Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Quarterly Goals Matter... A Lot

Yes, it's been quite some time.  Thanks for coming back.

I love to write, and I don't care how many times I've said it -- I love the way this blog sort of passively keeps me in touch with a small group of friends I don't see that often.  So now back to the blogging...

Here's a quick thought before I turn in for the night:  Quarterly goals are hugely important.  Without them, any fledgling venture can fall victim to what I'll call the "roadside litter" problem.

Here's what I mean by that:  The world is full of shiny objects.  It's easy to let them distract you.  It's easy to say, "No, no, no THIS is the THING!"  and thereby let a shiny object rope you in.  It occupies you until you see another, and then you abandon that last thing for the latest thing...so the previous thing becomes a piece of discarded, roadside litter.  Rinse, repeat.

So that's why the quarterly goal thing is so critical.  Assuming you're on calendar year quarters, this is the halfway point for Q3.  Whatever your team said mattered in late June MUST still matter (c'mon, it was practically yesterday), so the important thing to do is execute.

Got good ideas?  Save 'em for the review at the end of September.  Ice 'em until Q4.

Oh, and to the degree you can, formulate your goals in ways that quantifiable and clearly measurable.  If you say, "Do more business development" then it's just too much of a softball to check the box, or turn that part of your spreadsheet green.

Instead, say something like, "Make 200 more cold calls," or "Complete __ % of project," etc.  You'll know you either did it, or didn't.  At that point, it's not always about meeting everything 100%.  If your entire spreadsheet is green, maybe it means you didn't push yourself enough -- supposedly even Google only expects 70 percent completion of its OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

But more important than the issue of where to set the bar, just be sure to set it in a clearly measurable way. To take it away from business for a second, say "Lose 10 pounds" instead of "take the stairs more."  With the former, you might *miss* your goal but still come away better for it...maybe you dropped 7.  But with the latter, it's too easy to just sort of shrug your shoulders and say, "Yeah, I guess that happened."  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

That 'B' Word

I thoroughly enjoyed this New Yorker article about the role of "busy" in modern American life.

I laughed out loud at a few points along the way, and wasn't shocked to see that a contributing factor to our usage of the term is that "busy" has become a status badge in 21st-century American life.  Sure enough, a study cited in the article showed that over the past five decades, Americans' holiday cards have made more and more references to the "busy-ness" of the writer, at the expense of general references to the blessings of the season.

I have a confession to make:  At times, over the past five or so months, I've grown to loathe this word -- so much so, in fact, that I've tried to stop using it altogether.                      
The whole issue of how I came to strongly dislike this 'b' word is hard to even broach, without either a) sounding like a whiner, (which I am, for complaining about events that were largely under my control); or b) sounding like I'm playing the 'busier-than-thou' card (which I probably AM doing, btw), and which the article makes fun of (and rightly so!) I tried to stab at it a couple entries ago; basically, the long and the short of it is that several opportunities came together a la fois. The result was a long string of days that never really started or ended. Lots of LRTA-at-it's-not-quite-six-eh on the front end, tailed in by a jaunt past the Swamp Locks at 2300 and change -- rinse, repeat.

Hence my confession -- I got tired of hearing people talk about how 'busy' they were all the time.  I got tired of smiling politely every time someone said 'must be nice' in reference to my laid-back attire on a 'workday.' And somehow, dropping the word entirely seemed like the only way to swim against the cultural tide of 'busy' as default status.

But enough about me -- if you're thinking about dropping this word from your vocabulary, one upshot is this -- when you stop using it as your reflexive response to the question, "How are you?" then you can simultaneously save yourself from a knee-jerk bout of one-upsmanship from someone you suspect might not be quite sustaining the same daily regime.

And that in turn spares you from some inevitable inner-monologue round of 'two-upsmanship.'

...and why is the 'two-upsmanship' so certain to occur?  Because unlike the person you're speaking with, you really mean it.

No, really.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two That I'd Avoid

I love working in the Sandbox collaborative space.  It's very close to home, I've got 24/7 access, and I'm infinitely more productive in a professional environment than I would be back at the ranch.  Plus, being around other entrepreneurs is a good thing...usually.  It's a great way to trade stories about things have worked well, or gone badly, and to get truly important information, like knowledge about the all-you-can-eat buffet at Fox Hall.

Even though I'm not an angel investor, it's possible that someday I could be. Much more likely, I'll be in some other sort of position through which I can mentor others along, and at times I'll be able to act as a gatekeeper, or at least a gatekeeper's assistant (recently, I got to help read some of the Summer 2014 Accelerator applications, which I loved doing).  

Here are two things I'd advise entrepreneurs to ditch:

(1) Using "I don't pay myself a salary" as a badge of honor.  In so many pitch contests, business plans, and other applications, this gets thrown around like it's some sort of noble statement worthy of bragging rights.  It's not.  If your business doesn't generate enough revenue to allow you to pay yourself, then fine, but that's not a sustainable endstate.  If that's the case, you need to be thinking -- urgently -- about how to fix it. Either find an investor, cut your costs, raise your prices, or cut bait.  

You might imagine that a statement like that conjures up thoughts of "dedication" and "forbearance" among the people hearing it, but on the other side of the table, people are asking whether you're describing a business or a hobby.  Even if it's just a small initial amount that you'll peg as a percentage of top-line revenue, or even if it's a draw on your LOC that you can sustain the interest/principal on via your revenue, or whatever other structure you can cook up, don't neglect the fact that you have personal costs.  And if you really can get by for the time being without seeking outside funding (which could trigger a loss of control), or improving bottom line (maybe your prototype is still in development) then your salary-less state is a fact of life.  It's not an indefinitely-sustainable one, though, so be careful about framing this as some kind of a positive...it's not.

(2) "I could tell what I do, but then I'd have to..."  This really just happened.  I really just heard this nonsense.  It's like, hey Bro Namath -- if I ask you what your start-up does out of basic, conversational politeness, just be vague: "..We're a B2C app developer.." "We're trying to build anti-spam protection into smart refrigerators."  "We use Pinterest to enable predictive analytics for the Mercantile Exchange."  

If the questions get too hot and heavy, just demur.  Say it's still in development.  Say you're still figuring it out. Say you won't know until you beta test in August. 

Say ANYTHING.  But don't say, "Sorry, Broseph Stalin, but it's totally secret.  I can't talk about it, but it's going to be really cool when it launches."  You might've muttered something about a non-disclosure agreement, or said something else about the generalities, but honestly, I stopped listening once you dropped the 'secret' bomb.  

And guess what, buddy?  A real secret squirrel is so secret....that he doesn't tell you he's a secret squirrel.  

The cousin at the Thanksgiving table who says "State Department" when your grandmother asks about work, and then follows that with some generalities about overseas postings might really be doing something high-speed.  But the one who says, "I do government stuff at Langley...and I can't talk about it," is ANYTHING BUT.  Trust me on this one.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Godfather Offers

Earlier this week, as I was preparing for a Corporate Finance final exam, I came across the term "Godfather Offer."  My eyes unglazed, I got ready to do some underlining, and I perked up to learn what this was all about.  (If you really want to know, they're takeover bids that are so good that management can't refuse...otherwise, shareholders might sue).

Anyway, the past few months have been a bit of a blur, to say the least.

Through a connection I made via my start-up (we do online identity/safety awareness...will say LOTS more, but just not right now...other than to say we're funded now and I'm about to become full-time employee #1), I got an unexpected and quite fortuitous teaching offer from BU around Christmastime.  Thinking the time horizon had to be the fall of 2014 at the earliest, my jaw nearly hit the floor when I saw the "Can you start in three weeks?" e-mail.
In my head, I quickly ran through the checklist of things on the plate at the time (finishing the MBA, running the business, tutoring side gig, Army Reserves...and of course family).  Then, I just reflexively blurted out, "Yes."  It was a Godfather Offer and I knew it -- the course material dovetails perfectly with my business, I love teaching, it's another income stream, and it may help open innumerable doors down the road.  The "Yes," I thought, gets my foot in the door, helps get me rolling, and positions me well for the real-world re-entry that would come in June.  A "No" moves my resume somewhere to the back of the stack.

Besides, it's not every day that someone who thinks an Infinite Loop describes traffic at the Bourne Rotary, and who thinks "Ruby on Rails" is an adult film starlet, gets to join the Computer Science faculty.  So "Yes" it was.  And 10 minutes ago, I just submitted final semester grades to the registrar...with three committed courses now lined up for future semesters.  Earlier this morning, I wrapped up a long-running tutoring gig (also the product of a Godfather Offer, and a Time Vampire of hard-to-even-describe proportions).  And on Thursday the 15th, when my pen drops back onto the desk after my "Taxes and Business Strategy" final, I can close the book on the uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow-with-no-shoes commuting-to-a-business-school-where-they-don't-believe-in-Mickey-Mouse-classes.  And goodbye case write-ups.  And Free Cash Flow to Equity valuations.  And having to care about the consequences of really weird stuff, like Compaq buying the shares of a Dutch company, just to resell those shares an hour later at a loss and lower its tax bill.

When I got back from Afghanistan in early 2012, I remember using the phrase "rejoining the world" to describe the feeling of plugging back into something from which I had completely dissociated for 12 months.
This recent process has really drained me at times, but -- at least I'd like to think -- the end of the rainbow and the pot of gold might not be so far off.

For sure, things could be far worse.

The peers of mine who are about to head into the hallowed halls of the McKinseys and the Bains and the Goldmans of the world are now commiserating with each other... "Bro, the party's over, man.  We've gotta go from all this hangin' out and drinking on Beacon Hill on Wednesdays to an endless string of 18-hour days."  Every time I hear that stuff, I'm reminded of how glad I am that I spurned that whole post-MBA path.

Of course I don't actually say it, but I think: "I'm ditching the 18-hour days, save for the occasional exceptions...and if my daughter wants to hang out at the waterfall by the Boott Mill and be simultaneously fascinated by it and terrified of its decibel output, then that's what I'm going to be doing...and what could be better, really?"  

The Gipper used to always say, "I like to throw my golf clubs in the direction I'm heading."  I didn't understand what he meant by that when I heard it as a kid -- and I'm still not 100% sure I get it now -- but if it was a reference to positioning, then I'm on on board all the way with that idea.

And hopefully, we can position ourselves together for a cup of coffee soon, whether it's at Wannalancit, or Brew'd, or Mill No. 5, or wherever.  I'll ask you what I missed, and then remember not to be surprised when you tell me, "Not much, really."  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Just the Answers, Nothing More

A UML student doing a research project about downtown just e-mailed me a '10 questions about downtown' survey.  I pasted in my answers below.  With most of the questions, you'll be able to figure out the question through context...with the rest, it's whatever you want it to be...your very own Rohrshach test.

1. I moved to downtown Lowell in March of 2008.  When I entered a teacher ed program back in 2002, I was initially planning to go into urban education as a History or Social Studies teacher.  I knew I didn't want Boston or Cambridge -- I knew I wouldn't be able to afford those places, and I felt they were already saturated with people like me.  I explored all the mid-sized cities outside Boston -- Worcester, Providence, and Lowell in particular -- and found that Lowell had the best mix of affordability and "up-and-coming-ness" [okay, I admit that's not a word].  I decided to move to Lowell and make that my place to put a stake in the ground...but then decided to join the active-duty military.  I joined the Navy in 2003, served on active duty for 5 years, and then finally made it back to the city that made such a big impression on me initially.

2. I always felt that once you walk up Merrimack St (towards UML), as soon as you pass the library, something changes.  You're not downtown anymore.  So I'd say that's a boundary.  But I'd also call the baseball stadium and the arena part of 'downtown.'  With Market St, it's literally a case of 'the other side of the tracks.'  I'd say once you cross the trolley tracks towards Salem St, that whole part of Market St is the Acre.  Going up Central/Gorham, I'd say that Bishop Markham is the dividing point between downtown and Back Central.

3.  Yes.  The beauty of the city really took me in.  I absolutely love the library, and I love City Hall (the building more than the politics, though).  When my parents come to town, we always take a pic by Page's Clock Tower (no relation).

4.  I'd say 200 Market St, because that encompasses Canal Place I, II, and III.  

5.  The big myth is the idea of the 'downtown yuppie.'  Ask people who actually live downtown -- lots of seniors on fixed incomes around here.  There are some yuppies, and they probably mostly live in my building (Canal Place I). Technically I'm one of them (young, urban, professional).  But the real dirty secret around downtown is that there aren't ENOUGH people spending disposable income in the businesses downtown.  We need more people like that here, and no one needs to be pushed out in order for that to happen.

6.  Single biggest thing is that there's no *draw* to really bring folks into the downtown, entertainment-wise.  A movie theater, bowling alley, or game-based place could do that.  The performing arts stuff is way too highbrow and expensive.  We're never going to solve the foot traffic problem just by exhorting people to come downtown -- they need a reason to be there in the first place, and then they can grab dinner or whatever else from the shops.

7.  Great question.  I'd follow up to #6 by saying I hope there's an entrepreneur who sees the possibility for an entertainment draw that appeals to regular people.  By that time, I will be long gone (hoping to make it out to the Upper Highlands in 2015 or 2016, before my daughter starts kindergarten).

8.  Lowell Downtown Neighborhood Association.  It's a great group but sometimes just a forum for people to complain about noisy bars.  I'd say there's no neighborhood school that residents unify around; in fact, a lot of people don't refer to downtown as a 'neighborhood' -- they say 'downtown AND the neighborhoods.'  

9.  Kathleen Marcin -- no longer the LDNA leader but she still carries the informal respect/clout both inside and outside of the neighborhood.  Also, Franky Descoteaux.  A lot of downtowners were proud to have a downtowner city councilor and many admire her for being an entrepreneur. 

10. Brew'd Awakenings.  Pretty central spot for many downtown residents and appeals to lots of different people for different reasons.  Definitely the sort of place that downtowners would expect to bump into one another -- moreso than even a sitdown place like the Club Diner.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hating the Haters? Get Over Yourself

The leader of a notorious hate group passed away today, or yesterday, or sometime in between.

I'm not saying his name here, and I'm not naming his group.

What I will say, though, is that not a single person I know supports his brand of hate.

And I know a lot of people, from a lot of walks of life.

So if you oppose this guy, you're not being courageous, or brave, or profound; in fact, you're being just as quotidian as everyone else I know, myself included.

Find some issue that you can take out and paddle with, against the tide.  Then, find some reflective surfaces so you can stop, and admire.

But just opposing something that 99+% of society opposes does NOT make you worthy of that.

Key Indicators

Something happened to me yesterday that just about never happens -- I was supposed to be somewhere, and I wasn't there. By now, I've already been through all the stages...and I'm comfortable enough about what happened to be able to write about it here. I apologized to the person that I stood up -- while being careful not to overdo it -- and the screw-up has basically been contained.

Business Lesson #1: There's no such thing as error-free baseball, so don't try to play it. When errors DO happen, stay classy, take ownership, dust yourself off, and move on.

A few hours later, one of the students I tutor sent me an e-mail canceling a session for tomorrow due to a bad cold she was experiencing. I shot back a quick "no prob, get well soon" e-mail, but didn't mention in my note that I had no clue that we were slated to meet in the first place! Twice in one day is no coincidence. Things will slow down quite a bit after May 15, when I finish school (for REAL this time).

One thing I want to be a bit more thoughtful about when the post-May 15 era arrives is how to more intelligently account for the way I spend my time to earn money. Here are 8 quick thoughts that speak to that:

1. I am a bootstrapping entrepreneur. ('Bootstrapping' gets defined different ways, but to me it just means 'no outside equity financing').

2. I have de-risked the process by taking on side jobs that bring me over my monthly 'hurdle' rate.

3. This has been so effective that even after graduation -- and even after the loan payments kick in -- I will be able to plow most of the revenue from the business back into the business itself.

4. Some means of revenue generation are far better than others...and the per-hour wage associated with each can be very misleading.

5. Hours that "stack" are worth significantly more than hours that don't. For instance, my tutoring job pays 5x the hourly wage of being an Army Reservist...but if I had to give up one position, it'd be the tutoring, hands down. The Army wage is easier to account for (it's quite predictable), and the consecutive hours swallow up the overhead 'costs' associated with travel and preparation.

6. Making 80 bucks an hour to teach Calculus isn't really what it sounds like. If there's a travel hour on each end, 4 prep hours per session (remember, I was never a true Math guy), and then awkward time gaps built in due to the unusual scheduling, that dollar figure starts to shrink, quickly.

7. Adjuncting is the best gig that I have going...it's 3 hours in a shot, I don't have to do a ton of grading, and the prep time will amortize nicely with each subsequent course iteration. If I can score a couple more simultaneous gigs in this field, I would be able to clear my entire hurdle w/this alone.

8. Cost accounting is incredibly tricky and subjective (I'm actually taking an entire course on the subject right now, and it's a doozy). Revenue accounting gets funky, too.

Have I crossed the line into "Dear Diary" territory here? Maybe. But hopefully some of these entries can be useful someday to some other bootstrapper trying to figure this stuff out.