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'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."