Tagged: Startup

Ask More Questions

Do you have kids? They’re amazing and terrible. There are numerous studies from reputable, non fake, sources that show kids will ask so many questions and push so many buttons that they’ll figure something out better and faster than adults. Like iPads and Minecraft. They’re not afraid of asking questions or making mistakes by hitting the wrong button.

The downside is that they ask so many questions they drive you insane.

[There’s a cognitive dissonance that occurs as a parent when you tell your kids to stop asking so many questions but want them to always remain curious and ask more questions. Your head explodes.]

I heard a story today about a company whose own employee embezzled serious loot. He figured out how to divert their website’s advertising revenue from the company’s bank account to his own. The management team saw discrepancies, asked a few questions, and was satisfied with the answer.

Hamburglar5 months later they finally asked more questions, then figured out that a Digital Hamburglar was on staff.

I can count on both hands the times the past 12 months that I’ve seen something that looked weird, and took the first answer, but should have probed deeper and harder. The key is going both deep and hard. Watch out.

Ask more questions. I’ve regretted asking too few.

 

Three Keys to Business Success

Longevity in the workplace can lead to clarity. Concepts or truisms emerge if you can distill down the daily activity in to  big picture observations. Here’s a concept that’s become more evident to me the last 5 years.

Starting, running, and growing a business requires 3 key elements.

  1. Hard work – without this, all else fails.
  2. Luck – working hard, and working smart, creates more opportunities for more luck. Anyone who tells you they made it on hard work, or their superior intellect, alone is full of shit.
  3. Who you know – sure, you can build a business without this, but you can do more, faster, if you’ve got strong ties with friends, colleagues, and family across your industry.

Six People to Know in NC State Entrepreneurship

This article originally appeared on ExitEvent.com, by Laura Baverman

Local universities continue to be one of our startup community’s greatest assets—not only do they educate and produce talent that feeds into the startup community but they train students to become entrepreneurs and they employ professors and researchers who develop and commercialize groundbreaking innovation.
There’s a team of people on every campus that help to connect faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members with various programs and opportunities, all to promote innovation and economic development in the state of North Carolina.
In the first of a series of Q&As with university leaders across the state, meet some of the folks making it happen at NC State University.
Megan Greer at NC State

Megan Greer 

Director of Communications and Outreach for the Entrepreneurship Initiative 
Brief overview of your job/role with the university 
I am responsible for the strategy, planning and execution of co-curricular programming, lead outreach and engagement activities where I serve as the primary liaison for external partners, and oversee EI communications efforts.
 
How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming? 
My background is in sales and marketing, including a stint as a sales representative with Kellogg’s and several years in the Office of Admissions at Meredith College. My first real exposure to the entrepreneurial lifestyle came when I married my husband, who started a technology company while he was a student at NC State. You can read more about that on the EI’s blog! All of these experiences led me to the position here at NC State.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
I’m really proud of the new programs and events we’ve introduced over the past few years. At our inaugural Entrepalooza (NC State’s outdoor entrepreneurship and innovation festival) event last fall, I was amazed at the number of students who attended and experienced first-hand all of the opportunities in entrepreneurship available to them. It’s also the day-to-day things that give me a sense of pride, like seeing rooms full of students working together in the Garage to create the next big idea.
Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? 
Although I’ve met lots of impressive entrepreneurs locally and on our Fall Break and Spring Break trips to New York and Silicon Valley, I’m most impressed by what our students have accomplished at such a young age. Getting to see the growth and development of these entrepreneurs from companies you probably now know, such asUndercover Colors, Frill, Bee Downtown and Offline (just to name a few), makes me feel like I’m on the ground floor of something very special. I get to say I knew them when!
A fun fact about yourself? 
I won’t pass up an opportunity to challenge anyone in Dance Central. What I lack in talent, I make up for in enthusiasm!
Matthew Davis of Reveal Mobile NCSU Alumni Network

Matthew Davis 

What is your job/role with the university? 
I serve as chair of the NC State Alumni Entrepreneur Network. Collectively we work to make sure alumni entrepreneurs stay connected with each other and with the university. We host entrepreneurship events that highlight NC State alumni entrepreneurs, and frequent happy hours.
How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming?
My first business was selling hand-woven baskets, which I weaved (woved?), to my parents’ friends and co-workers. Since then I’ve held almost every job imaginable from Arby’s cashier to valet to pool boy. I owned and operated a window washing business in college. Our motto was “Windows so clean, you can see through them.” Ahh…college. I sold that business after five years because I was afraid of heights. Reveal Mobile is the fifth company I’ve been a founder of, and my third mobile focused startup.
Tying all of this back to my role as the alumni network chair, the intent is to make sure the university hears the voices of their entrepreneurs. We serve as one conduit to that end. Being able to see the world from an entrepreneur’s viewpoint ensures the university builds programs, education, and services that support their entrepreneurial community.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
I’m most proud of the work our team has done to grow the community and events. This year they’ve really stepped up to deliver incredible programming. We’ve covered entrepreneurs in food science, biotech, fashion, tech and food, while doing a better job of involving our female entrepreneurs. Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? Anyone who is willing to start a business of any kind gets my respect.
What’s a fun fact about yourself? 
In the span of one year, I quit my job to start a business while simultaneously getting my MBA at NC State, then welcomed twins into the family, then moved to a new house, then went without income for 14 months. That added a few wrinkles and gray hairs.
Gary Beckman NCSU

Gary Beckman 

How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming? 
Ph.D. in musicology aside, I spent a significant part of life in popular and Renaissance music: performing, touring, education, etc. Besides a number of arts consulting gigs, my most successful business was founding a small record and distribution company in New England.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
Too many to mention. However, when my students can really see how an entrepreneurial life in the arts (ie: a dream) is “actually” possible, it’s a moment beyond description. Helping to provide that life choice is an absolute honor.
Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? 
Canadian artist Sid Dickins. He’s got a great business model and great art. We explore his work and business extensively in our Foundations in Arts Entrepreneurship course. I should add extreme artist Phillip Gray for the same reasons.
That said, we have so many students who have such new and innovative ideas every semester, it’s hard to keep track of them all. What’s impressive is watching students take risks. The decision to move forward with an entrepreneurial lifestyle is a courageous act—and THAT is impressive, each and every time.
What’s a fun fact about yourself? 
I’ve been a prog-metal guitarist for far too long….who knew?
Elizabeth Benefield NCSU

Elizabeth Benefield 

Social Entrepreneurship Program Manager 
What is your job/role with the university? 
My role at NC State is to manage the university’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. A fairly new program based out of the Institute for Nonprofits, we offer co-curricular (and soon, curricular!) educational offerings to students from every corner of campus bridging STEM and Humanities. Workshops, events, a student network of changemakers, and a new fellows program support students interested in learning about social entrepreneurship and innovation and those working on social enterprise ventures.
How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming? 
My career has been a deep dive into nonprofit sector fundraising as an independent consultant and entrepreneur, and 15 years in higher education.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
I am most proud that NC State is embracing the power and importance of social entrepreneurship.
Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? 
Local entrepreneur and soon to be NC State graduate and ThinkHouse Fellow Nate Myers of the Malkuta Project is the most driven, passionate and talented young entrepreneur I’ve had the privilege to work with. He’s unstoppable!
What’s a fun fact about yourself? 
I am dog-obsessed.
wade fulghum ncsu

Wade Fulghum 

Associate Director of Venture Development, Office of Technology Transfer
What is your job/role with the university? 
I lead the efforts to launch and support startup companies from NC State that are based on university research. During the last five years, I’ve been responsible for supporting the launch and growth of over 46 startup companies and have launched initiatives including the PackStart Program, the Venture Innovation Partner Network, the Executive-in-Residence program and formalizing a partnership with the CED Venture Mentoring program.
How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming? 
I have experience as a small business owner, a startup consultant and in commercial finance and insurance with a Fortune 100 company. I’m also a veteran of the US Army and have an MBA in organizational change management.
I bring over 10 years of experience advising companies and have served as a technology commercialization and development counselor for the North Carolina Small Business Technology Development Center (SBTDC). I’ve also served in several economic development roles at NC State and now on the International Technology Transfer Network’s International committee, the NC State Alumni Entrepreneurs Network Board, the local SBTDC advisory board and the Innovate Raleigh Task Force.
Earlier this year, I co-founded the Wolfpack Investor Network (WIN) and now serve on the steering committee.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
  1. Joining forces with Duke and UNC to launch the Wolfpack Investor Network as part of the Triangle Venture Alliance, which includes the Duke Angel Network and the Carolina Angel Network.
  2. Joining forces with CED through a formal partnership to leverage the CED Venture Mentoring Service for NC State research-based startups and applying for an Economic Development Administration grant together to bring extra support to expand this partnership to UNC, Duke and RTI research-based startups.

Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? 

Paul Garofalo of Locus Biosciences has incredible vision, drive, leadership, passion and has built such long-lasting relationships. I am very bullish about Locus and the impact they could have on the world through gene editing technology.
What’s a fun fact about yourself? 
We have an aquaponic greenhouse that my family and I run with the help of YouTube. We grow tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and raise tilapia.
Lewis Sheats at NCSU

Lewis Sheats 

Director of the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic and Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship in the Poole College of Management 
What is your job/role with the university? 
I lead the undergraduate entrepreneurship concentration & minor offered by the Poole College of Management, as well as direct the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic. Within our program we provide experiential learning, embed our students in the entrepreneurship ecosystem of the Triangle and provide them the tools and resources to execute on their own concepts and opportunities. In doing so, we serve the community through project-based assistance for entrepreneurs and new ventures.
How does your background contribute to your role in entrepreneurship programming? 
The collection of companies I have founded cross several unique industries. I started companies in logistics, medical waste, GPS, finance and cookies! It is a combination of this practical experience and theory that have helped us create an experiential immersion for the students at NC State.
What’s an extra proud moment from your time in your role? 
I have several, but here’s one—a student entered our program with very little confidence and sense of self-worth. To see his growth in the classes and his success after graduation makes me extremely proud and validates that what we are doing makes a big difference in young entrepreneurs’ lives.
Who is the most impressive entrepreneur you’ve come into contact with through your work, and why? 
I have taught 500+ students in our capstone course in the entrepreneurship concentration. Many of them have launched successful companies or become integral leaders in new ventures or entrepreneurial units of larger firms. For me to pick one is impossible.
A fun fact about yourself? 
I like to freestyle when I sing along to a song. Sometimes, I do it when I don’t realize people are close enough to hear.

Not In The Dropdown

Ever filled out a form on the website? If you answered “no”, someone printed this post out on paper and handed it to you.

There are many joys about working at a startup. It’s usually a small company with a team atmosphere. Very little political infighting. Each win is more important than the previous.

The pains of starting a business from scratch are well documented. No need to re-hash that here. The pains of creating a new product in a new market…also documented.

But I have uncovered one ridiculously trivial but annoying quirk about being an early stage and early-to-market startup.

Your company category is never in the dropdown menu on websites.

Good Stress Vs. Bad Stress

I overheard someone at the gym today.  She remarked to her friend, “You know, it’s good stress, so it’s okay”.

Upon hearing this, I was instantly transported back to my shower.  The year was 2010.  We had newborn twins, and I a full-time job with and an evening MBA program.

In the shower I was attempting to shake off the day’s stresses when I came to a similar realization.  My life was hectic, challenging, and semi-crushing, but full of good stress.

  • Getting my learn on
  • Happy, healthy baby twins, and 3 year old on top of that
  • Making enough money to pay the bills and save a little

As a startup, realizing the difference between good and bad stress helps make sense of the world.  It’s pretty easy to spot the difference between the two.

Bad Stress

  • Losing key employees
  • Losing customers
  • Losing your market

Good Stress

  • Getting a working product in a customer’s hands after 2 years of building it
  • Getting that first big customer launched
  • Getting the infrastructure built (or re-built) to handle scale

Even on great days at a startup, or any company, there’s still stress, but hopefully it’s the good kind.

Your Company Pivot Is A Movie Montage

Next up in this series on living through a pivot, we look in the rearview mirror.  Let’s jump back to early 2014.

Our business of building news, weather, and sports apps for TV stations matured, and reached the end of its lifespan.  We had time to figure out a new path, but not much, and were batting around dozens of ideas on what to do next.

I remember at least 5 brainstorming sessions, a mini-hack day or two, and a walk through downtown.  Yes, in attempting to figure out new ideas for the digital and mobile ecosystem, we strolled the physical world.  Attempting to spark creativity out of nowhere can yield a fruit or two, but the best insights frequently come when you least expect, and when you’re not plugging away at a routine.

We were looking for cues of any kind.  It’s not that we expected to discover an entirely new business model as we sauntered down Glenwood Ave, but rather to begin a chain reaction of thinking and discussing new possibilities.  Once you find that, articulating a solvable problem to test against a business model becomes a little easier.  A little.

Now, as I think back upon that time, all of those discovery sessions blend together like a movie montage.  Strolling down memory lane is much more pleasant if we throw in a little Hungry Eyes (for all you Dirty Dancing fans) or Let’s Hear It For the Boy (from the real Footloose, not that shitty remake).

PS – I walk around the office like this, all day.

When To Begin Your Startup Pivot

After you finally accept that you must change business direction in order to survive (that’s the previous post), when should you start that process?  Immediately? Yes.

But that doesn’t mean you pull the plug on current customers immediately, or you instantly cease your current operations.  Perhaps in some cases this is necessary. In our case, not so much.

While we clearly saw the winds shifting and our current market stagnating, we knew that keeping the current revenue stream alive extended our runway.  This is startup lingo for keeping more cash in the bank so that you can keep the doors open longer.

What we’re getting at here is that phasing into your pivot over time has a few advantages.

  1. Keep current revenue flowing to fund product development.
  2. Use current customers for customer research on the new product and direction.
  3. Use current / previous customers as your new prospect base.

Here’s the academic way to describe this, penned by Ron Adner in this Harvard Business Review article.  The ecosystem carryover: “using existing positions in existing market spaces to jump-start a winning position in a new market space”.

Of course, a phased pivot poses a serious risk: Holding on for too long when you should be letting go. Perhaps you should hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.

What better way to start the weekend than with a dose of 38 Special’s classic rock brilliance?

Happy To Be Here

This is not some happy-go-lucky, lets-all-hold-hands-and-listen-to-jam-bands-happy-to-be-here, nonsense.

moviesRather, it’s that feeling when the jaws of the giant worm are closing around you, and you narrowly pilot the Millenium Falcon to safety.  Nice one, Han. It’s when that massive ston garage-door on the cave is closing down, and you power slide right under only to emerge safely on the other side.  Nice work, Indy.  Or when you hit 88mph and your giant coat hanger hits the wire just as lightening strikes, returning you to 1988 with a flaming blaze of awesome. Time flux capacitor, all day.

When that happens, you’re happy to be there.

That’s what it feels like when you emerge from the depths of starting a company to see the light, either because things are going well, or because you flamed out and have the “relief” of finally shutting down.

My first mobile startup gotten eaten by the worm, crushed by the stone door, and mis-timed the lightening strike.  The business didn’t make it through, but I did. I joined my current company after that.

I’ve been “happy to be here” since. Shutting down your startup puts a whole new shine on the rest of the working world.

In the three years since, the market forced our hand. We sold the old business to focus on a new direction instead of completely closing down. The classic: Pivot. What a simple yet challenging word.  It’s two syllables that sound like the sound of spitting a watermelon seed. Pivot appears easy and quick, when it’s actually slow and deliberate and more like evolving.  Pivolution.

We’re starting to emerge. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and at least for now, it’s not a train.  That’s the “happy to be here” sentiment we’re discussing today.

Stick with me and I’ll walk you through the last 18 months of our overnight pivot.

 

 

 

Startup Hats From The Trenches

HatsEntrepreneur David Gardner recently published a book on the many hats that startup founders must wear.  Exit Event is posting excerpts from his book,  and they’re worth the read if you’re considering starting a company or in the midst of being a founder.

But what if you’re not the CEO? What if you’re #2 or #3?  What about the various hats you’ll need to wear?  Here’s a few that I wear:

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Account Management
  • Interviewing new hires
  • Customer Service
  • Systems Administrator (yikes!)
  • Project Manager
  • Product Manager
  • 3-6-9-12 Month Planning

This is a very tactical list, which differs from the business founder who is thinking about fundraising, team building, partnerships, and board management.

More important than listing any of these items out is the underlying message to any one considering working at a startup.

  • This is your reality.  You can’t be a specialist.  That’s good news for us Expert Generalists.
  • Embrace the uncertainty that comes along with doing jobs you have little experience doing.  That part takes mettle and moxie.
  • Believe in your company, market, team and product to know that you won’t have to perform these tasks for eternity.  You’ll grow the company and get help.
  • You will have fun and you will learn.  You’re forced to pick up new skills, and despite the short-term angst and stress the learning curve may cause, it is fun.

The Chapel Hill Police Know Social

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 2.54.23 PMThis post originally ran on ExitEvent.com, and lives here, too.

The entrance to my neighborhood sits atop one of the many large hills in Chapel Hill.  As you crest the hill, there’s a good chance you’ll see a squad car perched at the intersection. It points out to Highway 54, with the radar gun leveled across the window sill.  And if you follow @ChapelHillPD on Twitter, you already know to slow down.

That’s right, the Chapel Hill Police Department frequently, but not always, tweets out when and where they’ll be enforcing the speed limit.

Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Walker

To figure out why the CHPD might do something so awesome yet so unconventional, I sat down with Sgt. Bryan Walker, who manages their social media presence. As I planned for the interview, I realized that this was the first interview with a police officer where I’ve been asking the questions.  How the times have changed.

Within minutes of our conversation, Sgt. Walker starts dropping lesson after lesson on marketing.  All of us tech-savvy, startup prima donna, self-proclaimed “gurus” were getting schooled.

Here’s what we can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department about social media and marketing.

Go Against The Grain
Public offices and officials historically see little value in marketing and branding themselves.  Why should they? There’s no immediate, visible incentive.  The Chapel Hill PD felt compelled to go against the grain.  They wanted community outreach, new audiences otherwise untapped by law enforcement, and positive ways to engage the town’s residents. Think about it…most interactions with the police usually aren’t positive.  Going against “conventional wisdom” allows them to reach thousands of people a day and noticeably stand out.

Get Buy In
Both the town and police department leadership support social media to re-shape the town’s image.  This is no accident.  While the town may be considered “progressive” by some (go ahead, insert your favorite Chapel Hill joke here), Sgt. Walker built buy-in initially, and repeatedly over time.  Buy-in means better chance of success.

Chart your own destiny
No one grants you permission to come up with new ideas.  You only need permission from yourself.  Sgt. Walker wrote the job description for which he ultimately was promoted in to.  This is a fantastic strategy.  If you want something from someone else, tell them everything you’re going to do to help them, instead of asking for a handout.

seattlePD

Emulate
Don’t feel compelled to build every new concept and creative idea from scratch. Emulate your peers whom you admire.  Prior to launching their social media strategy, The Chapel Hill PD discussed at length what attitude they wanted to convey.  Admiring how Seattle’s police force uses social media, they borrowed their helpful yet playful style.  What style?  At a 2013 marijuana rally, Seattle’s finest gave away bags of Doritos adorned with “you might be hungry” stickers explaining the new rules about legalization, while tweeting out #OperationOrangeFingers. Genius!

Master 1-2 Channels First
Every month, a new social media channel springs up.  Marketers have a temptation to do them all, spreading too little peanut butter over too much bread.  The CHPD focuses on two channels:  Facebook & Twitter.  They realize they still have enormous potential with just these two.  They’re going to go deep instead of going wide.  Smart.

Find Audiences In New Places
Twitter & Facebook allow them to reach audiences they never have before.  The few conversations I’ve had with police are usually in-person.  Now they reach me, and thousands of residents, every day with positive, helpful, and valuable messages. Twitter becomes their primary vehicle to reach the college crowd, with Facebook leaning towards longer-term residents.  As a marketer, where are new places to find your audience?

Massage the Message By Channel
All marketers know this, but not everyone does it, including myself.  Treat different platforms, and their audiences, differently, because they expect different content. Twitter is the department’s medium for instant, real-time updates like traffic accidents, breaking news, speed enforcement.  They use Facebook to tell deeper, richer narratives.

Include Your Personality
The CHPD likes Seattle’s approach because it humanizes the department.  It shows that they do indeed have personality, a sense of humor, and are regular people.  Is it all personality all the time?  No.  It’s just the right amount. I love bringing this concept to marketing as well.  Your marketing should include your personality, just not all of it.

Tell The Story You Want to Tell
Social media allows anyone to be a media company, no longer dependent upon others to spread your message.  This is incredibly helpful for police departments, who sometimes find themselves in the media because of a giant shit storm.  Now, they get to tell their own story.

Stepping back from marketing, this is an incredibly valuable lesson for startup founders. It’s easy to focus on the insanely challenging parts of your business and whine about that to anyone within ear shot. I complained, a lot, when my first company was melting down.  In reality, the startup experience remains a life changing event for me, which is a better story and much more enjoyable to share.

Remember the True Goal
Sgt. Walker initially received push back on tweeting out the location of speed enforcement. On the surface, it seems contradictory.  Isn’t the goal to catch speeders?  Nay.  The true goal of tweeting speed enforcement locations is to improve the safety of driving through our town. If a few hundred people slow down as a result of a tweet, mission abso-freaking-lutely accomplished.

The ultimate goal for Sgt. Walker? Reach people.  The most effective policing of a community comes from a partnership with it. That’s what every company is after also; a partnership with their customers.

There you have it…ten lessons any marketer or startup founder can learn from the Chapel Hill Police Department.