How Do Great CEOs Handle Setbacks?

One of my favorite quotes is “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” (It’s a paraphrase of a Charles Swindoll quote.)

Think about that. Feels empowering, right?

I know and work with a quite a few CEOs. It always strikes me how the great ones react to difficult situations. I’m talking about really stressful stuff like repeated rejection from investors, missing payroll, cofounders leaving, or major pivots.

I’ve blogged before about founders being mentally prepared for anything because shit will happen, guaranteed. But how do great CEOs react when things actually go south? Here’s what I’ve learned from them:

Do:

– Analyze it. What just happened? What caused it to go bad? How can it go better next time? Don’t be a slave to your emotions. Make a list. This is your business, so be businesslike about it. Only then can you …

– Learn from it. Avoid the vicious cycle of the same issues happening over and over. And use that knowledge to salvage the situation/relationship if at all possible.

– Be accountable. What could you personally have done to get the results you wanted? Sometimes there’s not much else you can do, but you’d be surprised how often the answer is “Yeah, I guess I could’ve done ‘x’.” CEOs who aren’t accountable will fail. It’s that simple.

– Be honest and fair. Everyone gets their ass kicked. Keep your integrity no matter what.

– Stay in tune with your passion! Never forget why you started your business and why you’re on a mission. If you’re not passionate about it nobody else will be.

Don’t:

– Blame others. Maybe this happens because people are scared of being wrong and looking like a screwup. Good news: Everyone is wrong and screws up on a regular basis ‘cause we’re all human! Give yourself a break and accept that you’ll make plenty of mistakes.

– Get discouraged. Crappy stuff will happen. Getting discouraged is contagious and if you make a habit of it your team’s morale will sink.

– Get angry. Anger is sometimes a defense mechanism because it’s easier to feel angry than disappointed in yourself. But it’s counterproductive to your mission and robs you of creative, positive energy. If you feel your blood boiling take a break, a walk, meditate, anything to cool down and regain your perspective.

– Panic. I’ve seen CEOs completely change their strategy after a lost deal or one bad meeting with someone they respect. Stay confident in your mission! If you stay cool and focused, so will your team.

– Burn bridges. Get used to rejection – it’s part of startup life. Even if someone says no, maintain the relationship and don’t write anyone off. You’ll gain respect as a leader by being professional when you don’t get what you want. Also it can be great for your business: sometimes today’s “no” becomes tomorrow’s “yes”.

Startups are freakin’ hard and as CEO you’ll be challenged more than you thought possible. But you control much more than you think. 90% of life is how you react. Your move.

What Does a Mission Look Like?

A couple days ago Micah Baldwin was kind enough to pay us a visit in KC at the Sprint Accelerator powered by Techstars. It was awesome. He covered lots of topics, and one was the importance of being on a mission. To succeed as a founder you must have the passion, the drive, a mission because startups are so fucking hard you’re gonna need every ounce of conviction to get through the tough times. And I agree 100%.

It got me thinking: what should “being on a mission” look like? Working 16 hours a day, seven days a week? To me that’s obsession, mission’s vampire cousin that sucks the life from you and your loved ones. How about a 40-hour work week, spending every night and weekend with friends and the fam? Nice thought, but it instantly puts you behind your competitors who are busting their asses every day to win.

Brad Feld also spoke to our startups about some of the same things. His main topic was work-life, and he was very careful not to call it “work-life balance”. I’ve seen some founders put illogical limits on their hours – like no more than 50/week – because they see “work-life balance” everywhere. There’s no perfect work-life balance in a startup. The reason why both Brad and Micah came up with certain strategies – doing one thing for yourself each day; giving yourself some time first thing in the morning – is because they know from experience startup life is a shit-ton of work. And you should want to put in the time. But if you completely ignore yourself or loved ones you’ll eventually implode.

(Aside: the main reason I love listening to Brad and Micah is their 100% honesty. No bullshit, no ulterior motives. Pure awesome.)

So it makes sense that if you’re hell-bent on startup success, 40-50 hours a week isn’t gonna cut it and 100 will likely destroy you. Somewhere in between, find the maximum possible workload that lets you maintain your health and relationships. If you can do this – great! You only have 1,000 other things you need to get right.

Now get back to your mission!

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!

A.B.H. (Always Be Hustling)


Remember the first time you ever hustled? Maybe it was delivering newspapers at 4 am, a lemonade stand, or reselling action figures to your friends.

I was a late bloomer. My first real hustle happened when I was 18. A storm had knocked down a tree behind a building I walked by every day. It was big – at least 75 feet long. I called the property manager and negotiated a deal: I’d remove the tree for $275 if he provided a helper. Done. He didn’t know I was 18, had never done anything like that before, had never used a chainsaw, or had no idea where the cut-up trunk and branches would go. I just needed the money. Time to wing it!

So on the agreed upon day, I got up early, grabbed my step-dad’s old crappy chainsaw from the garage, walked down there and went for it. The helper assisted in bundling the wood and tossing it in the trunk of my old car.

Each time the trunk filled up, I would drive up the street and tote the bundles down to my family’s back yard. It wasn’t some suburban grassy back yard. It was asphalt with a dirt drop-off that sloped down about 25 feet to an old fence. I flung most of the bundles down that slope. I’d apologize for them later.

It took 10 hours but when it was done and I had a $275 check in my blistered, non-severed hand there was this feeling of accomplishment that was totally new. I had generated something valuable from just an idea, a little creativity, and hard work. It opened up a whole new world.

That feeling from my first hustle is still fresh and continues to drive my entrepreneurial spirit to this day. When I’m uninspired, I think about the tree, the chainsaw, and even the angry look on my step-dad’s face after he looked in the back yard.

Anyone else out there wanna share the story of your first hustle?

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.