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Say What You Do

I talk to a lot of startups that have really cool products. But sometimes it feels like a game of 20 questions trying to figure out exactly what the product does. What’s the problem being solved? How? For whom? Bigger than a breadbox?

Save the suspense and get to the point quickly. I guarantee very few people want the backstory, buzzwords, or your personal journey to enlightenment.

They want to know, in the simplest way possible, what your product does.

I’m delighted when I hear a clear, concise elevator pitch. Check out this excellent video segment on how to do an elevator pitch by my awesome colleague Nicole Glaros.

So the next time anyone asks what you do, tell them. Quickly and simply. The good news: if they really like it there will be plenty of time for your personal journey.

Changing the World with Techstars

I’m extremely excited and honored to join the Techstars family as Managing Director of the new Sprint mobile health accelerator in Kansas City. My background is in IT and healthcare, and I’ve been a part of four different startups so it’s a great fit. For me the icing on the cake is the Techstars culture. I spent a day in Boulder getting to know the awesome team and came away convinced this is where I belong. I was all in.

Health has always been a passion for me. Beyond my addiction to the gym, my 8+ years at UnitedHealth Group provided an insider view of the healthcare system. From pharmacy to disease management to wellness programs, there are countless opportunities for technology to improve the health of consumers, and by extension the healthcare system itself.

The numbers are sobering. U.S. spending on healthcare costs is forecast to reach $4.4 trillion by 2018, and 75% of that is on preventable chronic diseases. Only 15-20% of prescription medications are taken as prescribed. The stats go on and on.

But it’s much more than numbers. It’s about helping people live healthier, happier lives. Have you ever known someone who significantly improved their health? They become sunnier, more energetic, and look and feel younger. If technology can help millions undergo this change, it would be truly transformative for society.

I’m psyched to play a small role in making the world a better place. And I’m even more excited that we’re doing this from the heart of Silicon Prairie. Kansas City has a strong and growing entrepreneurial community supported by world class infrastructure and companies. Techstars and Sprint recognized this and decided to take it to another level. The momentum will only continue to build. 

The accelerator is perfectly located in the Crossroads district, a burgeoning hub for startups, innovation, and the arts. Together Techstars, Sprint, and the community are a powerful force, one that’s going to improve people’s lives and help great entrepreneurs do amazing things.

Wanna really change the world? Make it healthier!

Sh*t Will Happen. Guaranteed.

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In our personal lives, we know shit happens. Unexpected events occur from time to time. Great, painful, weird, horrifying. Life has a way of sucker punching that smug grin right off our collective face.

But many founders aren’t prepared for how often this happens at startups. “We have ample funding, a great team, and a killer product strategy – what could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. No seriously. Everything. Except for those of you that are really smart, have an ivy league MBA and an awesome business plan with a detailed section on risk.

Just kidding, you’re screwed too.

Here’s the thing about risks: they’re inherently unknown, possible future hazards we may or may not encounter. Stop fixating on your business plan. Odds are Chaos Theory will describe the path of your business much better than any plan. And as Brad Feld wrote, business plans are an historical artifact. It’s about to get real.

Examples? Anything you can think of. Critical bugs in version 1.0, then again in 1.01, and 1.1. Your market changes. Your lead developer flees the country. You get sued. Manufacturing costs triple. You get hacked. You get sued again. And that could be just the first six months.

Fortunately founders are becoming increasingly transparent about these realities. Ben Milne of Dwolla wrote a really nice lessons learned post. Nait Jones of Aglocal described what he learned during his rookie year as CEO. These are smart, driven entrepreneurs with talented teams and top tier funding. Yet their humbling experiences are the rule, not the exception.

Diana Kander from the Kauffman Foundation gave a funny and smart speech at Big Omaha about the similarities between having a baby and launching a startup (she was six months pregnant at the time). While her main point was to caution against rushing from idea phase right into execution, the subtext included a great parallel between babies and startups: you’ll never be fully prepared for them because you have no idea what’s gonna happen. As a parent and past founder, I say hell yeah.

Just know that unforeseen shit will happen to your business, and it won’t be pretty. Your startup will not be Neil Patrick Harris giving himself a high five. It’ll be Alan Garner getting sucker punched by Mike Tyson. Over and over. Hopefully you won’t be wearing a smug grin when it happens.

When We Built Something Massive

imageWhenever someone asks about the projects I’ve led, I fixate on the Overland Park facility project. I’ve also led teams that built data centers, campus-wide IT infrastructure, and telephony and digital video products. But I always talk about Overland Park. Why?

Scale, baby.

Nine figure budget. 300,000 square feet. 1,600 new employees. The third largest mail order pharmacy in the world. 100,000 prescriptions a day.

The mail order pharmacy was only 60,000 square feet of the facility but it was the fun part. Downstairs the other 240,000 was allocated for offices and cubicles. But upstairs we were building a customized system so large only one vendor in the industry had done it. And they were exclusive to our largest competitor.

It was an adrenaline-fueled experience, and the 11 months leading up to Go Live were especially crazy. It was the most stressful and rewarding period of my career. We couldn’t miss that September 12 Go Live, and we didn’t thanks to an awesome team, many vendor battles, and 80 hour weeks.

Several politicians including the governor (now Cabinet member) attended the ribbon cutting. When the system ramp-up was finally finished it was truly a showcase facility. Super clean, highly automated and brightly lit, visitors from other facilities said our warehouse was cleaner than their pharmacy.

Today when I look out over the pharmacy I’m still filled with a childlike pride, like after building a huge LEGO village. If a LEGO village could generate billions in annual revenue. (A slide show of the project is here. Press coverage is here.)

We turned our design ideas into this enormous, complex, useful thing that impacts millions of lives. One of the many lessons I learned is it takes about the same effort to build something huge vs. something moderate. It’s a good reminder to think and build big. Big products, big markets, big disruption.

Scale, baby.

Fearing Failure: Go Big or Go Home

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Fear of failure is a popular theme for today’s entrepreneurs. There are powerful stories of entrepreneurs failing at their businesses, and how they respond. Some go on to achieve great things; others let it define them with tragic results.

What could be worse than failing at your business?

Failing at your business is horrible so I’m not diminishing it when I say there’s a much larger failure to fear: Big Failure. What is it? Imagine getting to the end of your professional life and feeling like your career failed. Not once. Not twice. But for your whole life. Big regrets. Big. Failure.

Damn. Heavy.

(And I don’t agree that all true entrepreneurs successfully start and run businesses. People are more complex than that. A topic for another post.)

Fear of failing at your business can make your business fail.

My father went through this. On a personal level he was very successful. In business his fear of failing at individual ventures kept him at a corporate career he hated. For decades he stifled his entrepreneurial instincts. We never talked about it. But it was obvious that, ironically, his fear of smaller failures resulted in feeling like his entire professional life was a failure. I think it was his only real regret.

Entrepreneurs are naturally consumed by the immediate future. They’re not thinking about how they’ll feel in 40 years. They need to win now and are often terrified of failing. But that fear can create failure by paralyzing them. They hesitate while their bolder competitors seize opportunities.

Big Failure kicks other failures’ asses.

Having no fear is great. But if you’re gonna fear failure, harness the fear of Big Failure. Use it to mitigate the fear of individual business failures. The goal should be a successful career and a career is more than one company. Think massive, be bold, and follow your instincts. Your older self will thank you for it.

Teleport Yourself

(I’ve blogged about this topic before but wanted to post a different version.)

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, uninspired, complacent or just down, I remind myself to visualize this:

You’re suddenly magically teleported to a new life. In this new life maybe you’re a married banker with kids; maybe you’re single and work at Wal-Mart. It doesn’t matter because the important facts are 1) you’re still the same person and 2) you have a very limited time in this new life. You have a completely blank slate and don’t know how long you’ll be here. So what do you do?

You LIVE! You bring as much joy as possible to those around you. You go for the career you always wanted and don’t take “no” for an answer. You enjoy the little things, have fun, and help others. You don’t let one ounce of stress, negativity, or worry detract from your passion. It could end any minute!

Back to reality and some excellent news: This is your actual life, right now. Whatever difficulties you’ve had are in the past – they don’t make you who you are. You have a blank slate and limited time. Go! Teleport yourself. LIVE!

Mindset > Age

Age bias is one of those sneaky things. However enlightened you think you may be, it has a way of coloring your perceptions. Especially at work.

If you’re in your twenties, how often have you pointed to a forty-something’s age a reason for their views or behaviors? They took a nap? Only drank one beer last night? Didn’t know about OAuth? Must be because they’re old.

The same thing happens in reverse. Older employees blame youth when a twenty-something is brash, error-prone, or makes hasty decisions. These young ones have lots to learn, they think.

There may be some truth to it, but generalizing is an easy trap to fall into. It also tends to dismiss people’s strengths because of perceived age-related weaknesses. I’ve seen this happen in all kinds of companies but startups are notorious for skewing young. It’s understandable because most founders are young and associate with others their age. They often want a young, energetic image for their company, kinda like a rock band. But they could be missing out on valuable experience that can guide them toward success.

Age is just a number to those who take good care of their mind, body, and spirit. Life hasn’t beaten them down or made them cynical as they’ve aged. Similarly, good younger workers don’t use their age as an excuse for mistakes or underperforming.

Hire for skills, energy, and experience where you need it. Filter out any age-related perceptions and get to the core of the person. Mindset and enthusiasm trump age every time.

Everything is Contagious

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I’m not talking about germs, I’m referring to moods – which can be just as infectious. In a close-knit dynamic like a startup, moods are especially contagious and the leaders set the tone. Just as panicked CEOs create panic amongst their teams, they can also foster an upbeat, motivational culture.

Startup employees have good reason to be more sensitive to their leader’s moods than at larger companies. After all, their CEO’s giddiness could mean the company just closed a huge deal that could change their lives. On the flip side, a chronically cranky leader might mean imminent doom for all.

Studies show that happy employees are much more productive than their disgruntled counterparts. The more a founder is aware of how much they set the company’s tone, the more they can position it for success by spreading the positivity and enthusiasm.

How Startup Life Prepared Me for Fatherhood

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I had joined five startups before my son was born. I was lured to the startup world by the excitement of working with passionate teams and building cool products. Little did I know those crazy times would prepare me for fatherhood.

1) Winging It

In startups you have to make decisions – sometimes big ones – without much supporting data or precedent. Nothing is truer of newborns. You can read all the baby books on Amazon, but there will be daily stuff you’ll just have to figure out on your own. It gets less terrifying.

2) Prepared for Anything

Missing payroll. Jaundice. Your first trade show. Pneumonia at 4 months. Winning your first big customer. Projectile diarrhea (the baby I mean). Big customer threatens to bolt. Spontaneous crying (me). Just another day.

3) Humility

You don’t find Humility – it finds you. You’re feeling cocky, then BOOM – your lead investor pulls out at the last minute. Your top engineer abruptly quits. You didn’t know it was possible to be bad at burping a baby. Your new son gleefully pees on you – never your wife – when you change him. Hello Humility.

4) Real Sleep Deprivation

There’s something cool and sad about discovering different levels of sleep deprivation. I learned to function on what I call Grade I sleep deprivation at a few startups – 80 hour weeks, some all nighters. It helped prepare for those weeks of nighttime teething and 5-per-night feeding sessions. Some bad stretches led to Grade II, when I sat at my keyboard trying to compose an email and my fingers wouldn’t type any of the right letters. Not one. If you’re Grade II, just go home and sleep.

 

So if you really want to prepare for parenthood, don’t get a dog, join a startup.

The Perks of Being an Obsessive

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Einstein once said “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” He was ridiculously humble, and knew first-hand the benefits of being an Obsessive.

An Obsessive is defined as someone whose thoughts or feelings are dominated by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. In other words, it’s part of who they are. While some people may feel obsessed with an idea from time to time, Obsessives always have a need to fixate on something. This is especially true of serial entrepreneurs. When they say they have a “mission”, it’s a socially acceptable way of saying they’re obsessed. It’s second nature, an integral part of their personality and business approach.

Lots of people preach about work-life balance, but this is a fallacy in the startup world. Yes, ignoring your personal life is bad. Take heed when your partner asks you to be less obsessive about personal stuff. But if your thoughts aren’t dominated by how your venture will win, it probably won’t.

All sucessful serial entrepreneurs aren’t Einsteins but they are all obsessive. Being an Obsessive often gets a bad rap, but don’t stifle it – embrace it for your business. Stay with problems longer than your competition. And when you succeed, be humble like Albert.