Friday, August 30, 2013

No Martyrs, Please

We just wrapped up our Accelerator experience at the Sandbox.  Overall, it was awesome.  Overall, I will write more later.

I missed the second night of final pitches b/c of a longstanding engagement in Shrewsbury, but one thing that came up on the first night is critical for any entrepreneur getting ready to pitch anywhere: Stop talking about your martyrdom.

When someone gets up in front of judges or investors and declares, "I'm not paying myself a salary," they may think that sounds impressive.  They may think that translates into an image of self-sacrifice, or self-abnegation.

If  I were on the other side of the table, though, that's not what I would hear.  I would just wonder, "Okay, so how exactly is that sustainable?  Is that your long-term plan?  Are you running a business here, or a personal charity?"

  • Maybe someone has passive investment income.
  • Maybe someone inherited a million bucks.
  • Maybe someone's spouse brings home enough bacon for the whole household.
  • Maybe there's a long-term plan that involves short-term use of bridge loans or credit cards.
  • Maybe the person is living off of some sort of government benefit.
  • Maybe someone is working other jobs on the side to make ends meet.

Until you know that, though, those are all just maybes.  Whether by hook or by crook (maybe, for instance, you're diverting some student loan money into your business...) just have some kind of a plan.

Whether you pay yourself a salary is YOUR choice...but just be ready to explain it, and to stand by it.  If you boldly state that you're martyring yourself for no salary, and then go deer-in-headlights when pressed as to how, exactly, that keeps you from living under a bridge, you've lost the confidence of whoever was asking the question, as well as everyone else around you.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

He's Going the Distance!

"Hey yo, that's amazing..." -- Raekwon, Triumph

Tomorrow, Lowell's own James Ostis will complete a successful streak -- 365 straight days of attendance at Brew'd Awakening at 61 Market St.

Many attend Brew'd frequently, myself included.  Merely going to Brew'd a lot in one year does not an accomplishment make.

However, James has NEVER missed a day in the past year. Through blizzards, holidays, weddings, trips to Maine, job interviews, festivals, and all the many other things that could possibly pull less-dedicated folks away from a streak like this, James has persevered.

This is awesome.  I may be the biggest champion of "The Streak," as it's now being referred to on the streets of downtown Lowell, but a growing band of others is also planning to take a brief pause from their busy lives tomorrow to reflect and pay homage to this man and his accomplishment.  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

10,000 Hours? That's a Good Start. Try This, Too

Since Malcolm Gladwell came out with Outliers, the whole "10,000 hours-to-be-successful" meme has been a strong one.  While I don't doubt the concept or the formidable intellect of Mr. Gladwell, I would say that the hours-in/success-out function might not apply very neatly to things that happen on a more day-to-day level.*

One's mentality is pretty important, too.  And I know I already wrote about this concept at length several weeks ago, but I saw a quote today that I fell in love with, and feel compelled to share here:

"The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize." -Robert Hughes

I have no idea who Robert Hughes is, but I'd like to shake his hand if that'd be at all possible.  If you look at people who are truly at the top of their game -- whether in sports, performance art, medicine, business, etc. they are very tough on themselves.

Yes, yes, they're "confident" in the sense that they believe that they can ultimately make it happen.  But that is NOT the same sort of vapid, airy confidence that comes from pithy platitudes and affirmations like, "I can achieve what I can believe," or whatever else gets peddled in airport bookstores.

I worked with a student today who is preparing for an upcoming test.  He will do very well.  How do I know?  Because I can see it.  He's hungry.  When he gets something wrong, he gets mad.  He says bad words.  He throws the dry-erase markers sometimes.  THEN he wants to go back through from scratch to see WHY he got it wrong, so that it won't happen again.

Other students don't do that.  Other students fall into the "but I didn't mean that, so I'm not really wrong" trap.  Guess what?  They tend NOT to do well on GameDay.  Any shocker?

I've spent tons of time over the past year around business start-ups, and around students preparing for the GMAT.  Admittedly, my observations are still really just anecdotes, but hey, they're my anecdotes.  The biggest problem I see around me is NOT lack of confidence.  It's lack of introspection, lack of hunger, and lack of that doubt/fear that says, "I don't want to be a dirtbag."

The greatest performers/NFL Quarterbacks/songwriters, etc. always have that slight bit of fear that's nagging at them, saying something like, "Don't screw this up.  You know what bad looks like...don't be it."  How do I know?  Well, I'm just going off what they say in interviews years down the line.

If I have to pick between Jim Kelly puking his guts out in the locker room before the kickoff, or Ryan Leaf posing for pictures with cheerleaders wearing his cap, I'm taking Jim Kelly every time (please, no Super Bowl jokes).  Jim Kelly HAD what Hughes was talkin' bout.  HE is the Hall of Fame passer.  Ryan Leaf did not.  HE is probably doing hard time somewhere in Montana...or something.

* Admittedly, he never said it was a simple in-and-out type of function.  I kinda stretched w/using him as the lead there.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Hey Entrepreneurs: Don't Forget That The Market Sets Your Price

Every now and again, I get to hear an entrepreneur's "Here's How I Made It" story.  If life had a TiVo button that let you skip through the fine details, each story could be summed up very quickly as such:

(1) We were crazy kids with an idea...and everyone said it would never work!
(2) We were living off Ramen noodles and Timmy's credit of the co-founders bolted for Goldman with 1/3 of our make sure you vest!  
(3) We miraculously got funding in the 11th hour (from an investor or an early client)
(4) Next thing we knew, we were being profiled in BusinessWeek
(5) Now I'm back to tell you that it's all about your values and your corporate culture
(6) Looking back, we charged too little for our service/product at first.  

Item #6 makes me think of an Onion headline I just saw, "Winning Powerball numbers seem so obvious in retrospect."  

Well, duh.

Onion headlines are designed to make us laugh, whereas "Here's How I Made It" stories are meant to inspire.  When I hear the guy who just rang the bell at the NASDAQ throw out item #6, though, I laugh.  

If someone calls me and says, "I would like you to do [this] for our organization," I think I should do it for an agreed-upon price unless there's a clearly more lucrative alternative for that specific point in time.  

The "agreed-upon price" might not be what I fantasize about on spreadsheets, but it's the here-and-now answer.  

If the call ever comes in from State Street, GE, or Gillette, the conversation would probably go in a very different direction.  And as much as I might fantasize about those calls, that's not who I just heard from. 

Who I DID hear from, though, is someone who works for the town where many of the execs of the aforementioned firms live.  

Terms were offered, and the answer was an unequivocal, "Yes."  

Not because I'm undervaluing my time or my skills, but because I'm self-aware enough to know that it was the right answer to the question being answered.  

So if I ever get invited back to the give the MBA glory talk someday, I'm not going anywhere near #6.  I'm going to say, "For some products and services, you need to light the fire and then constrain it geographically. Inside that area, you need to nurture it and let others add new kindling and throw the easy combustibles on top for you.  Sometimes, the way you do that is by scarfing a slice of Humble Pie that's nearly the size of the plate in front of you.  From there, just focus on your month-to-month revenue growth, tiny as it might be at the time."  

And should you ever find yourself in need of further inspiration:

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

My Favorite Cold War Story

If you've ever read the book Blind Man's Bluff, you'll know right off the bat why I love this picture.

If you haven't, there is a riveting chapter about a military espionage operation that took place off the Kamchatka Peninsula.  The operation was highly risky, but the payoff was huge -- it allowed one group of people to listen to another group's communications, which were passed in plain language "in the clear." (Based on the seemingly-obvious assumption that no one could do what had in fact been done).

When I saw this sign while walking across the Longfellow Bridge yesterday, I stopped to take a picture and paused for a quick moment of tribute to the men who left Mare Island (near San Francisco) to undertake these operations.

No one will ever know their names.  But we all ought to be grateful for what they did.

If you're wondering what's special about that sign, just remember this:  Sometimes the thing you're looking for is hiding in plain sight.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

Where Only Astronauts Dare to Tread

Sometimes, little things make me chuckle.

I'm not a huge slapstick fan, so I never get too giddy about those home video shows that show someone getting hit in the groin by a wiffle bat at a picnic, or an old lady slipping and falling on ice in the winter.  I don't like insta-humor, so I don't think it's automatically funny anytime someone says "crack."  I also don't laugh every time someone says, "My wife says I'm not too bright, but she keeps me around because I can lift heavy things."

But I'm very into words, observations, puns, etc.  That's why I love George Carlin and Chris Rock so much. That's also why I laugh really hard at situations where someone thinks they are just oozing cultural sensitivity, but is missing the body language symbols that say, "We're just waiting for you to finish, gringo."

One thing that has amused me almost since the day I started b-school is the way the term *space* has been appropriated by consultants, wantrapreneurs, and other slang-slingers to refer to any sector, industry, or interest area -- sometimes redundantly and sometimes just uselessly.

I wrote about it last fall here on the site, and insisted I would always associate space with astronauts.

I've had a slow start to my week (it's a post-drill Monday, so bear with me) but this helped get me going:

"Seeking advisors to a new STEM-themed media project in the space sector."

It came from a LinkedIn group, and it really concerns a start-up that is dealing with the *space* that exists beyond our big blue planet. 

I'll never know whether the guy who posted it would've otherwise said 'space' rather than 'sector,' but it's little mysteries like that that keep life interesting.  But if he had said the 'space space' I admit I would've come around a bit and thought, "Now that's a pretty nice usage."