Strong Opinions @marksbirch

Random thoughts from a NYC entrepreneur and investor about start-ups, technology and the people that make it all happen. Also find time for good tunes and good food.
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If I had listened to sales reports at the beginning, I would have given up on things that are some of our biggest successes now.
Rick Owens (via brycedotvc)

(via brycedotvc)

Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say yes.

Eleanor Roosevelt (via kennyherman)

Too many sales deals die a premature death due to gatekeepers, tire kickers, and others that have little power in the organization.  Do not let them get in your way and find the right people, those that have the power to make the deal happen.

The key to ultimately winning is to keep taking as many shots on goal as possible.

Eventually, one will hit the back of the net.

“I went in, put the headphones on, and started going ‘Ooh-aah, baby, baby - yeah, yeah, yeah.’ They said, ‘No, no – we don’t want that. If we wanted that we’d have got Doris Troy.’ They said, ‘Try some longer notes’… I remember thinking to myself, ‘I really, really do not know what to do. And perhaps it would be better if I said “Thank you very much” and gave up.’ “ But rather than give up and exit the session, “That was when I thought, ‘Maybe I should just pretend I’m an instrument’.” The second take was outstanding, she recalls, but she said she stopped the third take because “it was beginning to sound contrived. I said, ‘I think you’ve got enough.’ I thought it sounded like caterwauling.” She left Abbey Road thinking it was an experiment that hadn’t worked out. “I honestly thought it would never see the light of day” until she went by a record store and saw her name was indeed in the credits.

40 Years Later, 40 Mind-Blowing Facts About The Mad Classic

Pink Floyd is to this day one of my favorite bands and Dark Side of the Moon one of my all time favorite rock albums.  Clare Torry was brought in as the vocalist for Great Gig in the Sky and not having any clue what to do or any direction, managed to pull off one hell of a performance.

Lesson here is when pressed, you might as well say screw it and give it your all.

Every once in a while, you will have “the day”.  It starts off with some bad news, then the bad news piles up, then something tragic happens, and the whole thing spirals into a hell hole of immeasurable suckitude.  You may be going through it now or maybe it has been a while, but we have all walked that walk and it was not fun.

Yesterday was a very bad day for your intrepid author.  It was topped off by the fact that several people were depending on me for things that day, nothing was accomplished, and it just added to the misery (sincere apologies to anyone that I ignored or yelled at yesterday).  You are just trying to stay afloat and keep some semblance of balance and order.  And so it that is how it goes when things go to hell.

The phrase grin and bear it comes to mind, but grinning is usually the last thing that one can muster.  It also rings hallow when you are in the moment simply doing your best to keep composure.  The preferred response would be to simply smash things against a wall or fall into a sack on the floor and wail.

I wrote about gutting through bad times last year.  That is when you are really in a slump and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.  A bad day is different in that it is one solitary moment in the timeline of your life.  In the moment, it may seem like the longest day ever, but it is still just the same 24 hours as yesterday and every day before.  There is no prolonged malaise or pattern of tragedy or hopeless pit of despair.

When the day gets to such a state of dread, get up and walk away.  I do not mean to just leave things a total mess or blow stuff off permanently.  Instead, when you sense the rage or trepidation or anxiety kicking in, remove yourself from the situation and take a breather.  Do not press send on that email reply, do not get in the “last word”, do not cut off the drive in the next lane, and do not act out revenge fantasies.  Best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else is to just step away and reassess.

People are emotional beings.  There is nothing inherently wrong with negative feelings because that is what we are.  We will feel anger and jealousy and depression and fear.  What matters most though is how one responds in the face of those times when emotions boil over.  Experiencing those feelings is natural and healthy.  Dwelling on them or letting them drive your subsequent actions is not.

Tomorrow will be better.  Or maybe not.  But the point is that it is better to take things one day at a time and not get too wrapped up in negative emotions and difficult situations.  Even in the worst of situations there is usually a glimmer of hope or a lesson to take away.  When you have done all you can do, step away and give yourself some time to recover, to clear your mind, and to think about something other than the current situation.  Afterwards, you can begin the process of fixing and repairing stuff.  But just take some time to separate yourself from the day.  When you do that, you can gain some perspective and climb out of your very bad day with your dignity and your conscience intact.

The kind of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children has a major impact on the implicit beliefs we develop about our abilities — including whether we see them as innate and unchangeable, or as capable of developing through effort and practice. When we do well in school and are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever,” or “such a good student,” this kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t. The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, smart-praise kids take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart,” rather than as a sign to pay attention and try harder…

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot.

- The Trouble With Bright Kids by Harvard Business Review via Bloomberg NewsWeek

Interesting insights into talent and how talent is realized.  While there is innate ability, there is also significant variability in directing and guiding that ability towards a goal, and as the article points out, persistence is a significant factor in reaching that goal.

There seems to be a missing ingredient in a lot of today’s startups.  When I talk to entrepreneurs about their ideas, one of the things I look for is passion.  While intelligence and persistence and risk taking are important traits, what brings all of those skills together towards achieving a goal is passion.  However, I am worried that a lot of founders do not have the conviction of their beliefs to give their startups a fighting chance.  The number one reason startups fail is because there is no passion!

One of the culprits for the passion deficit is the Lean Startup Movement*.  For those not yet in the know, it is a method of building products using iterative customer feedback to identify a solution that addresses a customer problem and can become a scalable business.  In theory, it helps entrepreneurs focus on relevant problems that are worthwhile solving before spending a ton of time and resources, which could have prevented such famous blowups like Webvan and Pets.com.

In the zeal for finding a worthwhile problem however, entrepreneurs get farther away from their vision.  The lean methodology encourages incredibly quick iterations and actively encourages the discarding of ideas, all in the name of finding something that appears to be “traction”.  This is a code word that essentially means customer acceptance of the proposed solution.  Thus what an entrepreneur may end up pursuing based on these “traction” markers could be a radical departure from the original idea.

If there is any certainty at all in entrepreneurship, it is that ideas take time to develop and to take hold.  The guy that helped popularize soy milk in America spent over 20 years executing on his vision before he started making profits with his Silk product line.  The founder behind VitaminWater would haul crates of the drink to stores himself in his car for several years before it became a breakout beverage product, and sold the company for $4.1 billion.  Most tech startups take a few years before finally gaining significant market share and an appreciable customer base.

Thus, it seems strange to pursue an idea, just to abandon it when the going gets tough or the response is not overwhelming positive.  The greatest leaps in innovations lead people, not from getting pulled by people.  While the idea that you iterated on could be really interesting and successful, is it really the idea that you were really passionate about?  Was that what your vision was about?

To be clear, self-doubt and depression are par for the course.  You will run into plenty of unseen roadblocks and make near catastrophic mistakes.  Evan Williams of Twitter fame talked about his struggles to keep his popular blog platform Blogger alive for months without any money.  The path is never very clear when you are building something from scratch.  Naysayer and skeptics will shoot holes in your idea.  There is no manual, no script and no answers when building a business or creating a technology.  You have to simply take the approach that what comes may come.  You have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring, so why worry about what is not in your control?  Just gut through and keep your eyes on the vision.

You cannot fake passion.  You either have it or you do not.  If you are hunting around for an idea to run with, I have significant doubts about your startup’s future.  If you are pursuing a solution for a problem where you have zero experience or would not be a consumer of said product, then I have to question your motives.  Neither comes from a strong, passionate belief.  They are simply business ideas that could be successful, but as smaller businesses.  It is not a recipe for breakout, revolutionary businesses and products.  The truly innovative and disruptive ideas come from passion which fuels the entrepreneurial persistence and stubbornness to make it succeed.

* This is not meant as a missive of Lean Startup, as there is value in the methodology for decision making and customer focus.  However, many entrepreneurs misuse the concepts for quick win startup schemes.

Losing the passion.  It is as simple as that.  All the other reasons about scaling too fast, bad mix of co-founders, running out of money, economic upheaval, etc. are either symptoms or accelerators of the eventual downfall.  When the founders just do not have the excitement anymore, problems become more acute, obstacles harder to overcome and small issues become explosive powderkegs.  Every wants out, but no one wants to admit the truth.

It takes a large dose of persistence and humility to found a startup.  There are massive highs but even lower lows, and in the rough and tumble of the journey, it is difficult to keep one’s perspective and focus on the vision.  It is more often the sum total of many smaller incidents and indignities that over the course of a long campaign can wear on the psyche so much that many founders would rather find the quick exit rather than carry forward.

A couple of months prior, Justin Kan of Justin.tv and Socialcam fame wrote a post stating that startups don’t die but rather commit suicide.  He writes:

Long before startups get to the point of delinquent electricity bills or serious payroll cuts, they implode. The people in them give up and move on to do other things, or they realize that startups are hard and can cause a massive amount of mental and physical exhaustion — or the founders get jobs at other companies, go back to school, or simply move out of the valley and disappear.

Many budding first-time entrepreneurs do not give a second thought to the daily grind.  Everyone dismisses how difficult the startup life is, thinking that it is all about the fund raising or gathering customers or building product.  Those things are certainly critical goals, but the journey to reach those goals is where startups succeed or fail.  The constant struggle is in surviving when you go through weeks of slammed doors, rejections and humiliations.  What was once glamorous and thrilling at the start, you quit your job, get some cool startup workspace and build early momentum, can very quickly become overwhelming, frightening and stomach turning.

Part of the reason the grind gets overlooked is the startup mythology.  When we see more and more startups, some worthy and some not so worthy, making funding announcements in TechCrunch, it gets people excited, like they are missing out.  When some of these startups selling for millions in short order, like one year old GroupMe just did for $85 million, it adds to the mythos.  When people walk through the multitudes of startup workspaces and incubators and attend the overflow of startup events and hackathons, the fever pitch hits full throttle.  These are all good things that pull real hustlers into the ecosystem, but they also pull in a lot of pretenders that will never have enough fight in them to last in the game.

If you are contemplating going out on your own and founding a startup, you need to be honest with yourself.  Ask yourself the hard questions about how much drive you have and if you have the stomach for all the sacrifices and changes you will need to make.  If any of the reasons Dave McClure in his Why NOT To Do a Startup presentation or Paul Graham’s similarly titled essay do not dissuade you, then you are probably ready or bull-headed.

If you want to keep the passion going, make sure that you and your co-founders keep the fire going and prepare for those dark times ahead.  Take breaks every so often to recharge.  Spend some time every month to do an assessment of progress with the team and focus on strategic issues.  Plaster the vision statement everywhere so that you remind yourself why you started to begin with.  Do not be afraid to take risks or abandon product as long as you are still focused on the vision.  Socialize and attend events on occasion to help let off steam.  Communicate and spend time with friends and family.  Reach out to advisors and other entrepreneurs for advice and support.  Maintain a healthy lifestyle by finding time to exercise and eat healthier food.  Find an outside hobby that inspires you.  Buy a punching bag for the office.  Whether you decide works to help get you and the team through and keeps the passion going, just do it.  The point to always remember; find the passion to keep fighting otherwise you are going to be hitting the exits in short order.

I have spoken on a few occasions about this topic, but I wanted to let folks know of a great event tonight at General Assembly hosted by Kelley Boyd called “A Guide to Hiring a Salesperson”.  There is rarely a topic that I discuss more often other than fund raising with startup founders.  The reason is that most founders typically do not come from a sales background and the whole process of finding and acquiring customers seems so…mysterious.

There are no dark arts or magical formulas involved when it comes to sales.  There are very straightforward approaches that startups can take to finding the right sales people for the right stage of growth and industry focus.  If you think you need sales people soon, have already hired sales people, or have been burned in the past and want to prevent getting burned twice, you must attend Kelley’s session!

I will be attending as well to share a couple of stories, both good and bad, about sales people I have hired in the past.  I am also looking forward to hearing from founders, sales people and business development folks share their own perspectives, because when it comes to sales, there are always a few killer stories that come out. Even you cannot make tonight’s session, I would highly recommend reaching out to Kelley and asking her advice on your sales questions, she is pretty fantastic.

For some extra credit, here are a few of my own blog posts regarding sales and startups.  Enjoy!