My wife and I just returned from a trip to New York to visit with my family, and while there we managed to spend one of our days in New York City, where I grew up.
(my family just recently realized that I have nearly reached the point where I have not lived in New York for as long as I lived in New York, and they took this opportunity to remind me of this newly discovered fact several times. Thanks mom!)
We had a chance to have dinner with some friends, who asked my wife what quintessential “New York Things” had I taken her to see. She quickly responded by recounting our first trip to New York, which we spent riding the subway and visiting every Best Buy in Manhattan, along with a few other smaller retailers. In hindsight, probably not the best first impression that I could have provided, however, it serves as a great metaphor for the motivations that drive me as a retail design thinker. I am passionate about what I do. A little too much at times.
I started my career in manufacturing, designing and building merchandising solutions, Read more
Thunderbird has been on my mind a lot lately, mostly because I have just taken a new position as my first expatriate assignment, and I continue to run into Thunderbirds overseas at a rate that is pretty amazing.
I started to write a post about my upcoming move to China (coming soon), but I soon realized I needed to give some background first, specifically how I got where I am right now.
I’m a technologist by training, and along the way I had picked up enough business knowledge to advance reasonably far through my career. A great deal of this knowledge was picked up from my mentors, members of my “personal board of directors” and my good friend, Google. As I became less of a hands-on technical staff member and more of a manager, I felt increasing pressure to defend my decisions with sound managerial decision making. Read more
This year, I have proposed a panel covering the topic of enterprise collaboration tools. A complex topic, to be sure, but the focus of my panel discussion will center on the types of tools that can be deployed in the enterprise today, and in the course of our one hour panel, I will make the case that the best choice for enterprise collaboration tools is often the simplest.
Our Panel: Can We Fix the Workplace in 140 Characters?
Keep it Simple
I was recently speaking a friend, helping him to position himself for a job hunt following a layoff at his firm (the second time I’ve done this in the past month, actually). One of the first questions that I asked is, “who are you?”. I asked him to give me a 30 second elevator speech about who he was, to sell himself to me.
It is amazing how many people that I talk to have a hard time with what, at first glance, seems like a simple task. Later on, I was thinking about what I would say if someone asked me for my elevator speech. So I tried it. Out loud. While home alone. After fumbling for about 2 minutes, I realized I needed to work on my own elevator speech. Read more
I’ve worked for a lot of startups during my career, and one of the greatest benefits that we received when raising venture capital (aside from the money) was often a few new faces on our board of directors. The experience brought by our new board members was often invaluable in advising us with regard to strategic direction and even tactical decisions. It is amazing, actually, how bad your decisions can be when you lack perspective. Having a board of directors is an important component of almost every successful company, and I’ve had great success in transitioning the concepts behind a board of directors into my personal life.
One of my most valuable resources has been what I term as my Personal Board of Directors. Call it what you will, it is always beneficial to surround yourself with smart people. Read more
I’m sure that I am not the first one to use this term. Or the first to feel this way. But it’s been nearly a year since the conferment of my Masters degree and ever since then, I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts.
I’ve decided to call this my “post graduate depression”
Here’s the issue: for almost 2 years, I was surrounded by really smart people. Really smart people that I enjoyed being around. We interacted nearly every day, and worked on projects together that pushed the limits of our cognitive abilities, our communication skills, and our patience. Read more
We’ve just taken off from San Francisco international airport, and we hit that little patch of clear air at about four thousand feet, not jostling, but just enough drop in altitude to make your stomach rise just a bit. A cheap thrill, a strange comfort brought on by a familiar feeling.
I think back to my former life, the one where I traveled more than half of the time, flying hundreds of thousands of miles every year. Some days I miss it, the excitement of being in a strange place, meeting new people, closing a big deal or sorting out some vendor issue that other people in the company didn’t have the stomach to deal with.
A few years ago I cut my traveling down significantly. Having attained the highest position possible at my previous firm, I set my sights on a dream I had deferred for far too long: going back to school to pursue my MBA.
My father, a source of many valuable insights, advised me that I should consider leaving my current job and getting a paper route for the 2 years that I would be in school. “I don’t mean literally a paper route, I just mean, with the hours that you put in at your firm, and amount of travel that you’re doing these days, it would do a disservice to both your job and your studies to attempt both at once” I knew he was right, but it was still hard to make such a change consciously. I loved my job, I really did. But I knew there was little future in it, and so in the spring of 2008 I left my former company, signed up for more loans than I could fathom at the time, and registered for classes at Thunderbird.
Things have not necessarily turned out how I planned. I managed to quit my job just prior to the onset of the global economic downturn. Needless to say, recruiters were not exactly beating a path to business schools in late 2009 to recruit recent grads.
Looking back, I would do it all again in heartbeat. Really. Thunderbird was an amazing experience. Life since then has been an amazing experience. Even the job that I looked at as my “paper route” has taken my life in new and interesting directions, teaching me valuable lessons about business and entrepreneurship along the way.
I think the thrill I get from travel is based in potential. Step off a plane in a new city and the world is your oyster; it’s all about potential energy. Graduating from Thunderbird felt similar; full of potential, not sure where it’s going to go, but thrilled to be traveling.
For the month of March, I’ve been contributing to my “750 Words” page, a private brain dump where I put 750 words per day. It’s fantastic, especially when done at the end of the day. You can even share stats from your writing. As I suspected would happen, there have been times where my brain dump resulted in a blog post. Like now…
Generation Y is a very different generation than our predecessors. I know every generation says that, and in fact, it’s mostly true. But the acceleration of the gap between generations is absolutely startling. It’s like something of a “Moores Law” of generation gap, that is to say, with every generation, the gap between it and the previous generation seems to widen by a growing margin. Good golly, what is generation Z going to look like? But seriously, I’ve been thinking about generation Y a lot recently, and I’ve come to some conclusions. You saw a few in my video post yesterday, and here’s another.
The generation Y mind is a young mind. Not to say that we are immature, but young in a different way, in outlook and in how we interpret the world. In my video post yesterday I mentioned that one of the hallmarks of Generation Y is that we are not afraid to fail. One of the reasons that artists are successful is that they are not afraid to fail either. Bad photo? Take another. Bad sculpture? There’s always more clay. Pablo Picasso said that “all children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”; Generation Y, has, I think, stayed artists far longer than previous generations.
My mother worked for the World Book encyclopedia company. You remember them, right? They authored huge volumes of information and placed that information into lovely red-leather bound books with gold leaf edges. Working for World Book meant that my mom brought home an endless supply of encyclopedia volumes for me to read. Which was fine by me, geek that I was. I could not get enough of them, I read everything that I could get my hands on. I realize now that it is only through the acquisition of knowledge that we learn to make rational decisions. I learned to learn by reading books. Lots of books. Today, people are doing the same thing by via the internet.
I’ve always loved computers as well. I had my first computer by about age 5 and as you can imagine my ability to write code in Basic on my TRS-80 was a real hit with the ladies.
I remember telling my mom that someday, all of the information in those heavy encyclopedias would be available right on the screen of a computer. She thought I was absolutely bananas.
Look who is laughing now mom!
But seriously, the amount of information that is available to everyone, at almost any time, is startling. Think about that. I mean, I remember hearing about “Mosaic” from the guys in the computer lab, and after I had a play with it, I brought a copy back to my dorm room on 13 floppy disks. I was hooked. Really. I cracked open notepad and starting writing web pages a few days later. There we were, witnessing the birth of the internet; sadly Al Gore never really did get his figure back. And now here we are, less than 2 decades later, and look at how far we have come. It’s almost easier to talk about the things that are not on the internet than it is to do it the other way around. It’s funny to say, but really, I find myself doing that all the time.
Generation Y has access to all of this, basically the world of knowledge, right there in front of them. They have grown up in a world where they have had to search for information, fail, and try again until they found it. This action changes people. I recently attended a speech where the presenter put forward his theory that people, it seemed, were changing the internet to mirror their behaviors. That “these kids today” invented twitter because 140 characters is the limit of their attention spans. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong, and in fact, I think the exact opposite is true. It is the internet that has enabled generation Y to evolve into what they are, a group of people that are hard wired to try, fail, and try again without getting bogged down. You know, like artists.
This morning I attended a meeting of our local “lean startups” group here in San Diego. The lean startups movement, as put forth by Steve Blank and Eric Ries, is the study of customer development as a method for bootstapping the early stages of startup growth, and is one of those things that you wish you had heard about before you joined your first startup. There is a local group of lean startup executives here in San Diego, and periodically, thanks to the efforts of a few of our members, we sit down to breakfast together to talk about all things startup.
During the meeting, one of my colleagues was speaking about his company, and in the course of describing his technology made the comment “I don’t want to get too sales-y; I mean, who wants to be a sales guy?” (cue nods of sales-guy disdain from folks around the table)
A few other people interjected, talking about his technology, and asking about his early successes. When it finally came time for me to speak up, I immediately countered his earlier statement. Having spent nearly half of my career in startups, I have heard similar statements from nearly every founder. This is to be expected, given the nature of startups. Startups, in my experience, are founded by a person or group of people that are driven by a passion for the solution or the product that they have created. The question that needs to be answered, however, is do you have a solution that addresses a customer’s pain well enough for them to make a purchase?
Too often passionate people find themselves building or creating technology for the sake of the technology. While creating for the sake of creation is important, at a certain point it needs to change. Startups that survive share similar DNA in this regard. While almost all companies start singularly focused on technology, early successes drive the need to continue selling their product to more and more customers. I read a recent article by Carl Eibl at Enterprise Partners, where he discussed that nearly all startups that get funded share one major trait in common: they not only have customers, they know exactly why those customers made a purchase. This is the core premise of the lean startup methodology, which put simply, states that startups should sell their product, find out why early customers purchased, and then capitalize on that pain point to sell to more and more customers. I encourage everyone to read Steve’s book “Four Steps to the Epiphany” to learn more.
Back to my point about not wanting to be a Sales guy. Almost every engineer I have ever met has one image in their mind when they think “Sales Guy” and it’s this guy right here:
This is a really unfortunate situation, as this is not what I mean when I counter that
you do, in fact, want to be a sales guy.
Being a “sales guy” doesn’t mean some high-pressure, used-car, software-pushing salesperson who looks at clients and sees dollar signs. Being a sales guy means being able to speak to executives about the solution that your company has to offer. Being a sales guy means speaking to a different crowd, and as a result, using a different vocabulary. At the end of the day, the sales guys and the engineers are all striving towards the same goal: to solve problems through the use of technology.
The main problem, when you talk tech, is that you are generally speaking to the people who will be implementing your solution, the IT manager and that general area of the company. their concerns are “does it authenticate against our AD server” or “can it render our existing embedded files”. As an engineer, you can speak to this goup, and it is probably the group of people that you are most comfortable working with. The problem is, for the most part, your average IT person is not the one that signs the check. At most they tend to be the “technical buyer” to use the Miller-Heiman description. They can recommend a solution, but they can’t write a Purchase Order and send it over to you without approval.
If, instead of talking tech, you spoke about your solution in terms of the business problem that you solve, now you can speak with executives using their language. Executives don’t care about how efficient your SQL queries are compared to the competition. Executives care about solving business issues. You need to be able to frame your conversation in terms that they are familiar with. If you could, instead, meet with a manager or executive and say “You are spending an average of 10 minutes with each customer in your call center; with our new Phantasmotron 2000 software, you can cut this time down to six minutes. Imagine the savings across all of your call centers that you will realize right now by deploying our solution!”, Now you are speaking in executive language. Extra points if you say “decreasing your variable overhead costs by 40 percent will save you millions in the first year alone”!
Of course the manager is going to ask his IT manager if your solution will work with their existing data center structure, and now, by all means, feel free to geek out with the IT guys and sell them on the solution as well or maybe you sold them ahead of time or delegated the technical details to your Sales Engineer. Regardless, in this scenario, you have tackled the hard part first, selling the buyer on the business case for purchasing your solution.
It is important to note, that although you first spoke to an executive and then he brought his IT manager into the conversation, it is much, much harder to push things along in the other direction. I have seen salespeople drive themselves to the brink of madness by speaking with IT managers and then trying to get them to push the decision up the chain of command.
I am a big believer in investing in personal self improvement (for example…the total cost of my education, up until this point, exceeds the cost of every home I have ever owned), and while many startup founders have brought in salespeople early in the life of the company, I do not think that this is the best path. As founder or even an engineer, you need to understand why you are building the solutions that you are building. If the time comes to think about bringing in financing, VCs will want to see that you are one of the best salespeople in the company.
There are a lot of sales books and sales methodologies, and all have their perks; However, the best education that you can receive in from information that is available right in front of you: find out why customers purchased your product. Not just who (it’s an CIO) or where they are using it (accounting uses our software to manage payroll) but rather seek to understand WHY EXACTLY, did they spend money on your product. You want an answer that you can re-use a part of your sales process. Ideally, you will hear that they had a problem that they knew was costing them money (e.g. – the call center example above) and they tried other solutions, and none worked until they tried yours. Look for pain points, understand how your solution eases the pain, and now you are armed with a fantastic business case to present to the next client.
Who wants to be a sales guy? You do.
I remember years ago listening to a publisher friend of my parents lamenting the invention of the modern word processor. He went on to elaborate what he saw as the major issue: the barrier to entry was now far too low to prevent bad writers from creating and sending manuscripts to every publishing house they could find. Add this to the list of things that our children will not understand; the concept of having to correct typing errors by applying liquid paper to the page will sound to them about one level more advanced than chiseling our cuneiform into clay tablets. The word processor allowed far more people to write rapidly, and reproduce endless copies of those documents at a low cost.
We’re facing a similar issue now in media; the rise of social media tools has lowered the barrier to entry for broadcasting your voice to the masses, and this is not necessarily a good thing. First, let me say that I am not against social media, nor do I deny the power of giving a voice to the people. The elections in Iran proved the value of social media in empowering people who previously did not have a voice, I am not disputing this.
What I am saying however, is that social media has allowed people to define their status without earning their status. This issue goes far beyond groups of facebook users suddenly calling themselves social media experts, to a complete collapse of our traditional methods of searching for and identifying experts or authorities.
In the past (“the past” being 2 or more years ago) when a person held a position of authority, there was a clear understanding about how they got there. A professor of Entrepreneurship with a Ph.D. followed a known path of study, published articles in peer reviewed journals, and defended their thesis before a panel of people that had followed that same path before. Without getting stuck in the mentality of doing something because that’s the way it has always been done, the reasoning behind going through all of these steps is more than just tradition, it is a method for establishing personal authority in a particular topic or course of study.
I have started my own company; I learned a lot about the mechanical and the personal effects of being an entrepreneur; does that mean, based on my experience, that I now teach a class on entrepreneurship? Should I start a consulting firm, and use my experience starting one company to advise others on how they should run their own firms? Yeah, probably not. I remember visiting the office of my grad school entrepreneurship professor. In addition to the degrees on the wall, he also had shelves of books that he had written (I remember he was working on his 26th when I visited his office) as well as displays showing all of the products produced by him and his partners (He invented the Crest SpinBrush, among other things). Suffice it to say, he had the credibility to back up the advice that he gave to us.
What is happening today in the social media space is a breakdown of these traditional avenues of expertise recognition; we have not yet established the social media equivalent of the peer-reviewed journal or the Ph.D. , as a result, some people are gaming the system, using social media tools to create a following or maybe execute one “big win” and then parlaying that into an implied expertise in whatever field it is that they are in.
In no way am I implying that social media is a bad thing or that the net impact of this increased communication is negative. As with many technological advancements, it is possible to for first movers to exploit the advantages given to them. What I am saying is that this breakdown of authority warrants increased scrutiny before we accept the work of these “experts”. There are plenty of people in positions of authority blogging, twittering or otherwise using social media, and there are even more narcissists speaking from a position of self appointed authority. The crazy guy in the street corner now has the ability to publish his writing for the world to see; that doesn’t make him any less nonsensical.