start-ups

Commentary on an HBR article about Start-ups & Entrepreneurship

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A friend posted this article on LinkedIn.com. Due to character limitations for comments, I decided to post my response here. Below is a link to the article referenced: https://hbr.org/2019/07/building-a-startup-that-will-last

The article is interesting, but the emphasis on “second and third acts” assumes that the start-up will successfully navigate the first act. Even with addressing what the author views as key points this is still a very big assumption. The reasons for Longevity and Success are far more complex and multi-dimensional, but it does place a spotlight on some of the more important areas of focus.

Long-term success requires several things: The right combination of having a unique goal that has the potential to make a big impact (think “No software” from Salesforce.com); Innovative ideas to achieve that goal; A diverse team to build the product (a mix of visionaries, insightful “translators,” technical experts, designers, planners, adept doers, etc.); Very good sales / business development / marketing to describe a better way of doing things and converting that to new business; and ultimately a management team focused on sustainable and scalable growth.

The point made about the need to, “Articulate a value framework oriented toward societal impact, not just financial achievement” seems a bit superficial and too tactical in nature.

First, there are unintended consequences to most new technologies. Social Media is a recent example, but Genetic Editing and AI are two areas that are likely to provide more examples over the next decade. Not every societal impact will be positive, and having a negative impact could very well lead to the untimely demise of that company.

Second, the two ideas (societal impact and financial achievement) are not mutually exclusive. When I owned my consulting company we had a goal of funding $1M worth of medical research that would find a cure for Arthritis. We allocated half of our net profits for this goal. Every employee was on-board with this because there was a tangible example of why it mattered (my daughter). We invested $500K, helped launch a few careers for some brilliant MD/Ph.Ds and at least one national protocol came out of their research.

Mission and Vision are so important to a company, yet so many companies fail to view this as anything more than a marketing effort. Those companies fail to realize that this is as much to motivate and inspire their employees, as it is to grab the attention of a prospective customer. These should be both inspirational and aspirational, such as the “BHAG” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) that Collins and Porras wrote about 25 years ago.

Regarding Endurance and the assertion that “…the best businesses are intrinsically Image of globe with network of connected dots in the space above it.aligned with the long-term interests of society,” my take is slightly different. The best businesses are always looking for trends and opportunities in an ever-changing global competitive landscape – as opposed to looking to their competitors and trying to ride on their coattails. Companies with a culture of fostering innovation as a way to learn and grow (Amazon and Google are two great examples) are able to find that intersection of “good business” and “positive societal impact.” It is much more complex than a simple one-dimensional outlook.

But, it was a good article to help reframe ideas and assumptions around growth.

Good Article on Being an Entrepreneur

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Nearly every morning I start the day out by reviewing news on business, technology, and finance / markets. Occasionally there is a general interest article that I stumble across. Today it was a short article about Curt Culver, Co-Founder of Culver’s restaurants.

There are several great points that seem like common sense in hindsight, but are often well out of focus during the “heat of the battle” as you are building your business. Mr. Culver touches several of them:

  1. The Importance of having the proper Work / Life Balance
    • For me personally, this was one of the toughest aspects of growing my business. I was working 100+ hours a week, traveling a minimum of 50% of the time, and was often “not there,” even when I was spending time with my family.
      • My habits also set the expectations for others on the team, and I later realized that this created some strife at home for them as well.
    • The turning point for me was when my youngest daughter, then 4 years old, was telling her twin brother and her older sister that, “Daddy really does love us, he just works all the time so that we can live here and have all of this stuff.” It was painful enough to hear that, but was a wake-up call about what is really important in life – people (especially family and friends), not “stuff.”
  2. The Need to Develop others on your Team
    • From past experiences I understood the need to hire the best people who you could afford – people with complementary skills (not just clones of yourself), and who were better than you in at least one aspect. That diversity added value while the similarities made it easier to “get on the same page” quickly. From there it was important to understand their goals and work together to on career planning early – something that adds value to both parties.
    • One of my goals around developing my team was to have everyone understand the big picture, and then empower them to make good decisions for the business. 
      • While most of this occurred, my goal was to have each and every person think and act like owners of the business. That level of engagement and accountability only happened with my most senior person, who was also my first hire and actually did own a small part of the company.
    • The moment when I recognized success was during a mission-critical ERP system upgrade for our largest customer – a multi-billion dollar semiconductor reseller. I sat-in on project and team meetings, reviewed reports, and asked a few questions, but that was it. It was a very proud and empowering moment for me.
      • The weekend of the pre-migration test I received a call telling me that everything had been successful and that the migration was going forward the next weekend.
      • The following weekend I received a nightly summary email, and on Sunday afternoon received a call telling me that the new system was operational and supporting production with ease.
  3. Culture
    • Mr. Culver states that, “Culture is all about people.” From my perspective that is mostly true, but there are other important dimensions of culture based on my experiences.
    • To me, the Cultural Identity of your company starts out as something aspirational, and later grows into the glue that bonds each and every member on your team. It helps bring out the best in everyone, including the camaraderie and support that comes from working with people who you like and trust.
      • There were two unexpected consequences of actively focusing on culture, which were:
        1. We quickly transformed into a High Performance Organization. Everyone pushed to continuously “raise the bar.” There was healthy competition between people, but each member of the team was there as a “safety net” for others. Having the team win was far more important that winning as an individual.
        2. New Hires that were not a good fit recognized that very quickly and usually quit within the first 2-3 weeks. I only had to terminate one person during the probationary period who wasn’t a good fit.
  4. Having a Support System
    • Mr. Culver addresses failure and the importance of family to help support you in times of need.
    • One of the biggest lessons learned for me personally was nothing that I did or accomplished with my company would have been possible without the support of my wife, children, parents and in-laws (the later two providing financial support during the early years in times of need).
      • With understanding comes humility.

These are lessons learned that can be applied to any size organization, and in my opinion are a great investment in the future growth, value, and longevity of your company.

Here is the link to the article referenced

Failing Productively

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As an entrepreneur you will typically get advice like, “Fail fast and fail often.” I always found this somewhat amusing, similar to the saying, “It takes money to make money” (a lot of bad investments are made using that philosophy). Living this yourself is an amazing experience – especially when things turn out well. But as I have written about before, you learn as much from the good experiences as you do from the bad ones.

Innovating is tough. You need people who are always thinking of different and better ways of doing things, or who question why something has to be done or made a certain way. It takes confidence to ask questions that many would view as stupid (“Why would you do that, it’s always been done this way.”) But, when you have the right mix of people and culture, amazing things can and do happen, and it feels great.

Innovating also takes a willingness to lose time and money, with the hope of winning something big enough later to make it all worthwhile. This is where a lot of companies fall short because they lack the patience, budget, or appetite to fail. I personally believe that this is the reason why innovation often flows from small companies and small teams. For them, the prospect of doing something really cool or making a big impact is motivation enough to give something a try.

It takes a lot of discipline to follow a plan when a project appears to be failing, but it takes even more discipline to kill a project that has demonstrated real potential but isn’t meeting expectations. That was one of my first, and probably most important lessons learned in this area. Let me explain…

In 2000 we looked at franchising our “Consulting System” – processes, procedures, tools, metrics, etc. that had been developed and proven in my business. We believed that this approach could help average consultants deliver above average work products. The idea seemed to have real potential.

It took a lot of work finding an attorney who would even consider this idea. Most believed it would be impossible to proceduralize a somewhat ambiguous task like solving a business or technical problem. We finally found an attorney who, after a 2-hour no-cost interview, agreed to work with us. When I later asked him about his approach, he replied “I did not want to waste my [his] time or our money on a fool’s errand.”

We estimated it would take 12 months and cost approximately $100,000 to fully develop our consulting system. We met with potential prospects to validate the idea (it would have been illegal to pre-sell the system) and then got to work. Twelve months turned into 18, and the original $100K budget increased nearly 50%. All indications were positive and we felt very good about the success and business potential for this effort.

Then, the terror attacks occurred on Sept. 11th and businesses everywhere saw a decline. In early 2002 we reevaluated the project and felt that it could be completed within the next 6-8 months and would cost another $50K+.

After a long and emotional debate we decided to kill the project – not because we felt it would not work, but rather because there was less of a target market and now the payback period (time to value) would double or triple. This was one of the most difficult business decisions that I ever made.

A big lesson learned from this experience was that our approach needed to be more analytical.

  • From that point forward we created a budget for “time off” (we bought our own time, as opposed to waiting for bench time) and for other project related items.
  • We developed a simple system for collecting and tracking ideas and feedback. When an idea felt right we would take the next steps and create a plan with a defined budget, milestones, and timeline. If the project failed to meet any of the defined objectives it would be killed – No questions asked.
  • We documented what we did, why we decided to do it, our goals, and expected outcomes. Regardless of success or failure we would have postmortem reviews to learn and document as much as possible from every effort.

We still had failures, but with each one we took less time and spent less money. More importantly, we learned how to do this better, and that helped us realize several successes. It provided both the structure and the freedom to create some amazing things. And, since failing was an acceptable outcome it was never feared.

This approach was much more than just, “failing fast and failing often,” it was intelligent failure, and it served us well for nearly a decade.

Lessons Learned from Small Business Ownership

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Picture of a man next to a sign that says "grand opening"

I learned many valuable lessons over the course of the 8+ years that I owned my consulting business. Many were positive, a few were negative, but all were educational. These lessons shaped my perceptions about and approaches to business, and have served me well. This post will just be the first of many on the topic.

My lessons learned covered many topics: How to structure the business; Business Goals; Risk; Growth Initiatives and Investment; Employees and Benefits; Developing a High-Performance Culture; Marketing and Selling; Hiring and Firing; Bringing in Experts; Partners and Contractors; The need to let go; Exit Strategies and more.

In my case these lessons learned were compounded by efforts to start a franchise for the consulting system we developed, and then our expansion to the UK with all of the challenges associated with international business.

It’s amazing how more significant those lessons are (or at least feel) when the money is coming out of or going into “your own pocket.” Similar decisions at larger companies are generally easier, and (unfortunately) often made without the same degree of due diligence. Having more “skin in the game” does make a difference when it comes to decision making and risk.

Businesses are usually started because someone is presented with a wonderful opportunity, or because they feel they have a great idea that will sell, or because they feel that they can make more money doing the same work on their own. Let me start by telling you that the last reason is usually the worst reason to start a business. There is a lot of work to running a business, a lot of risk, and many expenses that most people never consider.

I started my business because of a great opportunity. There were differences of opinion about growth at the small business I was working for at the time, and this provided me with the opportunity to move in a direction that I was more interested in (shift away from technical consulting and move towards business / management consulting). Luckily I had a customer (and now good friend) who believed in my potential and the value that I could bring to his business. He provided both the launch pad and safety net (via three month initial contract) that I needed to embark on this endeavor. For me the most important lesson learned is to start a business for the right reasons.

More to come. And, if you have questions in the meantime just leave a comment and I will reply.  Below are some of the statistics on Entrepreneurship that can be pretty enlightening:

Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on Entrepreneurship in the US

Forbes article on Entrepreneurial Activity