'General' Archive

The Rise of the Entrepreneur

December 6th, 2012

In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs suggests that the broadcast model of marketing is coming to an end and we’re seeing a return of the oral tradition:

“the oral tradition that dominated human experience for all but the last few hundred years is returning with a vengence. It’s a monumental, epoch-making, totally unforeseen turn of events.”

The point being this is not something new but rather an undoing of this short lived experiment with the broadcast model. I often use the line, if it’s less than 100 years old then it’s an experiment and the broadcast tradition fits that.

In the broadcast model, the Gutenberg press was one of many elite devices that controlled access in this model:

“In this model, information begins life in the mind of its creator but quickly makes the jump into a machine that relatively few people have access to. Because these machines – letterpresses, radio transmitters, TV cameras – are expensive, access to them is exclusive. This means an elite gatekeeper gets to decide which ideas are allowed in and which die a quick, merciless death.”

Jonah’s analogy applies equally to this entrepreneurial revolution that most of us feel we’ve entered. This revolution isn’t something new, it’s an undoing of the major parts of another experiment called the industrial revolution. As with the Gutenberg press, the industrial revolution created many elite gatekeepers, such as large corporations. They decided which ideas were allowed to go to market and which died quick deaths. As Youngme Moon discusses in her book Different, great ideas are indistinguishable from insane ones in their early days and they often need protection to survive.

While this revolution is well underway in software, movements like 3D printing and scanning are driving this disruption into every industry. In the entrepreneurial revolution, elite devices lose the power to squash potential new businesses. New businesses will live or die not unlike memes and genes:

“In the natural world, memes, or ideas, must ensure their survival by exciting listeners to keep passing them along, carrying the same core message in a chain of transmission.”

Here’s the rub, as we rapidly remove existing elite gatekeepers we need to be very cautious about inserting news ones. Creating a new business isn’t a beauty contest. With the rise of incubators, accelerators, angel investment groups, pitch contests, innovation centers, etc we cannot allow these to become the new gatekeepers with the power to decide which businesses live and die. In the same way no good joke survives a committee of six, these gatekeepers need to be minimized or kept out.

On the other side, most of us grew up watching our fathers work at the same company for 43 years while we spent decades in a school system where we succeeded as long as our prof loved us. Those experiences left some of us with the instinct to look to these elite devices for validation. Is my idea good? Am I allowed to build a business around this? Do you like it?

As always, I don’t have any answers but I’m more excited everyday to watch the rise of the entrepreneur! Our weekly Founder’s Club meetings at ThreeFortyNine are heavily inspired by these ideas. Our meetings are like group therapy for those of us crazy enough to try creating something out of nothing. We support each other, help each of us get better, provide feedback etc but we aren’t here to validate or decide if your business gets to live or die.

A recent success that a friend shared with me that’s a brilliant example of this disruption at work:

Respect The Game, Love The Grind!

November 1st, 2012

[Cross posted at StartupNorth]

You have David saying we can’t all be founders, you have Jevon being honest about why he’s a founder, and then you have me ranting about vomiting on your footwear and then there’s Debbie Landa‘s “club of crazy“. Start reading the comment sections on those posts and things get even muddier…..You have to love problems or not, know your role, find your motivation? If you’re considering being an entrepreneur and starting your own business, how do you decide whether to make the leap?

There is a game to this entrepreneur deal. It’s a thing, you can point at, and you have to respect that game. In my opinion, it is the greatest game out there, period.

Creating something from nothing is the most difficult thing you can do. In business, I have the utmost respect for anyone who is able to create a viable business out of nothing. A few stories to add some colour….

In a previous life I rock climbed. It’s likely the coolest sport I’ve ever participated in. Few other sports require the mix of physical requirements, mental fortitude, training, preparation, and ability to deal with plain old fear. I know lot’s of folks who consider themselves climbers. They bought nice gear at MEC and hit the indoor gym every week.

Those people don’t love climbing, they love the idea of climbing. They love the way it looks in a magazine and on tv but that’s not climbing. There’s a filthy grind to climbing. It’s constant cardio work, training in the indoor gym, stretching. It’s packing up all your camping gear every Thursday night in order to leave town as early as you can Friday to get to the crag and setup camp before it gets dark. It’s getting up with the sun, climbing all day. It’s getting home late Sunday night, dropping your gear on the kitchen floor and crashing. Then Monday night you spend the evening cleaning ropes, gear and tents. And on and on.

Pick another sport, ice hockey. Yes we all dream about raising the cup, skating in front of massive crowds, making millions but that’s not hockey. Hockey’s being in the gym five days a week, 6 am practices, lost teeth, chipped elbows. Very few people have the raw skill but even less have the determination required to survive the grind.

What do NHL players say when they retire? Almost universally they say something along the lines of “I still love the game, I love coming to the rink, I love my team, my fans. But I realized I couldn’t put my body through another off season of preparing”.

Creating something from nothing isn’t about techcrunch, billion dollar acquisitions and launch parties. Those may come and when they do, the best will enjoy the moment and then sneak away from the party, head back to the office to return to the grind. If you’re going to do this, remember to respect the game we play and love the grind!

Maybe, The Dangerous Answer

October 5th, 2012

I had a great chat today with Dave Estill where we got into yes and no and maybe. Dictionary.com defines “maybe” as “perhaps; possibly: Maybe I’ll go too.” I have a new definition for entrepreneurs:

maybe [mey-bee]: redirect to No

  1. an utterance of the word “no”
  2. a denial or refusal.
  3. a negative vote or voter.

For entrepreneurs, accepting maybe often leads to what I refer to as the false prophet syndrome. You ask your mom for $10K to start your new facebook app. She says maybe, let me think about it.

You think “yes, $10K to get started!”, you buy that macbook on your credit card, lease an office and get rolling. A month later your mom finally admits she’s not comfortable lending you money. While you were spending money you didn’t have buying laptops and leasing office space, what you weren’t doing is hunting for that $10K you need. You were in a holding pattern under the assumption something was forthcoming.

How do you fix this? First, do us all a favour and start answering questions with a concrete yes or no. Sec
Not to pick on them but you often see this with VC’s as well. Rarely does a VC actually say no to you, you’re just “not at the right stage yet for them”. If a VC says that to you, do not head back to your office to tell the team “they love us, we’re just not quite ready for them but we’ll meet with them again in 3 months”. Do go back to your office and say “it was a no, how do we fix that?”ond, start treating all answers, except for yes, as a no. Maybe isn’t allowed. It’s that middle ground that can be harmful to an entrepreneur and the wider community.

My point in all this is that entrepreneurs survive only by the action they take today. You, as an entrepreneur, must never accept maybe. Mush-mouth, soft-no responses are worthless to you. You need to practice and become proficient at pushing for yes/no responses.

If you’re raising money, every response except for a signed cheque is a no.

If you’re selling your product, every response except for a paid sale is a no.

Unless you have your yes, assume you failed and get back to your lab and get back to work. Why did they say no? Refactor your pitch, improve your product, better define your customer, whatever it takes. Do not fall into the trap of treating a maybe as a yes. To help, I’m providing a simple framework/cheatsheet below….

Yes = Yes

Maybe = No

Let me think about it = No

I have to speak to my team first = No

I love your product and what you’re doing = No

We’re in, but we’ll need to hold off until next quarter = No

No = No

Do Not Start A Business!

June 13th, 2012

In the last couple of years my response to the question “should I start my own business?” has changed dramatically. I used to encourage people. I used to try and build them up, entice them, talk about the good life.

My standard answer now is an emphatic “No! Do NOT start your own business”.

Wait there’s more…If you have a decent job, and can keep it, do not quit that job to start a business. Keep your job, live the good life. Starting a new business will destroy everything good in your life. It will ruin you, your friends, your family.

After that I pause to see their response. Why would I respond with such a negative response and discourage someone from making a leap to starting something new? Simple. Everything I said was true and if all it takes to throw you off this path is me saying this, then I just did you a massive favour. I saved you a ton of cash, pain, and I saved you a good job!

After that pause, a small portion of people will push me further. They’ll explain why they aren’t able to keep their current job, how it’s destroying them inside and why starting their business is their only option. For those few I will go on to explain that starting something new from nothing is the greatest thing you’ll ever do. It’s the most rewarding stuff you’ll ever be involved in but it is only for a select few. It will make your friends, family and everything around you better, stronger, richer.

“Call it passion, tenacity, stick-to-itiveness, true grit, or just plain stubbornness. Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, it’s the most important quality an entrepreneur can have.”

I’m not exaggerating when I tell people I literally have days I’m so stressed out I feel like I’m going to puke on my own shoes, or flip-flips which is clearly worse. After days like that, I hang with my kids, I walk, I read, I rant to my wife, I speak with friends, advisors, I sleep it off. I get up the next day having schemed a solution and excited beyond belief to attack yesterday’s impossible problem and kick it’s ass.

I usually say something to my wife like “so that problem I mentioned last night, it’s ok, I figured it out”. She nods knowingly as she’s seen the pattern hundreds of times.

That process can’t be avoided. You can’t make problems go away, they are in fact your greatest source of learning. You have to look them in the eye, face them head on. That’s painful. You can’t outsource it, you can’t hire to solve this. You also have no idea if you can do this until you try it with your baby.

So please do create something new from nothing but only if you’re ready to puke on your own flip-flops every now and again.

How I Regrew My Attention Span

April 25th, 2012

I received an auto reply from my friend Alistair today apologizing for his slow email replies as he’s on a “media diet”. He referenced this My Paleo Diet post. I also read how Abid gave up on wheat in his diet. I don’t often write about my personal life and related choices but there are two threads that confuse people the most. Jim’s post interested me as he mashed them together.

1. Smart Phone?

If you know me personally you’ll know that I haven’t owned a smart phone for over a year now. I make myself highly available by phone(519.489.0116). Email, twitter etc are tools I only use a few times throughout the day. When I receive what appears to have been an urgent email, I respond explaining that I don’t check email often and to please phone me if you need an urgent response. The result is I don’t get a lot of urgent emails anymore. Oh, and I don’t get very many phone calls either. My hunch is that this approach forces people to reflect on the matter at hand, which usually results in recognizing it may not be as urgent as they first thought. If it is then they phone me, we talk and deal with it immediately.

I’ve had a John’s Phone for that time. It was an experiment but we’re well over a year into it so I think we’re officially past the experiment stage. When I ditched my smart phone, I picked up a Kindle and literally last night I received my new Kindle Touch 3G. When I leave my house, I bring three things without fail. Those are my John’s Phone, kindle, and a field notes book and pen. Oh, and I haven’t received or sent a text message in over a year.

Not owning a smart phone confuses most people. The responses are typically variations on….

“How can you not own a smart phone when you work in computers?”

“I would love to not own a smart phone but there’s no way I could do it.”

“I wouldn’t ever be able to leave the office if I didn’t have my smart phone.”

They explain to me how important their smart phone is to their survival. They then explain how they have the perfect system which prevents them from turning into all those other people who are addicted to their smart phones. I listen, having not once suggested that they should ditch their smart phone. I’m not asking anyone to make the same choices I’ve made. It’s always interesting how people feel the need to defend their choices to people who’ve made ones different than theirs.

Some people get around to asking me about what it’s like not to have a smart phone. My answer is simple in that it slowly gave me back the ability to daydream. I’ve learned over time that my ability to daydream is core to my personal and business success. I have more time to stare at the wall. When I wait in line at the bank, I look at people’s faces and watch the tellers. When I’m at my son’s hockey game and there’s a break in the action, I watch the refs and how they interact with the coaches. I don’t solve big problems by working on them directly. They’re solved by my subconscious, often while “wasting my time” daydreaming. Owning a smart phone slowly reduced my ability to do this.

Part of the inspiration for this experiment was to be more present with the people physically around me. If you’ve made the effort to join me for a coffee or a pint then I want to be as present for that as possible, not wasting your time while I interact with my lazy friend sitting on his couch at home watching the hockey game instead of joining us.

The combination of no smart phone and always having a Kindle means I read a ton now. I now read books again. When I have 10 minutes to spare in a waiting room, I jump into my current book. I believe I’ve read more books in the past year than the previous 5 years combined. I love paper-based books and had a lot of reservations about ereaders in general. I eventually realized I’m a fan of reading and writing not the Gutenberg press.

Smart phones can do incredible things and I certainly miss some of those. For me personally, the negative impact far outweighs any benefits they offered me.

2. No More Grains

July of last year, while at the cottage, I read The Primal Blueprint (on my kindle of course). Mark’s book inspired me to experiment with removing grains from my diet altogether and moving to a high fat diet. Literally within days I noticed a huge difference in my daily energy levels. It was as if a mental fog had been lifted. My daily energy levels became far more stable. I no longer had those moments where I felt like I was melting physically. I really do feel better than I ever have in my life.

I also lost weight, which I wasn’t hoping for. In fact, heading into hockey season last fall I was hoping to put some on. That means I consume a lot more food daily than I used to and it’s a high fat diet. I don’t know all the science but I can tell you from experience that grains, not fat, cause me personally to put fat on my body.

Something else I’ve been watching is my overall health. Since I stopped eating grains last July, I have had one cold which I have as I type this. It’s a small cold and I’ve only had it a few days and my guess is it’ll be gone in a day or two. That’s almost a full year without getting sick once, which is unusual based on my history.

As with the smart phone, I still consider no grains to be an experiment. At this point I have no reason to turn back when you consider my increased, and more stable, energy levels along with my overall good health. Not being wiped out a few times a year by colds and flus almost justifies it alone. Oh, and if it’s the placebo effect, I could care less because it’s working!

PS, I’m not suggesting you stop eating grains or ditch your smart phone. I just figured I’d share some of my experiences.

Confusing Cause and Effect

March 29th, 2012

I recently attended another Founders and Funders event in Toronto. It was a great event primarily because of who was in the room. Afterwards Jevon wrote about how you can change the ecosystem.

I wanted to pile onto Daniel, Jevon, and Ken’s thoughts around this. For me, part of this is about the risks in confusing cause and effect.

Cause: RIM, OpenText, Descartes, Maplesoft and a group of companies built successful technology based businesses in Kitchener Waterloo, Ontario.

Effect: A thriving technology community including strong universities and organizations like Communitech.

Cause: Joe Blow worked his ass off learning to play guitar growing up. He started playing friends basements with other friends. He went on to play gigs anywhere and everywhere he could. He drove around in a glued together van for years playing gigs in other cities.

Effect: Joe’s a rock star, literally, living the rock star life.

Cause: Your friend spends his early childhood playing AAA hockey, finishing with a ‘cup of coffee’ with an OHL team.

Effect: Your friend is a great hockey player with really nice equipment.

Here’s the point. Mix cause and effect at your own risk. Rarely, if ever, can they be reversed. Buying $700 skates won’t make you a great hockey player. Partying until the sun comes up every night of the week won’t make you a rock star. Building a U of W and a communitech in your city won’t get you successful technology companies(or will it?).

This mixing of cause and effect plays a massive role in product and business development. The obvious challenge is that cause and effect are often distant in time and space, and that only increases with the complexity of the particular system. It happens all too often that we latch onto the effects and build products around those, instead of digging deeper until we uncover the real causes. Focusing on replicating and scaling the causes, not the effects, in your product development strategy is key.

Oh, and back to community, as Jevon and the other founders suggested, focus on building a great company(cause) and the community(effect) will handle itself. While we are building an amazing community at ThreeFortyNine, it isn’t the focus, it’s the side effect. Our focus is making our member’s projects and companies the best they can be. The community just happens.

Run from feedback…to your demise

February 17th, 2012

We began Startupify.Me last week and one thing they certainly learned during the first week is that feedback is an entirely different beast in the real world. By real world, I mean the world of being an entrepreneur, creating something from nothing. Not the safe confines of a workplace or school. There’s a quote I was reminded of constantly during that first week.

“Success requires no apologies, failure permits no alibis”

You can pitch to me all you want, it really doesn’t matter what I think. The only value I can offer is blunt, harsh feedback. I can’t validate your idea. I can’t prove you right, wrong, scared or confused. You’re either on your way to having a business or you aren’t. I don’t decide that and neither do you. In this world, all that matters is your customer and your end user.

In corporations, academia, politics, etc it’s about winning favours. It’s about what the people above you think. Your main goal is to please them. Do that and you’re good. Do you like me? Did I do good? Step out into the real world and no one cares if your boss likes your idea. That gets you nothing.

It’s what I love about working in this world. I can sit with a group of entrepreneurs and we all beat the crap out of each other and our projects. The difference is that we all know it really doesn’t matter. It makes us stronger and pushes us to the real success we’re after. When that success comes, a large part of the reward is no longer having to explain and justify what you’re doing. I don’t really care if you ‘get it’, I have customers, revenue, a business.

A musician friend of mine was playing a show a few weeks back. I asked him if some of our common friends would be there. His response was “no idea. We don’t need friends, we have fans now”. Sounds arrogant but that’s not him. They have success, that’s it.

You need feedback from mentors, advisors, peers but it’s worthless unless you can reframe what criticism is. You do need critical feedback from peers. Seek it out. Cherish it. Celebrate it. Thank people for it. Pay them for it. Reward them for it. It’s constructive suggestion and you will be better for it. If you treat it like feedback at a job, ie my goal is to eliminate the bad feedback and attain purely good feedback, then you’re dead. Well you’re project is dead…

What’s Up Pitches?

February 7th, 2012

What does Banana Tax, Mailman Boots, and Fire Extinguisher Guitar have in common? They were all pitched last night at ThreeFortyNine as real businesses. A bunch of us got together and played a version of Dave McClure’s half baked last night and it worked.

If you can craft a compelling pitch in 10 minutes for something called  Banana Tax, imagine what you can pull off for something you’re passionate about? Here’s how we worked it.

  1. We all wrote some random words on pieces of paper.
  2. We formed into partners and drew two random words for each team.
  3. We then had 10 minutes to brainstorm the first pitch.
  4. One partner then pitched to everyone. You have 2 minutes.
  5. Once each team had pitched once, we all gave feedback on the pitches.
  6. We broke into teams again for 10 minutes to brainstorm the second partners pitch, incorporating the feedback.
  7. Your partner then pitches.
  8. More feedback, done.

This was our first time running this event and IMHO it was great. The feedback in the room was massively valuable and we just don’t get enough chance to actually practice pitching day to day.

I’d love to hear what others who attended thought. Please comment below if you were there.

Startupify.Me Mentors

February 2nd, 2012

I love the name dropping. Jim Kelly has no idea how miles I’ve gotten out of that handshake in a Buffalo hotel. (Side note, I now have the title of my next song…”a handshake in a Buffalo hotel”)

Goal #1 at Startupify.Me is launching new technology businesses. A close #2 is building up our developers networks and getting them working directly with the people leading our industry. We’re combining those goals with our mentor program. Our mentors have committed to spending time here at ThreeFortyNine working directly with our developers on our projects.

Today, we listed a glimpse of some of the people our developers and clients will be working with. If you’re a developer who feels you have the chops to get into the world of building software based businesses, then let us know. We’re hiring, like right now!

Creating A Startup is Not a Contest

January 16th, 2012

Dave Grohl of the band The Foo Fighters recently claimed that rock will never die. His point was simple. Keep it real, put in the practice, play with heart and make great music. There are no short cuts.

“You have to understand, we’re a really simple band. We think we suck and we try really hard to make good records and we practice.”

His sentiments reminded me of the startup scene. First time entrepreneurs often believe their path to success is a beauty contest. We’re immersed in pitch contests, incubator application processes etc that’s it’s hard not to get caught up in it. There is a lot of ‘putting lipstick on pigs’ going on in the startup world. That lipstick line isn’t mine, I stole that from a local tech investor lamenting the beauty contest atmosphere we’ve cultivated. Back to Grohl..

“Something’s got to give. It can’t be song contests on television for the rest of our lives. It can’t be the same playlists on every radio station for the rest of our lives. It can’t be music made entirely by computers with people talking over it the rest of our lives. It can’t go that way, it just won’t.

I feel like as a musician and a part of this rock’n’roll scene, I have a responsibility to make shit real, to not think about all of that other bullshit, not think about making music for money or promoting music for fashion, the contests. My responsibility is to make shit that’s real. Once you start doing the right thing, it will get better.”

Startups are businesses at the end of the day. Creating a new business is not a contest. I’m not suggesting you don’t apply for an incubator, pitch to investors, or try to win a local pitch contest. Just realize none of that has anything to do with building your business. If you decide to go those routes, make sure that you’re solving a problem *you* actually have! Think about what Grohl says, don’t let all that other bullshit distract you. Focus on your product, your market, your customer. Make shit real, deliver.

When Grohl talked about how they keep their focus, it reminded me of what we’re doing here at ThreeFortyNine

“we don’t pay attention to any of that. We have our own studio, our own label, and we do everything on our own terms”

We’re working hard to build ThreeFortyNine into our clubhouse. A place where people work hard together to build new tech businesses on their own terms. We’ll earn that freedom only through hard work and practice not by winning beauty contests. Focus on your customer and your product, product, product! Did I mention your product?