2018-09-19

My Entrepreneurship Principles: Culture

While I was hunkered down surviving Hurricane Florence, I had further opportunity to reflect on my principles as an entrepreneur. In the first part of this brief series on Mindful Entrepreneurship, I laid out my keys to the entrepreneurial process. In this second part, I will focus on culture.



Culture
  • Culture matters a lot. In my experience, ventures don't succeed or fail because of business models or technologies but rather because of people. Creating a culture of exploration and freedom to experiment is key to any learning organization, but especially to a startup.
  • A startup's culture must free its employees to take big swings and to risk failure. A startup can't "play scared" but rather must be open to failure. The key is to fail quickly, fail cheaply, and - most importantly - fail mindfully, learning and adapting through the process.
  • A startup is a learning organization and learning is its primary function. It is essentially a neural network programming itself and reprogramming itself through interactions with the  market. Learning isn't a black magic buzz word, though; it is a process that can be measured. I find one of the best ways to tune a culture's learning orientation is to use performance metrics to track the rate - hypotheses tested per unit time and cycle time per hypothesis test - and efficacy - hypotheses validated over time - of its learning processes. Fancy people call this "innovation accounting." To me it's just measuring the processes that are vital to the success of the venture.
  • An absolutely crucial cultural element of any learning organization is psychological safety. In a psychologically safe environment, team members regardless of level feel free to challenge assumptions, to critique initiatives, and to risk failure. Psychological safety can be measured and I am a proponent of assessing it frequently. 
  • Learning organizations need a healthy dose of skepticism, without which it is easy to get caught up in zeitgeist or invest in scaling unvalidated business models. A simple tool I use to foster a culture of skepticism is frequently asking, "Why?" This challenges team members to focus on their evidence - not their conclusions - and demonstrates that it is OK to ask to see that evidence and debate whether it really does lead to that conclusion. Especially with new team members, I will often ask, "Why," about my own ideas to accelerate their onboarding into a skeptical culture. 
  • Skepticism goes a long way toward combating groupthink but I also believe in the value of diverse teams. Research shows time and again that diverse teams make better decisions than homogeneous teams and, more importantly for a startup, diversity brings inherent differences in perspective that are crucial for a startup searching for a path through the infinite, unknowable future.
  • Contrary to much of the current startup mythos, I believe in a startup culture of work-life harmony rather than hyperwork. Balanced, well rested team members work more productively, stick around longer, and generate better insights than those who are overstretched. I try to foster intentional breaks during the work day, have walking meetings when possible, and adopt very open policies regarding hours, leave, etc. (I've always been inspired by the Netflix culture policy.)
  • Finally, I think it's important to have fun in a startup. This can mean different things to different people but the point is that fundamentally working on an exciting venture should be a joy. I try to bring my own fun to the office (high tea in the afternoons if I'm dragging, Formal Friday so our normally casual interns get to dress up occasionally, ad hoc games of Calvinball throughout the office space) but, moreover, I encourage others to bring their own fun, which is often contagious.
Culture doesn't create itself, though, so my next post will be on the leadership necessary to instill such a culture and execute the entrepreneurial process.

2018-09-12

My Entrepreneurship Principles: Process

I have recently been reflecting on the principles that I believe make entrepreneurial ventures successful. Today, the 56th anniversary of JFK's famous moon speech, a speech that inspired a nation to accomplish an impossible goal, seems like a good day to try to distill those principles down into a succinct post. I won't claim to have all the answers (On the contrary, one of the aspects of entrepreneurship that attracts me most is that I am learning all day every day.) but I have a track record of one big win ($40M revenue in three years with a nine-figure exit), a few medium wins (eight-figure exits), and a few smaller ventures that never quite achieved our lofty goals but did solve real customer problems and grow to $1M+ revenue with healthy profits.





If I had to describe my set of principles, I might call it "Evidence-based Entrepreneurship" or "Mindful Entrepreneurship." Or, if I were feeling particularly plucky, I might be so bold as to label it "Heroic Entrepreneurship" since I believe so deeply that entrepreneurship is a journey. "Heroic Entrepreneurship" has a connotation that sounds a bit arrogant - but let's not forget that there are many tragic heroes in addition to the triumphant ones!



Entrepreneurial Process

  • Startup entrepreneurship is a search. To quote Steve Blank, "A startup is a temporary organization searching for a scalable, repeatable business model." Large, established organizations excute known business models while a startup searches for an unknown business model. This is an incredibly important distinction because searching for the unknown is a very different process - requiring very different skills, culture, and metrics - than executing the known.
  • Use the scientific method. In their search for that scalable, repeatable business model, startup entrepreneurs must be honest with themselves about how much they do not know. They have hypotheses about a business opportunity and the startup process comprises rapid iterations of testing those hypotheses, learning from the results of those tests, and generating new hypotheses to test.
  • Test efficiently. Hypothesis validation isn't as binary as it sounds. For example, you can "validate" market demand very weakly, a 1 on a scale of 10 ("A couple of my friends said they would buy this."), or very strongly, a 10 on a scale of 10 ("Thousands of online users preordered our product for our desired price."). A 1 isn't always helpful and a 10 isn't always practical. My startups try to push validation as far along the spectrum as we can cheaply and quickly. Cheap and quick tests help us generate more targeted follow-on tests or, if our hypothesis is refuted, test a new direction ASAP.
  • Effectuation: start with your means. Steve Blank is great but he is pop science. I put greater stock in real, academically rigorous science about entrepreneurship. Within that category, I have been very impressed with a body of work called effectuation. Effectuation research has demonstrated that the best entrepreneurs don't pre-define a goal and then acquire the means to achieve that end. They actually do the opposite; they start with their means (who they are, what they know, whom they know) and they envision new ends that are only possible through their unique combination of means. This is an important distinction because it requires that entrepreneurs use divergent rather than convergent thinking.
  • Effectuation: leverage surprise. The best entrepreneurs expand their means through partnerships but they also have another secret weapon: serendipity. In the startup world, it is a question of when, not if, an entrepreneur will be surprised. To quote Mike Tyson, "Everyone's got a plan until you get punched in the mouth." The best entrepreneurs not only don't fear surprise; they actually take proactive means to embrace it. Serendipity has a strong (and underappreciated by those with large egos) effect on successful ventures and, while you can't control it, you can increase your collision rate with it by meeting other people, continuing your education and encouraging employees to get out from behind their desks. I also increase my serendipity collision rate by being open and transparent about my startups rather than secretive.
  • Effectuation: Set affordable loss and increase returns. There is a perception that entrepreneurs are big risk takers but studies show that we are actually more risk-averse than the population as a whole; we simply view risk differently and take more calculated risks. Corporate managers are trained to set a desired return and then take every action to minimize the risk that they won't hit that target. The best entrepreneurs invert this mindset; they set their maximum affordable loss and then, as long as they are within that constraint, they swing for the fences to maximize returns. This mindset allows entrepreneurs to pursue opportunities aggressively rather than playing scared.
  • Effectuation: Create the future. The best entrepreneurs don't try to predict the future; the future success of a startup is not only unknown, it is unknowable! Rather, the best entrepreneurs are comfortable with that uncertainty and instead strive to create the future. This attitude that, to quote the Terminator franchise, "The future is not set; there is no fate but what we make for ourselves," is a key reason that I believe entrepreneurship is empowerment.'
  • Play by different rules. David would never beat Goliath by going toe-to-toe with him and trading punches. The US would not have won its revolutionary war by standing out in the open according to the typical "rules" of warfare of the time. Similarly, when I am trying to lead a startup to disrupt industry giants, I always seek ways to capitalize on their constraints (and our lack thereof).
  • Work smarter not harder. It is easy in a startup to become so focused on what you are doing that you don't pause to consider how you are doing it - or whether you should be doing it at all. This is confounded by startup cultural mythos that encourages bragging about working long, hard hours. When we are missing deadlines, I believe in pulling our heads up to consider how we are working rather than exhorting the team simply to work longer and harder. Working longer and harder is the path to the Dark Side of burnout and is fundamentally unsustainable. I also believe in setting time and scope constraints that motivate the team to work quickly, work smartly, and maintain life balance.
  • Disagree and commit. I really like Jeff Bezos's methodology of fostering real conflict and skepticism but then committing 100% to the results of the discussion. A startup will have a hard time building consensus; big, disruptive opportunities are, by their very nature, controversial and contrarian and, again, so much of what people believe about a startup is wholly unproven. A good startup team has diverse perspectives and passionate personalities so it is important to let those perspectives clash. These passionate discussions should be based on evidence but, at the end of the day someone(s) may still disagree. That's OK, but when we make a decision, we need everyone to commit to it, even if they disagree. History will prove us wrong sometimes and that's OK too; it's part of our journey. By committing to our startup's direction, even when some disagree, we keep moving forward rather than bogging ourselves down agonizing over each decision. In so doing we move quickly and agilely. 

This post on process is long enough already so I will end it here and follow up soon with my principles on entrepreneurial culture and leadership. In the meantime, what do you think of what I have laid out so far?

2018-07-19

Wedding in Vermont

This weekend I went to Vermont for a joyous reason: the wedding of a dear friend! It was my first trip to Vermont and it was a very quick turnaround but I had a really good time.



Friday I flew into Boston and picked up my rental car. Getting out of Boston was a traffic-ridden nightmare but, once I escaped, it was smooth sailing through New Hampshire all the way to East Burke, Vermont.

Although Boston traffic delayed my arrival, I still made it in time for the rehearsal dinner - and thank goodness for that! The Fijian side of the bride's family guided guests through a kava ceremony, in which we ground up kava root, mixed it with water, and drank it from coconut shells. I was exhausted from a day of travel but the kava - supposedly a sedative - actually perked me right up!

At the rehearsal dinner I also met Oliver, the fiancé of another dear friend of mine. They were both intending to come to the wedding but she, now seven months pregnant, was unable to make the trip all the way from Germany. As Oliver and I were both alone, I adopted him as my "wingman" for the
weekend. :-)

Saturday morning I went out seeking a trail run. Nearby Lake Willoughby is known as the Lake Lucerne of North America so I had to see it. Lake Willoughby sits at the foot of Mt. Pisgah, so I decided to do a quick trail run before taking a dip in the lake. The trail to Mt. Pisgah's south lookout (where there should be a gorgeous view of the entire lake) was less than two miles long so I figured it would be a half hour out and back.

Oh, how wrong I was! Vermont's mountains, it turns out, are quite a bit steeper than the gentle foothills to which I am accustomed so very quickly my trail run turned into a hike. Some parts became quite technical too such that I was actually scrabbling on all fours.

45 minutes later I finally reached the south lookout - which was completely enveloped in fog so there was no view at all! It was a great workout, though, and coming down was just about as hard as going up. After an hour and a half I made it back to my car - and no time for a dip in the lake as I needed to meet Oliver back at my hotel!

The entire time on the trail I kept passing people who were speaking French, which instigated two reactions from me: 1. why on Earth are so many French people in Vermont?? 2. My French must be getting really bad because I can barely understand them! It wasn't until I paused at the top (possibly causing bloodflow to return to my brain) that I realized that, duh, they weren't French; they were Canadian! We were only a half hour drive from the Canadian border.

My hotel, the Burke Mountain Resort, sits at the foot of a network of ski slopes. In recent years, however, there hasn't been much snow, so the area has pivoted to become a haven for mountain biking. Oliver met me at the hotel to hike up the slopes for some spectacular views. After my unexpectedly strenuous morning hike, though, I needed to refuel a bit first so we stopped by the hotel pub. Motivated by proximity to Canada, I tried poutine for the first time. I ordered a Vermont cheese board to boot, keeping the entire meal local[ish].

With full bellies we we set out onto the slopes. With no real plan we simply worked our way up. Sometimes we were on road, sometimes on forested single track trail, and sometimes out on grassy slopes; it was beautiful! An Ironman was being held that same day and my hat is off to the competitors; a normal Ironman is already impressive but running up and down those steep slopes (after so much swimming and biking) was positively insane!

Oliver and I stumbled our ways back down the slopes and hurriedly got ready for the wedding. I wore a bowtie for the first time in a non-formal setting, which was fun. The wedding was outdoors at the groom's family farm. It threatened to rain but never quite did so; accordingly, the weather was truly pleasant while we celebrated my dear friend and her new husband.

The ceremony was lovely, really "them," and the reception was amazing. Fresh, local oysters, mac n' cheese, a melt in your mouth beef rib, and excellent wines made for the perfect catalyst to have fun with many people I was meeting for the first time. Oliver and I were "old friends" by this point and
I bumped into a former colleague there too, but I spent most of my time meeting friends and family of the bride and groom. Everyone was really lovely (There was even a golden retriever named Max!) and I'm sorry I had to leave early.

Leave early I did, though, as I had an early wakeup call to drive back to Boston and catch the first flight back to RDU. As much fun as I was having in Vermont, I was quite keen to return to Katie and our baby.

My first experience in Vermont was a very positive one. It certainly lived up to its reputation as the Green Mountain State and I can't wait to return and enjoy more of its nature and hospitality!

2018-06-17

On Fatherhood on Father's Day

Today was my first Father's Day as the father of a living human child, a day of great joy and reflection. It began with a trail walk together as a family, continued with boot camp so I can try to stave off this dad bod, peaked with a Texas BBQ family brunch, and now it's about to wind down with Star Wars. I'm new to fatherhood, but so far I feel like we're doing it right!

Actually I'm not entirely new to fatherhood. In some ways I have felt like a father previously - ever since our first pregnancy several years ago. In this way, though, I felt like ultimate failure of a father. If you take one of a father's primary roles to be the protection of his offspring, I failed again and again and again. One might argue that there was nothing I could do about those pregnancy losses; I would both agree and respond that that feeling of impotence only exacerbated the feeling of failure as a father - and as a husband.

Now, with a healthy, beautiful child my relationship with my own fatherhood has changed. Fatherhood brings me joy and wonder. It brings me a new connection with my own dearly departed father that I share with him across space and time. It brings me a stronger bond with Katie, who is already establishing herself as such a strong, capable, tender mother.

Perhaps the greatest feeling fatherhood brings me today is gratitude. I'm so thankful to my child for, well, making me a father. And to Katie - without whom it wouldn't have been possible! And to our parents, family, and friends, who have all shaped me into the father that I am today.

I have been so incredibly blessed to have had excellent father figures in my life: uncles, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends - even my mom, who, as a single mother, was the best mom and dad a boy could hope for. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In my case, it has taken a village to raise a father!

So, on this Father's Day, I toast not just the biological fathers out there but all of those caring father figures who enrich the lives of kids like me - often without ever even signing up to do so!

Of the father figures I have been so fortunate to call my own, we lost a really good one last December. He will always be missed but his legacy endures in the outstanding father his own son has become and on the indelible mark he has left on me. So, a toast to him as well!

And a final toast: this one to all of the would-be fathers out there. As I mentioned in my last post, we know many, many people who are struggling with or have struggled with infertility. On a day honoring fathers, you guys may feel excluded. Whether you are still trying to become a father or whether you have made peace and moved on, I also honor you on this day - and I hope you will always remember that I'm with you.

So here's to you all: may the Force be with you . . . always!

2018-05-28

On Infertility, Loss, Life, and Love

As astute followers of my blog know, Memorial Day - and May 28th in particular - is a significant day for me. Although the holiday is intended for remembrance of those who died while serving in the US armed forces, it is also the day my father died and so, for the last 28 years, I have observed Memorial Day with somber reflection. I even blogged about it in 2008, 2010, and 2013.

This year's Memorial Day observance has even greater reason for gratitude and reflection: Katie and I recently had a baby. You might be surprised that I haven't been shouting about it from the highest mountains (which would be much more "in character" for me!) but we have avoided as much of the "pageantry" of both pregnancy and birth as we have been able to get away with. Perhaps Memorial Day is a good day to explain why.

Six years ago we started trying to have children. Many things in life have come naturally and easily to us but conceiving turned out not to be one of them. After two and a half years we sought out medical help. We were diagnosed with "unexplained infertility," one of the most useless terms I have ever encountered. It was amazing to me that we could put a human on the moon and cure myriad diseases but still had so much unexplained about one of the most basic human functions, reproduction.

At long last, though, we managed to conceive, and we were elated! It was just before the winter holidays so we shared the news with our closest family members. We spent long evenings discussing all our hopes and dreams for this new chapter - baby names, parenting philosophies, house rearrangement, necessary gear, etc., etc. Everything had changed for us. And then - abruptly - it hadn't.

Shortly before Christmas we lost the pregnancy. It was heartbreaking. I was astounded just how bonded you could become to a tiny little cluster of cells - no personality, just the promise of a new life. We had already hopped on board the train to our new future - and then we were kicked off. It was not our best Christmas.

We are resilient, though, so we got back on the horse and lost a second pregnancy. And a third. And a fourth. Gradually the feelings changed from the acute stab of loss to a mounting fear that we may actually never be able to have children - and a feeling of impotence to do anything about it.

The irony was that we didn't want kids desperately. We have some friends for whom it was the be-all end-all desire and that just wasn't us. But it was something that we wanted, and our repeated failure to achieve it - especially in light of our peers who seemed to be bursting with fertility - just felt sooooo . . . disappointing.

In many ways my career in startup entrepreneurship had prepared me for this - repeated failures until you finally hit it big. I was more worried about Katie, who, no matter how much support she had from me, was still the one to bear all of the physiological consequences of both pregnancy and miscarriage. Katie proved to be strong, though, and resilient in the face of adversity. Although I wouldn't choose to have had the experience we had, it certainly brought us closer together.

At first we didn't share our struggle out of feelings of shame and failure. Eventually we opened up about it to some of our closest family and friends, though, and that made all the difference. Some of them (Surprisingly many!) shared their own experiences of infertility and loss. Some shared advice. Some simply shared compassion and support. It was exactly what we needed and we were/are eternally grateful for it. We felt less alone, which made it easier to persevere.

And now, having been through the dark times, our baby's arrival brings us all the more light. Rather than just the light of joy, though, there is the light of gratitude and humility as well. We don't refrain from tooting the horn of our baby's arrival because our joy is muted (And our joy for others who welcome new children into the world is no less in magnitude.) but rather out of recognition of our journey.

Now each Memorial Day we don't just honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. And we don't just remember my father on the day of his death. We also now remember our four little babies who didn't make it. And we remember those of all of our friends who have also experienced such loss.

We especially hold in our hearts all those of you who continue to struggle with infertility and miscarriage. Now that we have "succeeded," we haven't "graduated" from your tribe. Our journey has left an indelible mark on us and we will always be one of you. Please let us pay forward the overwhelming love and support we received along the way. We will always be here for you - on Memorial Day and every day.

2018-04-16

Austin BBQ Tour

Katie had a conference in Austin and I had customers, vendors, and investors to visit there so we coordinated our trip together. Of course I also took the opportunity to indulge in a little Texas BBQ while I was in town.

North Carolina has excellent BBQ but it is pretty limited to whole hog pulled pork - and the ribs are pretty good too. However, when you see brisket on an NC BBQ menu, run the other way. It is often grayish and tough like pot roast and invariably lacks the spicy bark, smoke ring, and fall-apart-on-your-fork/melt-in-your-mouth-ness that I associate with the best beef BBQ in TX.

Texas BBQ itself is experiencing something of a renaissance. 10 years ago, if you wanted the best of the best, you had to make a pilgrimage out to small country towns. Then Franklin BBQ set up shop in Austin and the bar for craft BBQ inside the city limits of major metro areas was forever raised. Many others followed suit - not just in Austin but in other big TX cities as well. It's a great time to be alive if you love beef BBQ!

I hit five BBQ joints in 48 hours and I had immense help from Packy Saunders in prioritizing/planning my tour. If you like food, you should be following Packy on Instagram.

1. Micklethwait Craft Meats
We went straight from the airport to Micklethwait, arriving ~noon. Micklethwait is a food truck with a pretty solid expanded setup, including a separate smoker trailer and shaded seating. I dragged a few of Katie's colleagues with me such that we could try almost the entire menu:
From front to back:

  • beef rib (good flavor but some tough parts)
  • pulled pork (good)
  • pulled lamb (excellent)
  • brisket (very good)
  • lemon poppy cole slaw (good)
  • potato salad (good)
  • carrot cake whoopie pie (very good) - I think this was provided by I Knead That.
  • brisket frito pie (excellent)
  • TexCzech sausage (good)
  • pork spare ribs (good)
  • barbacoa (meh, kind of dry/tough)
  • jalapeno cheese grits (good)
  • beans (good)
Everything was a little saltier than it needed to be but the flavor was good. The hands down winner was the brisket frito pie, although the pulled lamb was a close second. By the time we left (~13:00), they were running out of the non-staples - so I'm glad we got the lamb when we did!

After a short run along the lake to try to combat all the meat carnage, I headed to Terry Black's by myself. 
From front to back:
  • peach cobbler (good)
  • lean brisket (meh, pretty dry)
  • moist brisket (good)
  • mac n' cheese (ok)
  • banana pudding (excellent)
Combining the brisket with the mac n' cheese was a winner but the banana pudding was definitely the standout. There was nothing exceptional about Terry Black's BBQ, but A. I was there near closing and B. I only tried the brisket so I will reserve judgment until I've had a chance to try more.

The weather was unseasonably cool so I began the next day with a long run around the lake - just what I needed to make room for more BBQ! Valentina's is pretty far south (~20 minute drive) and is another food truck with shaded seating. ~10AM there was no line. They had both BBQ and Tex Mex on the menu but my pro tip from Packy was to stick to the breakfast tacos.

Left to right:
  • Smoked brisket taco with salsa and guacamole (very good)
  • The Real Deal Holyfield with brisket, bacon, fried egg, refried beans, potatoes, and salsa (AMAZEBALLS)
Valentina's did not let me down; the Real Deal alone was worth the price of admission. I can't judge how good their BBQ is on its own but the flavor combination in that Real Deal was a knockout
!

After a day of business meetings, I took another 20-minute drive south to this food truck. I arrived right at 5 PM (when their dinner menu opens up) and there was no line. With a pint of Yellow Rose from the next door bar, it was a hell of a way to unwind after a packed day.
  • Mac n' cheese stuffed quail with kimchi and mustard greens (good - neither the mac nor the quail is that exceptional by itself but using a smoked bird as a utensil for conveying mac n' cheese to my mouth is a big winner, plus points for the accouterments)
  • Brisket cookie (very good - they use brisket drippings to give it a little smoke and salt and I wouldn't have minded a little more)
  • L&L burger (not pictured, excellent - brisket burger with cheese, pickles, onions, and sauce)
The menu here was less traditional but everything I had was very good. I love, love, LOVE that they make their BBQ sauce with beets. I don't blame the other BBQ joints for mass producing their sauces with bad ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup but I do strongly prefer this approach.

After hearing about Franklin for years I finally decided to take the plunge. I woke up early, went for a preemptive strike run, and then arrived at Franklin around 8 AM. They offer chairs to the first 30 or so people in line, which made the wait much easier. They also very considerately came out and asked each of us for our intended orders so they could warn people farther back if they might run out of some meats. They opened their doors at 10:59 but, even at #15 in line, I didn't reach the counter to order until ~11:30.
Front to back:
  • ribs (excellent, truly the surprise meat)
  • brisket (very good)
  • turkey (very good for turkey - still not as good as anything else there)
  • sausage (good)
  • pulled pork (very good)
  • Tipsy Texan (AMAZEBALLS - chopped brisket, sliced sausage, coleslaw, pickles, and onions)
  • banana bourbon tart (not pictured, good - very boozy!)
I didn't find any of Franklin's meats to be markedly better than those of the other top places in Austin. What makes Franklin special is really the experience. Sitting around with others "of your tribe" who are excited enough for good BBQ to devote an entire morning to it is something akin to tailgating. I made some fast friends in that line and the wait was over before I knew it. Franklin has the operation down to a science and they are very accommodating, opening up their bathrooms and selling beer long before their 11:00 open time. 

After much reflection, these are the top things I had during my whirlwind Austin BBQ tour:
  1. Real Deal Holyfield at Valentina's
  2. Tipsy Texan at Franklin
  3. L & L Burger at LeRoy and Lewis
  4. Brisket Frito Pie at Micklethwait
Noticing a pattern here? None of these are individual cuts of meat; they're all combos in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think the best Houston BBQ joints are on par with the best of Austin when it comes to individual cuts of meat (e.g. the beef rib at Killen's). Austin BBQ is distinguishing itself at the moment through inventive flavor combinations and, as much as I love brisket, ribs, and sausage by themselves, these innovative combos are really refreshing.

What do you think? Have I got the right of it or missed the point entirely? Regardless, after all this coverage of smokey, salty meat, let me leave you with a very boozey Guinness ice cream cookie sandwich from Amy's to cleanse your palate:

2018-03-10

Startup Fundraising: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

One year ago today, Smart Office Energy Solutions closed a $1.3M angel round of funding. We've accomplished a great deal since then - expanded the team, finished gen-1 product development, obtained all the requisite certifications for our hardware, and built a large sales pipeline - but I find anniversaries to be a good time to pause and reflect.

This is a presentation on startup fundraising I gave a few days ago to entrepreneurship students at the University of Wyoming. In it, I review the pros and cons of several different startup fundraising strategies, using Smart OES and my previous startups as specific case studies.



Toward the end of the presentation, I take a deep dive into Smart OES's three rounds. The quantitative analysis provides some interesting insights:

  • We had a 0% success rate trying to raise funds from people who were not part of our networks. 100% of our investment came from people we knew or people to whom we were introduced.
  • Former colleagues invested the most (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) in my venture. The trust developed by working with or for someone is a real asset in early-stage fundraising.
  • A similar trust clearly is formed in the academic setting as well because a good deal of our investment came through my school networks. Interestingly, Rice contacts invested more (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) than did IMD contacts.
  • Second-degree contacts became much more likely to invest over time. It is helpful, therefore, for startup founders to engage "smart" money (in this case, investors with connections to other investors) early on.
  • Similarly, the value of repeat investors increased over time, demonstrating the value of engaging investors with the capacity to follow on.
  • Geographically, investors in Texas out-invested investors in Switzerland 2:1. However, using my LinkedIn network size (1,100 contacts in Texas; 250 contacts in Switzerland) as a denominator, the Swiss outperformed the Texans on a per capita basis. Most disappointingly, we didn't raise a penny from North Carolina (where I have 300 contacts!) - and not for lack of trying.
  • Unsurprisingly phone calls and in-person meetings were more effective than emailing or messaging on social networks in leading to investment.
We've just opened up a new funding round (with more than 25% already committed by existing investors!) so we're putting these learnings into practice to be better/smarter/faster this time around.

2018-03-02

Review: The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! The Dark Tower series really blew me away. I'm not a fan of the horror genre so I have never read any Stephen King novels before. Of course, as a fan of movie adaptations of his non-horror works, I have long known that he does stray from the genre occasionally but I was never terribly motivated to give him a try.

However, The Dark Tower kept showing up on lists of top FANTASY books, and that is a genre that I truly love. Last year, in preparation for the [bad] Dark Tower movie, I decided to give the first Dark Tower novel a try and - BAM - I was hooked!

From the opening lines of the novel, King uses evocative language to captivate the reader. He creates rich, complex characters and an interesting, immersive world that leaves the reader wanting to know more about it - and about how it came to be. With eight novels to date and probably more to come (King has claimed to have been done with the series multiple times before but it keeps calling to him.), the series scratches that itch satisfyingly.

Interestingly, different novels take on very different tones. Some might be considered dark western fantasy; some might be considered time travel mystery; some might be considered dystopian future sci fi. They provide substantial variety - but always with the same core of well developed characters, so there is a mix of familiarity and novelty.

The series began as a few short stories that were kind of mashed up into a novel. Then King had an idea for a follow-on novel. Then another. Then a prequel. Then a three-novel meta-series that would tie the Dark Tower into all of his other works. Then another prequel. Organically The Dark Tower has grown into his magnum opus over the course of more than four decades.

In some ways I think King's reach exceeds his grasp and he stretches a little too far trying to massage tie-ins of his other works into the later books in this series but, still, I found every book to be very interesting without a single disappointing entry.

It's hard for me to qualify a recommendation for this series with "if you like XYZ genre" because the series is so broad and expansive. So, let me leave my recommendation as such: I see now what the big deal is about Stephen King.

View all my reviews

2018-03-01

2018 Winter Olympics Wrap-Up

Another Olympics has come and gone so it is once again time to take a look at who "won" the Games by several different metrics. Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I once again tracked not just the medal counts but also economic and demographic metrics for each country - you can see my full spreadsheet here.



Norway was the clear victor in medal scores, winning in every category: golds, silvers, bronzes, total medals, and weighted medal score. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
123 - Norway
107 - Germany
89   - Canada
75   - USA
64   - Netherlands
Norway went from a weighted medal count of 75 in 2010 to 80 in 2014 to explode this year - a true success story! Meanwhile Russia has gone the opposite direction, from 91 (#1) four years ago to 37 (#12) this year. Russia was technically banned from competition this year for doping . . . and yet three Russian athletes competing as individuals were caught for doping at this year's games anyway!

Because Norway is so small, it crushed the competition even (especially!) when normalized by population. The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
23.43 - Norway
5.60   - Switzerland
5.49   - Sweden
4.59   - Austria
3.77   - Netherlands

These countries are all pretty affluent, though, so how do things change if we normalize instead by GDP? Not much! The top performers by weighted medal score per $B GDP (PPP) were:
0.33 - Norway
0.14 - Liechtenstein
0.10 - Sweden
0.09 - Austria
0.09 - Switzerland

We can mix up the leaderboard a little bit if we normalize by GDP per capita. The top performers by weighted medal score per $1,000 GDP per capita were:
2.12 - Germany
1.84 - Canada
1.71 - Norway
1.51 - China
1.35 - Olympic Athletes from Russia

Many congratulations to Norway, a small country that absolutely crushed much larger and richer countries than itself at this year's Olympics - well done! Keep up the good work and we'll hope to give you more competition in four years!


2018-02-26

Escape To Margaritaville

Exactly five lunar years after our last trip to New York City, Katie and I traveled to NYC last weekend and, while we were there, we saw Jimmy Buffett's new Broadway musical, Escape To Margaritaville! Here is my spoiler-free review:


THE GOOD
  • The vocal talent is awesome - especially the women! If you're a Buffett fan, it's really cool to hear familiar songs sung with range, multi-part harmonies, and vibrato! It's especially interesting to hear some classic Buffett songs sung by women, which makes for an entirely new tone - and even meaning - to songs you know by heart. I can't wait to get my hands on the cast recording!
  • The song list is a good mix of well known hits and more obscure songs from the Buffett catalog. 
  • The musical takes full advantage of the medium and creates some truly fantastic scenes. If you're a Buffett fan, you've been waiting your entire life to see the full audio-visual realization of Cheeseburger, Volcano, and more - even if you didn't know it! Seriously; a few of the music numbers are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
  • Some parts of the show are just really, really fun. There is one scene, for example, that makes no sense whatsoever, and seems like more of a "Jimmy said that, if this is a Broadway show, it has to have THIS element in it," but it still totally works because it's so fun. The ending also does a really faithful job of recreating the experience of being at a Buffett concert - so much fun!
  • The show is really self aware. It doesn't take itself or its source material too seriously, which is very coherent with its fun tone. There is subtle - and not-so-subtle - political commentary slipped in too, which I really enjoyed.
  • The show is loaded with references to Buffett songs. Sometimes those are paid off eventually with a musical number but sometimes they are left as Easter eggs for fans. Because the show is still in previews, it's possible that these references are actually "orphaned" setups for different musical numbers that we didn't see in our show because they are still playing around with the final set list but, either way, I enjoyed all the additional references.
  • There are some good characters and plot arcs - especially including some strong women!

THE BAD
  • Many of the songs stop prematurely; one or two verses are sung and then the actors return to their dialog. As I have blogged previously, Jimmy Buffett is a storyteller; each of his songs has its own narrative arc. Aborting the song before it reaches its conclusion felt unfulfilling to me.
  • Many song lyrics were changed to fit the song into the overall narrative of the show. Some of these changes keep the song's intent but some of them completely change the song's meaning. I totally get why they did it and, in some cases, I found it to be quite clever. In many cases, though, it subverted my expectations so kind of took me out of the song. 
  • In a couple of places the show weaves multiple songs together into a revolving medley of sorts. Further to my point above about the song lyrics, in some ways I think it was quite clever (E.g. they blend together Coconut Telegraph and Head Hurts / Feet Stinks, both of which march through the days of the week.) but overall it doesn't quite work for me. I feel like it's almost there but its reach just exceeds its grasp. Again I understand why it was done for narrative purposes but it came at the cost of the music.
  • The crowd, at least at our show, was really timid. You could tell that many people really wanted to sing along but weren't quite sure whether that was encouraged or even allowed. During a couple of numbers - and increasingly as the show progressed - people threw caution to the wind and belted it out, which was really fun. If the show could find a better way to make it clear early on if/when singing along is encouraged, I think it would really enhance the experience.
  • There are some bad characters and plot arcs - unfortunately including the central love arc.


THE UGLY
  • Nothing to see here!

FINAL THOUGHTS

Buffett fans might be disappointed by some of the changes to songs they know and love but overall will love the Broadway spectacle-ization of his canon. Non-Buffett fans may not experience quite the same highs as those who already love the music but also won't have any expectations to be subverted by the changes. Those seeking serious theater should probably stay away (Duh?) but this is a really fun, light-hearted jukebox musical with great music for everyone else. Attending this show will definitely change your latitude/attitude for a few hours!