For example, honing your financing pitch with someone who has never raised money is pointless. Equally pointless is asking for advice on strategic decisions, product decisions, or anything else critical from someone who lacks an understanding in the unique nuances of a startup.
- Find at least a few mentors that are knowledgeable about your market and type of startup: The more knowledgeable a mentor is about your market and type of startup, the more he/she will be able to see the market’s problem and help you build a realistic solution to solve it. Justifying the various product development stages of a consumer technology product to someone in a service-oriented business (from an unrelated market) will leave you pulling your hair out in frustration.
- Find mentors with the ability to challenge you: Initial ideas usually suck, even for the best entrepreneurs. Great mentors are the ones that can tactfully challenge your assumptions, successfully pulling out from your team a more polished business strategy and/or product.
- Find mentors that will answer a phone call at 11pm: In other words, find mentors that are willing to be emotionally invested in your startup and will go the extra mile to help you succeed. I can name several of my mentors that have literally taken calls at 11pm (or later). That’s something I’ll never forget.
- Find mentors that are willing to offer introductions: Raising capital is greatly influenced by your ability to get your team’s product/idea in front of the right people. Credible mentors are capable of opening doors. Besides, a mentor’s willingness to offer introductions is a vote of confidence that he/she truly believes in the solution your team is building. We were introduced to our first investor through one of our mentors.
- Find mentors with at least a shred of humility: Dealing with a ‘know it all’ mentor will only push you into creating a copycat of this mentor’s previous wins. If you do this, you’ll fail. Markets change fast. Solutions change fast. Work with mentors that are cognizant of these inevitable changes and understand that the best solutions are yet to be invented.
The search for quality mentors can happen anywhere. Ask to grab coffee (or hot chocolate) with anyone halfway relevant who is willing to hear your startup’s story. Read relevant blogs and books. Ultimately, understand that most potential mentors will be a waste of your time, but the value you’ll ultimately receive from the few good ones is usually worth it.
I’d love to hear any thoughts/rules regarding your experiences with finding quality mentors, as well as your experiences with the not-so-good ones.
Lastly, thank you to all of my mentors; you know who you are .
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.” -T. E. Lawrence
Roughly 2 months ago we put a temporary, yet tight lid on nearly everything financing related. It was following an epiphany we had regarding a new strategic focus, that we reevaluated the allocation of our resources. As opposed to using up valuable resources on financing activities, we decided to instead direct them towards attracting reputable customers, generating revenue, and revamping the entire product. By focusing solely on building tangible value for paying customers, we anticipated our financing story would also improve.
A week ago I received a request for our executive overview; for the first time I could barely recall when the last time was that I updated (or even thought) about that document. This request was a nice reminder for me to look back and see what type of progress we actually made during the last 2 months.
How did this experiment work out? Put mildly, these have been the most productive couple of months we’ve had so far at LockerDome.
- Revenue: We went from zero revenue to sealing paid licensing deals with more than a handful of decent sized, reputable customers (elite sports organizations).
- Useful Product: We took customer feedback and revamped the entire product, bringing it into good enough shape to satisfy the product requirements for our first launch with paying customers; the feedback from this new release has been overwhelmingly positive.
- Traction: Influential customers are now paying for and finding unique value in our product; not just liking the idea of what it could be. With that, a proven business model is emerging.
What we also noticed:
- We’re more productive: Fundraising is usually a necessary evil in startups–and is something that we’ll probably approach again soon–but it’s ridiculously time consuming to be effective with it. During financing activities, a team with limited resources can come to a near halt in many areas of the product and business. By strategically redirecting our limited resources, we were able to focus on building value for the customer as our top priority.
- We’re more valuable: Because of the results above, our own story is vastly improving. We are significantly better positioned not only to raise additional capital (when the timing makes sense), but to attract top tier employees as we begin to scale the company.
- Team morale is up: As we say in sports, it’s fun to win. In the technology world, it’s fun to build something that customers find valuable enough to not only use, but to pay for. Building for the sake of building is pointless; our customers are why we get out of bed each morning.
Back when I played competitive baseball, I received the following piece of advice:
“Do whatever you can to influence outcomes the way you’d like, but absolutely let go of anything that’s outside of your control. How you practice, do your homework, and live your life are all things under your control. What others think of you, where Coach plays you, and of course, when Coach plays you are all outside of your control.”
Our success over these last couple of months boils down to a similar philosophy. Instead of worrying our team with stuff that we can’t control, such as the economy– and more specifically, how the economy affects potential investors–we are intensely focused on the facets of our business that we can control. As a software company, within our control is our product and team, including how we use both the product and team to solve real customer problems.
As far as financing, it’s still too early to measure the exact impact because we have yet to restart these activities. Nevertheless, between tangible improvements in revenue, the product, and traction, it’s clear that this time around, the story is going to be much more fun to tell.
“Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.” -Norman Vincent Peale
This is a quick reference to a few of the most intriguing and resourceful blogs in the web/tech startup space. It’s OK if you don’t agree with 90% of what you read on these blogs; I certainly don’t. The goal for us founders is simply to be a sponge. Knowledge, when practically applied, makes you dangerous.
BLOG STARTER KIT:
Description: Baback Nivi and Naval Ravikant’s experience as both entrepreneurs and investors results in tremendous, practical advice for any tech entrepreneur. They like to refer to themselves as the “hamburger helper for entrepreneurs.” Topics include pitching your deal and negotiating terms, as well as a bunch of other general thoughts on building startups. They just recently published their first digital book entitled, Pitching Hacks.
A little taste: Raising money is a black swan
Description: Authored by VCs Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, Ask the VC was formed to answer the steady stream of questions that Brad and Jason were receiving on their personal startups blogs, Feld Thoughts and Mendelson’s Musings, from curious entrepreneurs.
A little taste: Why Won’t The Venture Capitalist Return My Phone Call?
Description: A dry, but rather resourceful series of posts on the key legal issues for startups. It is authored by Yokum Taku, a corporate and securities partner in the Palo Alto, California office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Description: Authored by entrepreneur Eric Ries, the former CTO of IMVU (and a list of other accomplishments), Lessons Learned chronicles key issues that startup guys face in effort to bringing meaningful products into the marketplace.
A little taste: Don’t launch
Description: Sure it’s blatant propaganda for Fonality (the company in which Chris Lyman is the founder & CEO), but who cares, it’s good content. The posts are sporadic, but enlightening; they cover a series of Chris’ random thoughts on startups.
A little taste: The Motif of Motivation
Description: Paul Buchheit is most well known for his work at Google where he developed Gmail, among a slew of other big projects he worked on. He’s currently a co-founder of FriendFeed. His posts generally play off issues/lessons he’s currently facing with FriendFeed, or from lessons he learned while developing Gmail.
A little taste: Overnight success takes a long time
Description: This isn’t really a blog, but more so a list of essays; although, an rss feed is now available. Whether you love or hate Paul Graham, he’s very experienced as an inventor, entrepreneur, and investor. By default, given his exposure, this guy has some interesting thoughts to share.
A little taste: A Fundraising Survival Guide
Description: Each of these blogs, in various ways, profile new technologies and companies in the web space. A combination of these 6 blogs should provide you a daily beat of what’s happening.
A little taste: BuzzGain Launches Do-It-Yourself PR Service to the Public (by TechCrunch)
Description: A group-edited blog that profiles and reviews startups founded by young entrepreneurs, new technologies from university labs, recent tech & web trends, venture capital, and ideas that have the potential to change the world. College Mogul aims to serve as a media portal that young entrepreneurs can utilize as a launch pad, resource hub, networking platform, and source for inspiration.
A little taste: 17 Sales Tips For Startups
A blog I wanted to include, but it’s not currently being updated: March Andreessen’s personal blog is a tremendous read, but hasn’t been updated since last summer. While you’re waiting for it to restart, go ahead and dabble at some of his archived posts. The Pmarca Guide to Startups, part 1: Why not to do a startup is a classic.
“Worrying is destructive. Worrying slows you down. Worrying makes it harder for you to achieve any attainable goals.” -an unnamed fellow entrepreneur
Recently, an enthusiastic entrepreneur approached me at a networking event to mention that’s he’s working on a “tremendous” new start-up. He was hoping that I might have a few relevant connections to offer.
Excited to hear about his deal, I pushed for the details. Unfortunately, he informed me that he cannot disclose anything in too much detail because his start-up is still in stealth mode. In fact, if I really would like to know more, he notified me that he’d be open to grabbing coffee the following week, at which time I could sign a non-disclosure agreement.
I smiled politely, wished him the best of luck, and moved on to a different conversation.
Pulling simply from the nature of our discussion that day, it’s possible I will never know just how tremendous his idea is. Mr. Stealth Mode’s unwillingness to establish an open dialogue is just one more reason why his idea may never turn into anything of real value.
It seems like nearly every first-time entrepreneur is obsessed with the concept of stealth mode. This turns out be a stage that most entrepreneurs would rather forget; one defined by too much theory, too much wasted time, and not enough tangible progress.
So, ditch your stealth mode. Here’s why.
Top 5 reasons why stealth mode is worthless:
- Your initial idea probably sucks. You’re assuming a lot by believing others will actually steal it. As entrepreneurs we like to think that we can solve almost any problem in the world. Well, it turns out most others don’t think quite as highly of our brain diarrhea as we do; and that’s for good reason: most ideas suck. The only way to figure out whether or not an idea has any real merit is to actually start getting feedback from someone besides your mom.
- You have more problems to worry about than whether or not someone will steal your idea. The chances of failure from something other than a stolen idea are high. There are countless reasons why you’re going to fail: your timing is going to be off; you’re going to build the wrong product; you’re not going to raise enough capital or generate adequate revenue to keep the lights on; you’re not going to assemble the right core team; you’re going to lose motivation; etc. (see Eric Karjaluoto’s post on “Why your web startup with fail”).
- You’re going to turn people off and therefore miss out on great networking and investment opportunities. Investors won’t sign NDAs (VC, Brad Feld explains why here). Most experienced entrepreneurs won’t either. Building a strong network is critical to your success and being in stealth mode only inhibits your ability to build out your network. Bottom line, don’t give influencers in your market a reason to avoid learning and talking about your startup.
- You’ll miss out on valuable feedback. Feedback from customers, entrepreneurs, investors, etc. will make your product and company exponentially better. Similar to point #3, putting up barriers to constructive feedback only worsens your odds of success.
- You’ll waste valuable resources simply protecting an idea. Time is money. If you’re worrying about protecting your idea, then you’re not 1oo% focused on actually proving out your idea. Ideas alone don’t result in liquidity events. The quicker you validate your concept, the better.
Whoa, we’re actually building value!
When we finally began an open dialogue about efforts, we realized we were forced to focus 100% of our energy on learning, iterating, and building actual value. At this very point of open communication real progress began occurring. Notably, others began offering meaningful introductions, customers started telling us what they wanted, and our product began taking meaningful shape.
So if you’re working on a deal in stealth mode, do yourself a favor and purge that toxic philosophy from your vocabulary.