The 2 Most Important Skills to Start Your Career

There is nothing harder than starting out or starting over. When you are new, it can be difficult to get your foot in the door and make a good impression. It can be hard to tell the difference between incompetence and a simple lack of experience.

Therefore, if you’re just starting out, there are two skills that are essential and will carry you farther than any others:

1) A Fierce Attention to Detail.

Any manager with a new hire has in the back of their mind the questions of, “Can they handle this?” and “How much do I need to keep an eye on their work?” If your manager knows you have an excellent eye for the details, they will be much more trusting in your abilities, knowing that you’ve taken good notes of their instructions, will triple check your work for careless mistakes and won’t do anything to make them look bad.  Building this trust can be the difference between a fast accelerating career with new responsibilities and languishing as an entry-level hire for years.

The longer I’ve been a manager and worked on product teams, the more I appreciate this trait. Over and over again we see the evidence of how the little details are what people notice and love (A great example is how Crashlytics built for Tweets which led to their viral growth). This is at the heart of great craftsmanship.

2) A Hunger to Learn.

Unfortunately, minding the details is not enough to succeed. You must also be eager to learn new skills. The faster you level up, the more likely you are to advance in your career whether always at the same company or at new ones. You need to learn from others and seek out sources of information on your own, which are skills in and of themselves to develop.

Many people in other careers have asked me how to get into product management, which isn’t always easy. However, one of the easiest ways to change your role is to work at a growing company and show how fast you can learn and grow.  This gives a company the confidence to give you more and new responsibilities.

The Combination is the Key.

When you combine an attention to detail with a hunger to learn, you will be unstoppable. Watching for the little details will make you more inquisitive and help you find the hidden gems and little secrets others gloss over. The little details are where life’s curiosities and greatest lessons lie.

As you grow the confidence of others and use curiosity to drive your learning, you will open new doors and build great relationships with others in your field. You are likely to attract great mentors who enjoy watching your development and love sharing stories and lessons to further your learning. They will also become your strongest advocates, either as great references, or the kinds of people that hire you again and again.

What do you think are the most important skills for those starting out?

Why Consumer 3D Printing Companies Should Think Twice About Fundraising

As I’ve spoken to many in the Consumer 3D Printing industry, I’ve heard an increasing amount of talk about raising money from professional investors. While an angel round could bring stability and some financial certainty, raising institutional money is very big risk in such an early market. Venture Capital can bring validation, a comfortable bank account and open a few doors thanks to partner networks, but at this point, I believe the risks far outweigh the gains for Consumer 3D Printing. Here’s why:

Why consumer 3D Printing companies should not raise Venture Capital now

1) We haven’t crossed the chasm yet.

If we had crossed the chasm, people wouldn’t still be asking why you would ever want a 3D Printer. Zeepro would have already well exceeded their Kickstarter funding given how nice looking and feature-rich their printer is (instead, they have sold 300 printers and barely exceeded their funding goal). We would also have a robust set of applications to leverage 3D printers, which excluding design tools (the 3D Printing era’s BASIC imho), is fledgling or non-existent today.

Spreadsheets and word processing programs were largely responsible for early majority users buying computers in the early 1980s. Specifically, VisiCalc has been credited with catapulting sales of the Apple II when it came out in 1979 (2 years after the first edition of the computer). Of course, those programs weren’t even possible until early computers advanced their hardware in key areas like memory, hard drive space, and displays as well as overall product reliability.

Today, we have many hardware improvements still needed for 3D printers to enable new use cases. Breakthroughs in multi-extrusion, print speed, materials and huge improvements to the kluge software experience are all needed to create a “Whole Product” as described in the classic, Crossing the ChasmUntil then, sales will continue to be measured in the hundreds or thousands, which does not align with the mass market growth investors crave.

2) Fundraising is an accelerant for your business.

If you raise venture funding, you may be able to relax a bit from the stress of bootstrapping (i.e.- making payroll), but it comes at a high cost. Venture Capitalists invest with the expectation of the funds being spent aggressively and creating significant growth. If you haven’t had explosive growth, the next set of dollars will be even more expensive, if they’ll fund you at all.

Once you hire people ahead of revenue, it’s hard to stop and even more painful to do layoffs. But don’t take my word for it. Ben Horowitz put it best last week:

“We should first decide how much we like laying people off, because if we love it then lets stay cash flow negative, because when we don’t generate cash, the capital markets decide when we have to lay people off. In fact, we will have to listen very carefully to investors on everything because as soon as they stop liking us, we will start dying. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to live my life that way. I do not want to have to tell all of our employees that we will do what we think is right until investors tell us we have to do otherwise. I want to control my destiny.”

If you absolutely need to raise money, sticking to Angel investment is the only way to go; prudent angels will understand the need for financial stability without aggressively outspending your revenue. You could sell them on plans to turtle up and survive the chasm crossing while placing a few intelligent bets.

Larger investors will neither understand this strategy nor support it as they have funds to return over a time frame that may be shorter than the path to massive growth for your business. You should expect a volatile, painful 2 to 3 year chasm crossing period before we really hit the early majority years. If you raise capital during this time, you will require multiple, highly-dilutive rounds of capital before you can really return value as investors usually expect a round of funding to last just 12-18 months when deployed properly.

3) VCs don’t just talk to you because they want to give you money.

So you’re getting repeat meetings with a VC. They seem friendly and interested in the data you’re sharing and the plans for your business. While it’s true it could be that they’re serious about investing, it’s also quite common for meetings to be free research for them on up and coming industries (Note: I’ve specifically heard from some 3D printing companies they “wasted a lot of time” doing this). Walking in their shoes, a few pitches from different 3D Printing companies would give a great view of the market to gauge when they may be ready to invest years down the road.  

Of course, most VCs are also great at the “soft no”; they’re happy to continue to have you or one of your cofounders make more pitches and exchange more information without actually committing to funding or outright saying no to you. And as a worst case scenario, they can use your information to fund a competitor or steal your idea. I’m not advocating for you to completely ignore VCs, but choose wisely who you invest time in speaking with. Ask yourself if you could better spend that time growing your business.

4) The early PC industry succeeded without it.

In the early days of the PC industry, Venture Capital was just emerging and largely was not involved in funding companies. Microsoft only raised $1 Million in its history and at a time when it really did not need it. While Apple did raise money, the majority of the funds came in the 1980s, long after the market was established and Apple was selling millions of computers. The rapid growth of the market as it hit the mainstream allowed profits to easily fund additional growth and made many founders and their employees very rich thanks to their non-diluted stock options.

Early markets require new marketing channels and use cases. By Clayton Christensen’s definition in the Innovator’s Dilemma, truly disruptive innovations have to find their own way beyond what the existing industry does with a technology.  As PCs were before, consumer 3D Printers are just that kind of disruption, which means there is going to be a lot of experimentation and exploring to find the best opportunities and develop new ones. There are very few venture investors that have the patience and interest in letting companies do this kind of exploring, since their capital and experience is better leveraged for scaling.

5) Your best investors are your customers.

No one said it would be easy. To really meet where the market is going (because honestly, we don’t know), finding the first few people who will pay for something you’re doing is huge. They’ll help you build the product others will need, find others like them and keep your business afloat financially in the meantime. There’s a reason these businesses started in garages, motel rooms in Albuquerque, and the like; they couldn’t afford anything else.

To survive the chasm means finding a beachhead and expanding. The focus and controlled desperation of bootstrapping can be a powerful tool to develop such a market. If you’re sitting comfortably with venture capital, the hunger to find this will be less and you may even find yourself building a bunch of features that no real customer wants until it’s too late.

We’re in an exciting, but challenging time in the 3D Printing industry. There are many more players currently than there will be winners, which is the tragic, harsh truth of entrepreneurship. Raising money may seem like the obvious way to get a leg up, but it could also be a major waste of time or drive you and your business right off a cliff.

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Do you really read?

Spend five minutes on any social media site and you’ll see hundreds of articles shared and discussed. In our world of infinite knowledge at our fingertips, the challenge now becomes Quality, not Quantity.  As you read any article, book, answer or social media post, it’s important to take the time to digest what you consume.  Did you just waste ten minutes or was it worth the read? What did you learn? Do you really get it?

In our fervor to join the conversation or “catch up” on those thousands of articles you’ve saved in RSS, Pocket, Instapaper, or otherwise, we often miss the point.

We are all Hypocrites.

Too often we read something, share it and talk about it, but fail to retain its meaning. Maybe you retweeted something about taking care of employees, but then you failed to show interest and compassion for an employee that came into work visibly upset. Maybe you just shared an article about the importance of open communication, but then disregarded comments from someone who tried to bring up a problem with you. Regardless of what it is, you’re wasting your time with all your reading if you don’t use it to drive action.

I struggle every day to follow through on the things I passionately read and write about. As a habit, I re-read my own posts to remind myself what I care about so much. It’s easy to forget things like actually giving praise despite knowing how important praise is in motivating and appreciating your employees, remembering to always use the best structure for customer development interviews, or to keep applying the best takeaways from a great book I read.

What do we do about it?

I challenge myself to answer the following questions in everything I read:

  1. Has this taught me anything new and valuable? (If not, move on quickly)
  2. How can I apply insights from this article today? (Wait and I’ll forget)
  3. When have I applied the ideas from this post? Where have I not, but could have? (What was the difference?)

The real key is Self-Awareness with Discipline.

One of the hardest things to do in life is to get outside your ego. This awesome post by the CEO & founder of Redfin captures it well:  

“Most people spend nearly all their energy trying not to change. This is what the philosopher William James meant when he wrote the mind’s main function was to be a fortress for protecting your ego from reality. When the mind has to accommodate a new fact, James argued, it doesn’t settle on the change to its model of reality that is most likely to reflect reality. It protects the fortress, calculating the smallest possible modification to its bulwarks that can account for the new fact.

As I read and observe my daily life, I try to look for opportunities to apply all the great things I’m reading and everyone is sharing. And when I write or give others advice, I challenge myself to make those things not just aspirational or what I do at my best, but what I apply day in and day out. It’s not easy, and I don’t always succeed at this, but it has helped make me and those I interact with a little better every day.

How do you apply what you’re reading?

 

Why you should take your 20s seriously

“Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never get out alive.” – Van Wilder

It seems like the prevailing advice today for anyone in their twenties is to live their lives free of any commitments and as independent and undirected as possible.  As a workaholic entrepreneur since I finished school, it never really resonated with me, but even I have found myself prioritizing based on the fact that my 20s are unique time I can do things I wouldn’t be able to any other time in my life.

A friend recently recommended I read The Definining Decade: Why your twenties matter – and how to make the most of them now. After reading it, I realized the importance of my twenties to a degree I never had and it has changed how I plan to approach the last few years of my 20s.

Written by a clinical psychologist, the book hits on all the key aspects of your life: Work, Love and your Body. There are many great takeaways, but the 3 biggest that have stuck with me are:

1) Your 20s lay the groundwork for success in the rest of your career.

Whether you’ve spent too much time as a bartender or waitress or in tech living in your parent’s basement as you “work on your startup”, you could be preventing your life from moving forward in a way that will make you successful and happy in the future.

Maybe Starbucks is enough to be happy now, but can you raise a child with that pay? More importantly, do you want to be doing exactly what you’re doing now in 10 years? If not, does your current job get your foot in the door?  If you aren’t Mark Zuckerberg, maybe you should think about how to build a career in a startup as opposed to being a young, fledgling founder forever.

No one starts at the top. It starts with a dues-paying low level job where you excel and get more and more opportunities. I had a master’s degree and still had to start with a part time internship to get my foot in the door in tech. That internship led to the person I interned for getting me a full time job at a startup they were on the board of. The founder of that company then introduced me to Hiten Shah as a mentor and now I run product for his company, KISSmetrics. This is how most successful people I know have built their careers, and it always starts small.

Lesson: Don’t put off starting to build a career. The sooner you start out in an industry and role you like, the sooner you can grow into a satisfying career.

2) Statistically, women need to have all their children by 35.

According to the author, a woman’s ability to get pregnant plummets starting in her mid-thirties. To make matters worse, the odds of a miscarriage for a woman over 35 is one in four.  This is a scary statistic that brings images to my mind of a couple struggling to get pregnant only to lose their child during pregnancy. No one wants that.

The thought of a family has been far from my mind all through my 20s. I’ve put my career goals ahead of everything else.  At the same time, I’ve known I do eventually want to have a family. Realizing these statistics has led me to better understand the choices I make and the time I’m working against. It now makes a lot more sense why there’s so many founders in their early 30s that have started families.

Lesson: If having a family is part of your life’s goals, you probably have less time than you think. If you’re a guy that wants to marry a woman relatively the same age as you, the clock is ticking on you just as much as it is for her.

3) Your brain finishes forming in your 20s.

I always thought your mind was formed as a child and that by the end of your teens your brain was probably what it was going to be until the decline began in your 30s or 40s. As it turns out, your frontal cortex goes through great change in your 20s before it is set more permanently in your 30s (imagine wet concrete hardening). Per Wikipedia,

The executive functions of the frontal lobes involve the ability to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions (or better and best), override and suppress unacceptable social responses, and determine similarities and differences between things or events.

As a person whose goal is build a massive company, I realize I need to develop as many of the skills I need to lead such a company now, because in a few years it may be difficult or almost impossible to grow in the ways necessary to handle the role. As I hear about founders that can’t (or don’t want to) run a company once it reaches a certain size, I think about the challenges of scaling yourself and the development required.

Lesson: Whatever your career and life goals, realize that the skills you develop and the personality you forge in your 20s will determine many of your abilities the rest of your life.

Few books I’ve read have led to as much personal introspection as reading this one. If these concepts interest you, I highly recommend you check out: The Definining Decade:

The Fallacy of Chasing Startup Ideas

Over the past week, I’ve caught up with a few friends that are in the process of searching for their next startup idea. One is an EIR, another a founder looking for a new idea for their startup. Less than a year ago, I was on a similar quest.  As much as the passion to build a company is a noble cause and one I deeply relate to, I don’t think you can find it by broadly searching for the right idea.

I believe there are only 2 ways to find a great startup idea: Experience and Passion

1) Experience

You’ve worked in an industry for years. You know all the inefficiencies in the market and how terrible the existing solutions are. You are the target customer or you know them because of regular interactions.  Because of your experience you have the connections to land your first customers with relative ease and likely already know what the Minimum Viable Product would be.

2) Passion

You may not know the industry well, but you’re so fired up about the idea you can’t sleep at night. You want this solution to exist, you know the world is not complete without it and you’ll run through walls to make it happen. This fire also is likely to give you a level of understanding of the end user that will translate to a great product you want to use.

So which is more important?

If you’re starting a B2B startup, Experience is more important as it will help with those key early sales. For consumer startups, Passion is more important, since often new tactics are needed that industry experience would not help as they’d be outdated.  Ideally, you’ll have both as it will help get your venture off on the right foot and have the wherewithal to survive the trough of sorrow.

The problem I found in searching for a startup idea for 9 months and what I think my friends will struggle with is that without Passion for an industry nor Experience within it, you’ll be unlikely to magically come up with an idea on your own. If you’re really determined to start a company despite this, then your best bet is to find a founder to co-found with who has Passion or Experience (the best startups have both) or join a company you can learn a lot from in a high impact position(what I did by joining KISSmetrics to run product).

Connecting the Dots: How a Boston Connector Landed at an SF Startup

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, May 2005

One of the most common questions I’ve heard over the past few weeks from younger members of our community, especially students, is how to build a career in startups. Unlike climbing the corporate ladder, it’s not a straight forward, linear process. As I just made a major move in my career to join KISSmetrics, I’d like to share how I ended up going from Boston startup connector to SF Product Manager.  This will also help answer questions I know some of you have about how I landed this job.

Connecting the Dots – The unorthodox journey of one startuper

To really begin this story, you have to go back to my days at oneforty. When I joined oneforty, I was given the title of Customer Development Manager and asked to help make oneforty a Lean Startup. Since I had only spent a few months working part time with John Prendergast as his cust dev intern, I really had very little experience. Laura Fitton, oneforty’s founder, took a leap of faith I could learn it, but she also was wise enough to know I could not do it alone.  That’s why she set me up to have mentors from day 1.

Immediately upon starting at oneforty, Laura connected me with two Valley Lean experts she got to know while she was out west raising money for oneforty and Pivotal Labs worked to build V1.0 of the site.  These people were internet mentor legends, Dan Martell and Hiten Shah.  Once a month I seemed to find myself on the phone getting what I would happily call an “ass-kicking” from Dan helping me realize all the things I was doing wrong and most importantly, could do to improve my custdev methods.  Roughly every other month I would have a similar discussion with Hiten.

These discussions were priceless in my career development. I would take copious amounts of notes and seriously reflect upon what Hiten and Dan discussed with me each time. I would also share these notes with Laura to make sure I truly understood them and to force myself to teach someone what I learned (a great tool for deepening your understanding).

A Chance Meeting

Fast forward 12 months at oneforty and it is April 2011. I’ve learned a ton about customer development and lean startups, enough that Trevor Owens, founder of Lean Startup Machine (which was just getting off the ground at the time) invited me to be a mentor at the Lean Startup Machine event in New York City. As destiny/fate/karma would have it, Hiten Shah was also one of the mentors for the weekend.

Being a mentor traveling in from another city is very different from mentoring in your home city. When you’re in your city, you likely only stop by for a brief period of time that fits your schedule. But, when you go to another city, you find you spend the vast majority of your time there…which both Hiten and I did in New York City.

After Saturday’s activities wrapped up, all the mentors went out for drinks.  This turned into an audition and test for me.

With Hiten Shah to my right and Patrick Vlaskovits (co-author of the awesome Lean book at custdev.com) grilling me on all sorts of topics from lean startups, to lessons learned at my first real startup job to topics on psychology and body language.  At the time I was dead set on leaving oneforty to start my own company so all Hiten said was, “if you raise money for your idea, come out west and I’ll give you some intros.”  He also encouraged me to quit ASAP to start doing my own thing if that’s what I was passionate about. Coincidentally I did just that on Monday back in Boston.

Out on my own, but on the Radar

After leaving oneforty, I set out to start my company I’ve always dreamed of.  After spinning my tires for 6 months though, I found myself pretty empty handed and a bit discouraged. After a meeting with Sim Simeonov, I refocused my efforts on the lean startups movement.  After a month of interviews and discussions, I published the results, which caught Hiten’s eye when they were tweeted out.

Hiten DM’d me after my first post and we had a call to discuss my findings, which confirmed his suspicious: Lean as a concept is far ahead of actual solid execution of it in the startup world. At the end of the chat, I mentioned that I was planning a trip out to the Valley in early December and asked if we could meet while I was in town.  He agreed.

Meeting in SF and an Offer

When I met with Hiten in December during my Valley trip, we barely talked about KISSmetrics or my potentially working there. The vast majority of our one hour chat was about my strengths and weaknesses and where I was at in my startup career.

Hiten tried to sell me on the idea that coming to the Valley would solve many of my problems, but I presented a series of challenges that I felt prevented it from being the right decision for me.  He countered I could come work for him and it would resolve many of them. I noted the offer, and it did intrigue me, but it mostly sat just sat in the back of my mind.

By the end of the trip, I was much more interested, thinking it may be the next logical step in my career. On the flight back, I emailed Hiten expressing great interest in the role, especially as I discovered I could potentially be filling the shoes of the departed Cindy Alvarez (who just weeks before my visit had left KISSmetrics to join Yammer).

Getting Serious

With the holidays fast approaching, Hiten and I took things slowly, talking about the the potential first in loose terms then in much more specifics. After one phone call where Hiten lifted the proverbial kimono on everything I wanted to ask regarding KISSmetrics as a business, all that was left was an answer to the question, “When can you come meet more of my team for an interview?

With that, I booked tickets to take a quiet trip to SF for the interview in early February.

Sealing the Deal

With an interview scheduled and a focus on landing this job, I employed my proven job acquisition system that requires me to produce, insightful, valuable content for KISSmetrics.  I happened to be reading a psychology book at the time and so I produced a massive document on different ways KISSmetrics could improve their site based on the principles I found in the book.  I also aggregated all my lean learnings in one place so the rest of the team could see the credibility in Lean that Hiten knew I had.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in the interview. All I had were the names of the people I would be talking to and a vague idea that we’d talk about the KISSmetrics product.  Most of the interview turned out to be focused on implementation: how would you do this, what’s wrong with that, what would you do in this circumstance.

Despite not really preparing for such questions, I was able to crush the interview for one simple reason: the last startup idea I had worked on was a Lean Product Management tool.  While the idea didn’t pan out, it led to me talking to 40 people who run product at companies. Through this, I picked up on many best practices and common mistakes. I was armed with more than enough fodder for the interview and believe I’m really armed to take on my first full time product role.

Conclusion – You Never Know…

Whether it’s lessons learned in a failed startup idea’s customer development interviews or an event you’re randomly invited to in another city, you never know what will lead to the next great opportunity in your career.  Startups are all about embracing serendipity. Embrace the machine and you never know where you’ll end up.

Do you have an example of unrelated events that looking back were instrumental in a step or moment in your career?

West Coast Differences – Non Startup Edition

I just took a trip to the Valley for the first time. I’ve had a lot to say about it from the perspective of an entrepreneur (see on Greenhorn Connect here and at OnStartups here). I also noticed quite a few things that have nothing to do with startups that I found culturally interesting.

1) Everyone is nice

Boston can be a cold place, and no I’m not talking about the weather. In general, you just don’t find people being friendly walking down the street, and you definitely don’t see it on the road.

One event really tipified this for me: I had just made it out of a parking garage before close. Because of this I didn’t have time to set my GPS before hitting the road. There was no where to park so I pulled off blocking a driveway. As I was engrossed in entering my destination address into my Garmin, an SUV started honking at me; they needed in the driveway. I of course complied.

What happened next shocked me. The woman parked her car, got out and walked over to where I had pulled off slightly up the street. When I put down my window, she apologized for honking her horn at me. 

2) Everyone weighs 15 pounds less

It’s hard to believe until you see it. Everyone is just in slightly better shape than I see them in Boston. It’s a visual average I noticed after a few days.

I think the cause of this is pretty simple. Nice weather = more time outdoors = more exercise. What kills us (even a gym rat like me) are these brutal winters. It’s really hard to get enough cardio in under those circumstances which means every winter you’re putting on a little weight. Add that up over a winter or two and you quickly get those 15 pounds.

3) The Valley has safer drivers

I’ll be totally honest: after not driving for 7.5 years, I’m a pretty terrible driver. Luckily, people in the Valley drive slower on the highways (around 65 instead of 80) and well, they aren’t MassHoles. They actually use things like turn signals and let people over when they do signal. It was refreshing and the only reason I got back to Boston in one piece.

4) Parking is a breeze outside SF

There’s easy parking in Mountain View and Palo Alto. Even downtown. And it’s free. I was terrified when I forgot to bring quarters with me on my trip and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t need them.

5) Their public transportation is good, but flawed too

We all have our gripes with the MBTA but it gets you where you need to go….usually. The SF system is the same. Their buses are slightly unreliable, but have some drawbacks: the stops often smell of urine and the back part of every bus is covered in graffiti. Meanwhile, the CalTrain is incredible. Like a well oiled machine, the trains fly through the Valley right on schedule.

The best part of their system is they’ve tied it all together on one master card (their version of the Charlie Card). The Clipper Card, as they call it, was the only thing I needed and was easy to pick up at a station.

6) They have a serious homeless population

I found out while I was there that SF has the largest homeless population in the country and for some ridiculous reason they give each of them $400 a year (as if the year round good weather wasn’t attractive enough for the homeless).  I think this is a likely contributor to the bus stop urine smell.

These are just a few of the random differences I noticed in comparing the cities of Boston and SF and the Valley vs. New England.  Have you been both places? What have you noticed as a difference?

3 Questions Brought About by Steve Jobs’s Life

Everyone is tweeting and writing their thoughts as a legend has now passed. I just re-watched Jobs’s Stanford Commencement speech (embedded below) and was as inspired as ever.  As I read more of the tributes like Walt Mossberg’s personal recollection, it got me thinking about 3 heavy questions around all of this:

1) Steve says to “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition,” but why do so few actually have it?

I know so many people that somehow got into a rut at one point and are just on a heartless journey, living paycheck to paycheck at a job they care little about.  I wish for a world with more passionate and inspired people.

2) Would you rather live 56 years in the life of Steve Jobs or 85 years of average American life?

If the cost of changing the world is 1/3rd of your life, that’s actually a pretty high price; there is no commodity more priceless than time.

3) What if Steve’s mother had an abortion instead of putting him up for adoption?

As Steve mentions in his speech, his mother had him out of wedlock and put him up for adoption.  There are few decisions harder in life than the one Steve’s mother faced. The world is fortunate for her decision.

As Walt Mossberg said in his opening, “He was a historical figure on the scale of a Thomas Edison or Henry Ford and set the mold for many other corporate leaders in many other industries.” Only a man as great as Steve could bring about so many great thoughts and so many deep things to think about.

Why I’m Starting a Company Now

As I’ve been out on this journey to start a company for a couple of months now, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on why I’m starting a company now.  From my perspective it’s really the only choice that makes sense for me. The last few years of my life have been filled with preparation for this. Here’s why:

1) I have a zen financial outlook

- I have a sizeable warchest saved up that means I don’t need a salary for quite some time (a year +).  An incremental salary increase is not appealing to me; I have few wants/needs in life and don’t see it changing for the foreseeable future. One day, I’ll probably have a wife, kids and mortgage. That day, it will be a lot harder to bet it all on starting a company.

2) Customer development, homes

- For over a year at oneforty, I was eating, sleeping and breathing customer development. Before that, I did some consulting for John Prendergast cutting my teeth and learning from one of our local experts. I’ve since mentored at Lean Startup Machine events in NYC and Boston and wrote numerous posts about the topic (nothing helps you understand what you know like teaching/helping others).  All this adds up to making me feel like I’m the Kathy Griffin of CustDev (aka- I’m on the D List : P).

- I’m ready to take this knowledge and understanding and use it to crush a startup.  I’ve already used it to kill 4 ideas that have come up and am continuing the learning process, leveraging the knowledge of the greats in custdev (like @hnshah, @brantcooper and @pv).

- Any company I launch will be forged in the pits of lean startup-dom, which is much easier than bringing it into an existing company.  A wise friend recently said, “Culture is like concrete in that it hardens and is hard to change later.” That includes being a customer-centric company.

3) I’m going to be a recruiting machine

- One of my favorite things about being Greenhorn is the opportunity to sit at the intersection of so much cool stuff in our ecosystem. As part of sitting at this intersection, I hear from people that are unhappy at their current jobs or just ready for a change, companies that are waffling and what companies are growing or shrinking. All of these are huge opportunities as we all know that often the best talent never goes officially “on the market.”  Thus far, I’ve mainly been referring those people to friends’s startups, but I’m looking forward to the day I can talk to them about my startup and bring them in for an interview as well.

- All of this doesn’t even consider the platform I have with GreenhornConnect.com and beyond to reach a wide audience, not unlike Dharmesh is able to use OnStartups (although obviously at a much, much smaller scale than him).

4) It’s who you know…

- To be clear, I have yet to accomplish anything significant.  However, as Mark Suster and many others talk about dots and lines in determining investment (which means showing progress over time to build confidence in others investing in you), I’ve already made a few lines thanks to Greenhorn Connect and other activities in our community. This makes me less of an unknown when I reach out for advice, introductions or investment. I’ll still need to prove it with the startup I work on, but it certainly helps.

- While I’ve been meeting and talking with many of the awesome people in our community, I’ve also been curating a list to understand what everyone is an expert in. When someone says, “Let me know how I can help,” I always come back now with, “Ok, what are you best at? What the best thing I should ask you for help with?” I’m noting what they say so I can leverage their offers the best way possible. I can’t wait to leverage this as my startup needs help in everything from leadership to technical questions, customer development to culture and beyond.

5) Greenhorn is a mini-startup

- Few investors see a lot of value in the experience I’ve had in building GHC or from similar side projects according to friends I know (they just respect the traffic and influence) but most entrepreneurs seem to understand the value of learning on the fly from it. Similar to how Dharmesh experiments with OnStartups, GHC is my little playground.

- I’ve hired and fired, managed a paper-thin budget, found 6 unique revenue streams and learned a little project management along the way.  All of this with only a fraction of my attention for the majority of the time Greenhorn Connect has existed.  I am anxious to leverage the learnings on a full scale startup and continue to use it as a low-risk avenue to perform experiments.

6) The skills I have are for a founder, not an employee

- Early employees and founders need to be athletes. They need to be able to handle any job and roll with the punches that come with an early startup struggling to find product-market fit.  It helps as an employee to have a specialty that you can then grow into as the company hires more people and everyone gets more specialized.

- In my case, customer development is what I developed as a specialized skill.  One of the things I learned at the startup I worked at was that a founder needs to own customer development; the person doing customer development is the line of sight to the customer and it’s impossible to relay that perfectly to a management team (although I tried with detailed notes, summaries, email wrap ups, meetings, etc).

It’s never been a better time to be a young entrepreneur and I’m not that young (26). I feel like I have a combination of plenty of chips to bet and a through-the-roof risk tolerance right now. You are who you surround yourself with and most of my friends are founders or really early employees, so it only makes me more excited to be a founder as well.


Technical and working on something cool that you’d like some business help with? Drop me an email at evanish.j[at]gmail[dot]com and let’s talk. 

Independence Day & Quicksand

On this long weekend celebrating our country’s independence, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the past couple of months since I left oneforty to work on my own startup.  It’s been good to reconnect with a lot of people who I didn’t get to while being heads down at oneforty, recharge my batteries a bit, and have some success in the cofounder search. That being said, I’ve also realized I’ve walked into quicksand…

Quicksand.

On the football field, it’s when one thing after another goes wrong despite trying to make plays. In startups, it’s when you let something paralyze you and sink your entrepreneurial efforts. It might be because you focus too much on the wrong thing or ignore the most important thing.

I have tried to plan so many parts of this startup I’m now working on. Whether it be meticulously noting the learnings of the past year at oneforty, saving money so I can go without a salary for a very long period of time, or mapping out all of my contacts and the best ways to leverage them to succeed, everything has been carefully calculated.  I even focused on finding a great tech cofounder before the idea, so I was sure I had good alignment with them before we started running on an idea. All of this though ignores a key element: the idea. It is in this search for the idea that I’ve found myself in quicksand.

Searching for Inspiration.

Being calculated and focused is great for planning to save money and preparing to launch a company, but it’s terrible for trying to generate an idea. You can’t force inspiration.  I know this not for lack of trying:

  • Tried using David Skok’s brainstorming process he blogged about (coincidentally posted my first day after leaving oneforty).  It just left me feeling like a VC; knowing what are good, interesting industries, but not actually feeling like there was a specific idea to go work on.
  • Brainstorming with friends. I hit the white board with friends trying to flesh out some ideas, but only managed to write off a few ideas and failed in trying to dig deeper on ideas identified by using David Skok’s aforementioned process.
  • Talking with friends about the industries of their startups. I talked with a lot of friends in the community about what they were working on to see if any industries caught my eye.  Nothing seemed to spark.
  • Helping friends with their startups.  I tried helping a couple friends with their startups to see if I liked what they were doing (and might join them) or if their industries seemed like it had any interesting problems to solve.  The first two attempts yielded nothing and the verdict is still out on the 3rd.
I’ve found the harder I’ve tried to come up with the idea, the more I’ve sunk.

The Paradox of Choice

I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with an incredible idea. A friend of mine mentioned over coffee that he hopes I don’t become Jarrod Saltalamacchia and it fits how I feel; Jarrod was a hugely touted prospect that came up from the minors and everyone expected he’d be the next great major league catcher.  As it turned out, he’s ended up being more of a journeyman.

I feel like I have to get a big hit in my first at bat and it has crippled me; everything feels like a non-starter because no idea feels “good enough.”  It’s also hard because the closest focus I’ve found is that I know I want to build a B2B SAAS company (mainly because I feel there is the most support and related companies here and I understand B2B more than consumer web.)

Digging Out

Realizing this is happening and admitting it feels like the first step. More importantly is what happens next.

David Cancel gave me great advice at RubyRiot that I haven’t heeded well to this point. He said, “save someone an hour a day and build a business around that.”  It also harkens back to the most obvious solution that’s been standing right in front of me the entire time: Customer Development.  Somehow, in all of this, I’ve done very little customer development (other than when helping friends’ startups).

What Now?

As a recent blog post said, “A lot of people talk about Lean Startups and customer development, but very few people really do it.” I need to get outside the f@&%ing building.

Here’s how you can help:

1) What sucks in your day to day or someone you know?

What makes you complain or you’ve heard someone say is horribly inefficient, and totally not in Web 2.0 and should be? I want to talk to you and/or them! Seriously, even if we don’t know each other, drop me an email at evanish.j [at] gmail [dot] com and tell me about your problem.

Don’t worry if you think it’s a boring problem; I in fact prefer unsexy problems. I’m hoping to solve a problem that doesn’t have 25 Valley startups working on it.  One of my favorite startups a friend is doing (not in Boston) is working in a space where his direct competitors are…call centers. That’s a fun problem to solve.

2) Got an idea you wish existed but can’t work on?

I’ve already talked to a few of you that have shared ideas where you said, “If I wasn’t doing my startup, I would do this.”  If you find yourself saying that, I’d love to buy you a coffee or beer and see if it’s something I can help make a reality.  I’m very happy to make you a beta user ;- )

3) Hold me to this.

Whether you have a problem or know of one I can solve or not, please hold me to this.

Don’t ask me how I’m doing next time you see me. Ask me if I’ve gotten outside the building.