The Entrepreneur Life

Category: Entrepreneurship (Page 1 of 11)

Founders – these are the best of times

Last night a friend whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 25 years came home for dinner. This was significant for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was the first time we’d had someone over since the pandemic began. Of course when you see someone after such a long time, there is some inevitable story swapping of “Remember when..” But thanks to our grown children a lot more of the talk was about where we are.

friends meeting

We also connected over FaceTime with a third friend who’d originally introduced the two of us and boy did we have a roaring time! So while we worry about our own parents coping alone with the pandemic, the fear of a third wave in India, all the young people we know who’ve graduated and still looking for that right job, its easy to lose sight of how fortunate we are at so many levels.

Then this morning I saw this blog post by Jason Lemkin at Saastr. He founded EchoSign that was acquired by Adobe back in July 2011 to become Adobe Sign. He reminds founders that it is easy (even without the pandemic) to get pulled down by all that running a startup entails. It is best said in his own words.

“Remember — These Are the Best of Times. You probably don’t see it, not totally. You might even think the grass is greener as a VC, or a COO, or Something Else. Deep down you might think that.

Being a founder makes you alive. Fewer things are harder, … Nothing will be more consuming. It will change you. A lot. But you’ll remember every minute.

You will be alive.”

JASON LEMKIN

So for all your founders out there, keep the faith!

Gender Bias in Innovation

Ice Cream Maker
Nancy JOHNSON, (1795-1890) invented the hand-cranked ice cream freezing machine in 1843

One of the challenges of teaching lies in helping students identify, confront and hopefully overcome their implicit assumptions and biases. When it comes to teaching innovation, this ranges from asking and answering questions such as

  • What is innovation? Is it different from invention or creativity?
  • Who is an innovator? Are they born or made?

In part to answer the second question, we do an exercise. Each student has to name two innovators of their choice and try to identify what attributes they’ve demonstrated as innovators. Much to my chagrin, year after year Steve Jobs and Elon Musk (more recently) are the first choices of most 19-year-olds that I teach. Thanks to my colleague Stephen Golden, later in the same class, we make them do an exercise around naming women or minority entrepreneurs. The exercise invariably results in both the students and I being surprised with the number of innovators that we should be aware of but aren’t.

In her book Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men Katrine Marçal brings up a related point. Not only do women entrepreneurs not get the visibility, but often inventions that seem to benefit primarily women do not easily gain traction. The particular example she cites is the matter of a wheeled suitcase.

The rolling suitcase is far from the only example. When electric cars first emerged in the 1800s they came to be seen as “feminine” simply because they were slower and less dangerous. This held back the size of the electric car market, especially in the US, and contributed to us building a world for petrol-driven cars. When electric starters for petrol-driven cars were developed they were also considered to be something for the ladies. The assumption was that only women were demanding the type of safety measures that meant being able to start your car without having to crank it at risk of injury. Ideas about gender similarly delayed our efforts to meet the technological challenges of producing closed cars because it was seen as “unmanly” to have a roof on your car.

Marçal, “Mystery of the Wheelie Suitcase.”

Studies show that this gender (and other forms of) bias, stretches beyond tech

As with any problem that afflicts our communities or organization, the solutions have to begin with us. The first step is to educate ourselves and to begin conversations with others to both acknowledge the problem and to seek solutions. This post is a baby step and in future posts I’ll share both innovators who need to be known and what we can possibly do to address these inequities.

Coachability – a key to founder success

Coaching

As I interviewed a variety of founders, lawyers and venture capitalists for The Art of a Happy Exit, the term coachability kept popping up. Tim McCarthy, who’d founded a marketing agency that helped chain restaurants improve their worst outlets  was the person who first brought this up to me. 

Tim, who sold his business in an all-cash transaction for 9-times EBITA, went on to start a non-profit as well work with young entrepreneurs. As most of entrepreneurs do, he jumped into both these activities feet first.

Tim who’s directly coached hundreds of entrepreneurs, learned the hard way about coachability. In his own words, “I wasted hundreds and hundreds of hours.” By that he meant he took every person or call that he came to him before realizing that most were coming to him for money but few were really prepared to listen. So he came up with a two simple questions that he must have an answer to before he’s prepared to spend serious time with someone seeking his inputs or help.

  • Do they have listening skills? 
  • Are they determined to change?

But answering even these questions require significant time. So he devised a simple process. They need to write, yep provide written answers to a template. Tim won’t commit to anyone who won’t write. This in many ways leads to self-selection with only 10% of those seeking help willing to do the writing work. Tim has also begun gathering them in peer groups, along with other folks seeking help. As Tim wryly puts it “They quickly tire of hearing me speak!”

Coachability – a key to founder success Click To Tweet

Tim is one of the entrepreneurs featured in my book, The Art of A Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses.

What your team wants may impact your happiness

Team Work

One of my pet peeves is how common the perception of a “hero entrepreneur” is. Steve Jobs or Elon Musk are amongst the two most common responses my students give when asked to name an entrepreneur. While these two men have accomplished much and altered the lives of millions, this continued veneration by much of the media (whether newspapers, television or the ocean of writing that’s out there) swamps the truth that entrepreneurship (like innovation) is a TEAM sport.

entrepreneurship (like innovation) is a TEAM sport. Click To Tweet

As anyone who’s stayed on at the end of a movie (I’m one of those chaps) to watch the entire credits roll knows, movie making involves hundreds of people at the very least. Startups and entrepreneurship is no different, a cast of thousands usually are toiling to make an enterprise successful. Of particular note amongst these are the co-founders and early employees many of whom not only buy into the vision but take what’s fuzzy and shape it into reality. In most cases, including in my own, they keep the founders honest and focused, not getting distracted by the next shiny thing all too often unacknowledged and at times at significant emotional and professional cost.

Once an individual has been exalted to hero status by the general public, there is an implicit level of responsibility we place on them, whether they want it or not. We end up projecting our loftiest ideals of character onto these people and forget that whether its Mahatma Gandhi or MLK, they were always just human beings.

Efe Otokiti

The very attributes that can make a founder successful—perseverance in the face of great odds, repeated missteps or even failures (that don’t quite kill the startup) can make them pig-headed (boy, do I know!) So the hero myth only makes it worse as they drink their Kool-Aid and believe in their own infallibility. Surprisingly many founders who ultimately exit their business find out it’s hard to be ‘happy’ despite their ‘success’ financially or otherwise, if their co-founders or employees don’t get what they want. And it is easy to imagine that this is unlikely to be the case when those employees or co-founders get a good or even great payoff.

As I learned in my own startups, while making money (or the thought of it) makes people happy (for a few minutes to months), everything from the trivial (“What do you mean I’ve got to pay taxes?”) to important (“What is my role going to be?”) all the way to the sublime (“What’s going to happen to our company culture?”) can muddy things at best or make them unhappy at worst. And of course as humans we are all to likely to succumb being happy with the $250K we made till we find out the next chappie made $255K! So what should founders do?

Here are three simple steps to begin with

  • Recognize that entrepreneurship is a team sport and acknowledge your team mates publicly and repeatedly
  • Ask and listen what their expectations beyond money are and be prepared that they might not be the same as yours
  • Factor their needs and expectations by discussing and if needed educating them in how you run and exit your business

This is one of the topics that’s covered in my book, The Art of A Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses.

The big role luck plays in our lives

4-leaf clover

One of the topics that we don’t talk a whole lot about in entrepreneurship is the role of luck. Luck of course can mean very different things to each of us. While commonly people tend to think of luck as good fortune, something over which we have no control, others view it as a matter of being open and responsive when new opportunities present themselves.

“Always say Yes!” I heard Andy Billman, the former president of Worthington Cylinder say this to my class at the Ohio State University back in 2017. Since then I’ve heard him repeat, even exhort folks to say yes, when an opportunity presents itself, such as a promotion or a move to a new location.

Two weeks ago I had a guest speaker Ellen Desmarais come in to speak to my Advanced Concepts in Entrepreneurial Studies class. Ellen in recounting her professional journey recalled that in her first job at a large credit card company an opportunity arose for her to move to a new business being set up in London. She jumped at the opportunity (as though she’d heard Andy Billman’s voice encouraging voice) and found herself at a ‘startup’ with all the freedom to experiment and but with the safety of a large organization backing it. As the years passed and new opportunities, jobs and roles arose, the lessons from that era of a rapidly growing new business continue to serve her.

“It’s a great example of how luck at some point will factor in your life.”

In my own career, luck has figured in a multiplicity of ways. The common one was often of poor timing—such as when we conceived and built an Apple Watch equivalent in 2004 (battery life, interoperability were not ready for wearables), pitched a GPS-powered game scenarios in 2007 (which eventually we saw Pokemon Go make happen).

Other times we’ve had the good fortune of customers sharing with us creative ways in which they’d put our technology to use. A customer from Korea, played Desert Rose by Sting on wireless headphones they’d built around our Bluetooth technology. This was an idea my engineers had pitched repeatedly to an non-receptive me. That chance encounter in a San Jose hotel persuaded me to finally agreeing to focus our entire company on wireless stereo music the led to the eventual acquisition of our company. Of course a great deal of smart people had to put in an enormous amount of effort, yet if that chance encounter hadn’t happened or I hadn’t said Yes, as Andy would have surely told me, I wonder how many other dead ends we’d have run down.

Thank you, Ellen for sharing your journey and insights.

Here are some other interesting takes on the role luck plays in entrepreneurship.

The Secret to Good Storytelling

Each semester as the entrepreneurship class that I teach reaches about midpoint, I find myself talking about storytelling and it’s centrality to business in general and startups in particular. You’d think storytelling would be easy, given how long humanity has been at it. And all those folks on Moth Radio and stand up comedians make it look easy. Yet telling compelling and concise story is a skill that seems in much shortage. This is a topic that I’ve written about before here, here and here and still talk about constantly.

Recently, I came across TED curator Chris Anderson’s video on what they’ve learned at TED about storytelling. The eight minute video (half the length of the typical TED talk, concisely lays out four points.

  • Pick one idea We often start with one, but it gets lost as we layer more on there. Don’t just stick with one but share context, give examples and link back to it throughout your talk
  • A reason to care Give your listeners a reason to care and the best way to do this is by stirring your audience’s curiosity. Provocation is one way to do it he suggests but I’d say try challenging them.
  • Build your idea piece by piece Most of us fall into jargon while trying to explain our ideas. Chris reminds us it is critical to use metaphors or analogs to explain in the audience’s language
  • Make your idea worth sharing No surprise since this is indeed TED’s byline. By articulating who benefits, you can help the idea spread

So not only can you tell good stories but inspire others.

The Art of a Happy Exit

Yesterday my father would have turned 92. Though my father had worked for 37 years at the same firm—rising from accounting intern to the CEO of multiple group companies—he was my biggest supporter when I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur.

Dr. K. Kuppuswamy

As a miniscule shareholder in my first startup but a major lender of working capital, he was our first angel. While I was in high school, my father used to regale me with a variety of tales, a surprising number of which came in handy during my own entrepreneurial journey.

As I’ve continued to learn from all that he’d shared, I’ve also had the good fortune to working with some incredible people who’ve mentored, coached, supported me and kept me honest.

Art of A Happy Exit

Yesterday was also the day my first book, “The Art of a Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses” went on pre-sale on Amazon (USA India). While I wish my dad were here to see it, hopefully some of his stories will live on and help other entrepreneurs.

I love you dad and miss you.

Lessons Shower Design Fails Teach Me

The wife and I snuck away without the kids to the temple town of Kumbakonam, in Tamil Nadu. While visiting living temples dating back the 8th to the 12th c. CE was both awe-inspiring and humbling, the shower stall in our hotel had its own lessons. I’ve written in past about baffling designs we’ve encountered here, here and here.

I’ve never ceased to be surprised by the constant “innovation” faucet makers insist on foisting on us. Somehow hotels seem particularly vulnerable to the siren call of such innovations. On more than one occasion I’ve had to dash into the bathroom, when a hapless friend or spouse screamed from the shower. For Psycho fans, it was never a man with a knife, but invariably hot (or cold) water suddenly spewing on their head or their feet, when they expected nothing of the kind. Invariably turning, pulling, pushing, yanking up/down, seemed to do utterly different things in these showers. If this was not confusing enough, in the hotel in Kumbakonam, I encountered this faucet.

Fearful of getting cold water dumped on my head, I gingerly began turning knobs. This [Faucet] [Left] [Middle][Right] arrangement had me wondering if Left = Hot? and Right = Cold? and Middle = Shower? Or L=H, M=C, R=S? Did the fact that the Faucet was in the left rather than between the knobs less confusing or more? I don’t know about you, but figuring this out, at 5AM, without of a stitch of clothing on is not exactly fun. Of course none of the knobs had any markings, nor did they provide any affordance whether they’d turn 90 or 180 degrees.

It turned out that the left most knob—the one closest to the faucet—switches from faucet to shower. It of course turns 180 deg, so you can never tell, whether it is set to shower or faucet, till you turn the water on! The middle knob is HOT and the right most is COLD, maintaining the common left/right protocol for hot & cold.

Any shower design that requires your spouse to experiment and explain how to work it is a #fail in my opinion.

This was clearly a case of a product designer trying too hard to differentiate with little regard for a poor, naked, shivering customer’s plight. What would you have done differently?

Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

Both in startups and large companies—heck in any company—culture is critical to success. This is something that I’ve been waxing about for close to 20 years now. And the criticality of storytelling in businesses is another favorite and recurring topic in this blog. So I was tickled this morning, to come across an interview of Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge (and formerly of Eloqua) being quoted saying

culture eats strategy for breakfast, and business culture can be built through storytelling.

Paul teshimA

What was particularly gratifying about this was his assertion was made in the context of marketing and sales. Sales folks have always understood that relationships are critical to their success. However their challenge has been to quickly identify and nurture the most promising ones, as they balance their need to deliver on results on finite timelines with the lead times of building meaningful relationships. Good marketers recognize that their job is to help sales shorten their selling cycles, by getting qualified leads to them consistently. Storytelling is a powerful to achieve this and a culture that promotes such consistent storytelling to customers and serving sales’ needs will always will the long game.

Hear Paul tell it in his own words here.

Paul Teshima of Nudge.ai on Sales Pipeline Radio

Pitch Deck Advice from 2 VCs I Admire

Yesterday when I wrote about what can make your pitch deck sizzle, I alluded to the fact that there are excellent pitch decks out there. Rather than have you search for them, I’ve compiled two actual decks from AirBnB and Home61 here as well as templates recommended by two venture capitalists that I admire. Hope you find them useful.

Mark Suster is one of my favorite writers who delves deep in all matters entrepreneurs and VCs. His How to Create a Pitch Deck that VCs will Love is on the longish side but is where I’d start.

Brad Feld, another of my favorite writers/venture capitalists also provides a counterpoint, namely focusing on the pre-deck face-to-face pitch. In his words:

Feld often prefers more of a free-flowing conversation. So how do you spark an investor’s interest in that conversation? “The pitch should be very clear about what you are doing, why you are doing it and why I should care,” said Feld. “If you can cover those things quickly and precisely, it’s easy for me to decide whether I want to spend more time with you or not.”

How to Create a Killer Start-Up Pitc

Now here are two pitches AirBnB (2008) and Home61 (2018)


And if that’s not enough, here’s a whole slew of them from Forbes and Konsus (50 decks). Have at it.

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