The Perfect Team Slide And Why It Matters

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Originally posted on Netocratic.com on July 2, 2014

When an investors considers your company for investment at the earliest stages, who you are is so much more important than your idea. Your team is such a crucial part of your company’s success, and yet many teams omit their team slide or bludgeon it because they don’t feel they have anything interesting to add other than team photos and a job-title.

What’s worse is when pitching, founders usually just point to the team slide, and say something like – here is our team, we have lots of rockstars or something generic like that. And that’s it…

Wow.. way to undersell who you are!

Let’s look at what the major selling points of a team slide should be:

1. To show a team’s capability to deliver

Basically, does your team know anything about what you are doing. If you are a healthcare company, do you have a healthcare background? If you are making something for the financial industry, have any of your team members worked there? What companies have your team worked in that can validate you? If you’ve worked at Google before, for example, it would be worthwhile to put that company logo up on your team slide because the image of the brand would speak faster to your audience, than any number of words you could say in the same time frame.

2. To show a team’s capacity to deliver

Are you effectively complete or incomplete as a team? Is your team mostly business people but lacking the technical capabilities to deliver or is your team well rounded and able to execute? If your company industry requires an amazing specialist, do you have that specialist?  By the way, do not assume that it is a bad thing to admit you are looking to hire for specific functions you don’t currently have in an early stage startup, it shows maturity and your team’s self-awareness, although you don’t have to state it as part of your pitch (just saying, in case it is asked as a question).

3. To show a team’s culture & communication style

What is your company like? Is it a fun place to work in or is the tone more serious? What ‘titles’ do people have? How many of your team are outward facing and how many inward facing? These details are all items that an investor can pick up on based on your team slide.

In terms of where your team slide should be… there is not hard and fast rule, but I’ve found that if you are building something born out of a personal experience at your prior job or of interest.. it makes for a decent early slide to explain the background to your story/pitch. If you are building something that isn’t part of your background story, then where the slide sits is more about flow. Focus on telling a good story that is complemented by your team slide rather than the other way around.

So next time you are doing a presentation in front of investors… ask yourself, are you doing your team slide justice?

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New Beginnings from Old Ends

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Originally posted on TheNextWeb.com – 5/19/14

I’ve been fortunate to have been part of over one hundred founder’s journeys from developing their initial idea to raising investor money for scaling, and as such, several of these founders shared with me their stories in order to help put this blog post together. Some of the most inspiring stories have been those where the founder has persevered to overcome difficulties with their original idea, but equally inspiring have been those stories where a pivot has led to something new and better than the original idea. As such, the focus of this blog post is to explore some of the thoughts that come into play when considering whether to persevere with something or pivot onto something new, and what can sometimes stop us from doing so. 

In the words of Albert Einstein – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

One of the most powerful quotes on the subject of moving onto new things, comes from Seth Godin’s book called ‘The Dip’: 

Extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny minority of people who are able to push just a tiny bit longer than most.
Extraordinary benefits accrue to the tiny majority with the guts to quit early and refocus their efforts on something new.
In both cases, it’s about being the best in the world, about getting through the hard stuff and coming out on the other side.

On New Beginnings

If you knew that by changing one aspect of your project, or moving onto a new project (leveraging the experienced you gained working on your current project) would be better for you, would you do it?

One of the best stories out there about how a tough time was made into a success is the story of Twitter.. it’s best to simply watch the video and hear it directly from one of the early employees, but suffice it to say, the founders are much better off for having made that leap of faith onto what has now become Twitter.

The question is, what can you do to predispose this kind of thinking and/or kicking things off in the right direction from the beginning? Let’s start from the top…

On Starting – Being something for someone, not everything for everyone

Positioning is an oft-ignored concept that gets lumped into ‘general marketing’ and isn’t thought of as a starting point for defining value to your customer as well as your company’s strategy. Positioning, in summary is about thinking how your company sits within the mind of your potential customer and the overall market. 

In ’The Dip’, Seth Godin talks about how if you cannot be ‘the best’ then you might consider the incremental benefits of persevering down the path you’ve chosen. I propose, for the purposes of early stage startups, that what Seth meant by being ‘the best’ could be restated as ‘being appropriately and distinctly positioned within the mind or circumstances of your target audience’. 

If from the start of your company’s launch, a customer sees value in what you are offering because no one else offers it, then by default, you ARE the best option. Thus, ‘bestness’ can be achieved both by either entering a market that already exists and with a new proposition appropriately positioned in a way that ‘bests’ all of your competitor’s offerings, OR by create a new market to satisfy the latent needs of customers and creating a new ‘best’ category for yourself.

If from the onset of a new project or business you cannot conceive on how you can either push through the necessary work to be the best in an existing category, or appropriately position your value proposition as a new type of offering to a target customer, you might want to continue refining your ideas until you reach one that has a clear value to a clear group of users that will see you as ‘the best option’ for what they need. Anything short of that, and you start running into differentiation problems against established competitors. As a starting point, on my blog post on the product market fit cycle I talk about how you can integrate the concept of positioning into part of your company’s ongoing analysis.

During – Knowing what you want

Just being the best or differentiated from your competitors isn’t always enough. If you don’t know what you want, how will you know if you’re getting it (or not)?

Having a strong vision of how you want to operate your company and how you want your company culture to develop, matters. It matters in helping align all employees around a cause, around a work ethic, around solving something for someone that they fully understand. It allows you to make decisions about the tone of your company when speaking to your customers and employees, the quality and nature of your products, and what’s sufficient for you to consider a product experiment succesful.

The best talk on the web about this very topic is Simon Sinek’s TED talk on the subject.

Define what you want and why you want it, anything short of that will lead to you and your team being pulled in many different directions constantly.

On Ending the benefit to quitting at the right time

Let’s say that you’ve hit a plateau in growth or exhausted your ability to find a segment and/or beachhead for your company to target, one potential solution is that you start compromising on your original vision.. Perhaps you wanted to have a certain type of service offering or a specific customer, but by having to address a different segment or customer your personal goals are compromised. For example, lets say you had a social cause in mind, but the only way you could get your idea to ‘work’ is by moving to a non-social cause. Will your heart be in it?

If this happens, now what?

Well, time and resources are precious, wether we are talking about life or startups. By shifting your focus of energy at the right time onto a new project or by altering the one that is not working, you free yourself up for a new victory rather than perpetual stagnation or worse, failure.

So if you’re in a situation with a product, feature, or company where it is clear that persevering could merely create a waste of resources usually in the form of time and money and frustration for all, it might actually be better for you to quit and attempt something new, or ‘pivot’ one aspect of your customer to positioning/product/go2market relationship.

By quitting early, you don’t waste energy going down a path that is inefficient and leading you nowhere and opens the door for new beginnings and new ideas.

Paralysis – But why do we sometimes NOT quit?

So, if there are clear benefits to quitting when it is clear we are going nowhere with an idea or project, what generally stops us from doing so? 

Below are some reasons why we don’t budge when we should:

1) We Sweat Sunk-Costs too much – The IKEA Effect
 
Quitting or just giving up on something is a big word. It comes with lots of social stigma. We’ve been brought up in the west to ‘never quit’, to persevere at all costs. We are taught by society that quitting is what losers do and isn’t respected. Unfortunately, this mentality can create a myopic tendency to arguably stick with things way beyond when one should. Those accomplishments or efforts that we sometimes hold on to as barriers to moving on to new things are called sunk costs.

Sunk costs can come in many forms, you might be overly invested to what others may think of you if you quit, what your family might think, etc. You might fall in love with an idea or product too much, or you might have beliefs about commitment, perseverance and not letting anyone down.  

A version of sunk costs is the ‘IKEA effect’  whereby we value things more if we’ve put in effort. 

In the words of Nik Brbora, (a Clipper Round The World sailor and Chief Software Engineer for Seedcamp company Saberr): “The IKEA effect basically says that once you build something yourself you love it a lot more and place disproportionally high value on it. Even if it is not as good. You built it and so to you its way more awesome than to an outsider. By some factor. So if you are building a startup or a product you typically accumulate some value, be it the time invested or the knowledge about paths which don’t lead to product market fit. To you this value is way higher than to an outsider because you built it. To quit would be to face loss of this (to you) huge value. And that hurts disproportionally more than when compared to the outside market value of that gain. So what you need is a disproportionally high-value event to justify quitting.”

Having something fail doesn’t necessarily have to be a massive failure, it all depends on how big the attempted experiment was in the first place. One way to avoid building up too many ‘sunk costs’ is by taking smaller bets. For example, if you were trying out a new business idea, service, or feature, it could be that you ‘quit’ the market segment you are targeting, and you target a new one (the classic ‘pivot’)… 

In his book titled ‘Little Bets’, Peter Sims talks about how by not over-committing on massive projects from the start, you can cycle through ideas and innovations far faster and at a lower cost. This concept isn’t new, and any reader of the ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries will recognise the concept. However, it’s worth noting that many times we forget to think of ‘little bets’ in all aspects of our attempts, be they marketing, communications, or even a new sport, not just when it comes to product development. 

One side benefit, naturally, of accumulating these little bet ‘failures’ is that your experience and ability to adapt will grow stronger and when you do find something that works, you will be that much better at dealing with it.   

2) We fall subject to The Loss Aversion & Endowment Effects

The Loss Aversion Effect is what makes us prefer preventing a loss vs potentially gaining a higher gain later. It is one of those irrational quirks that makes us human. This is why trial periods work, you fall in love with something during the trial period, and then fear the loss more than the gain you would have by passing it up for something potentially better in the future. This effect is the reason why many hold on to stocks or their failing startup for longer than they should. Other good resources on this include Dan Ariely’s YouTube lecture on the subject and this Psychology Today article on the subject.

The Endowment Effect is proximal to the Loss Aversion Effect and the IKEA effect, but basically its about how we value that which we have far more than what we don’t have. Literally, we think it is worth more than the market pricing would give it just because we own it.
 
3) We actually don’t really know what we want, so we don’t really know if we are getting it.

As I mentioned early, from a strategic point of view, knowing what you want is such an integral part of actually achieveing it. This may sound absolutely basic, but its very easy to just get carried away with whatever others think and not really mentally commit to what you personally value and set out to do from the start. 

This ‘vision’ you should have isn’t necessarily about having specific clarity on how something plays out, as no one really knows what the future will bring, but rather about focusing other variables.. such as, what kind of company culture you want to have or what type of customers you want, or what kind of products you are passionate about.. the choices are endless, but you do need to start be defining what your vision is otherwise success starts becoming a moving target and moving targets make it hard to know when you’re failing.

In the video I mentioned earlier, about how Odeo.com became Twitter, you can hear (at time 0:50) how very people people in the company were passionate about audio, and how for sure that probably influenced their ability to connect with their customers.. audio just wasn’t part of what they lived and breathed and therefore, not really likely to help them make decisions clearly for an audio customer.

From a more tactical point of view, defining milestones and KPIs for success can help you get a feel for whether a hypothesis you are testing out is met. By defining some milestones up front for your company  you can track your expected progress more tightly, rather than constantly letting things slip and not having clarity as to why they may be slipping.

4) We are too busy believing other people’s stories – The Bandwagon Effect

In the words of Gabriel Hubert from Seedcamp company Nitrogram  “I think some founders don’t quit because they’re still too influenced by perceived “success” or progress of others, etc…  Companies are rarely doing as well as they say they are, and founders should beware of attending too many events that only encourage them to listen to these stories.” 

We are subject to falling victim of the bandwagon effect  whereby we want to be like others. If other startups say they are ‘killing it’, you want to believe you are too.. even if that’s not entirely true. Fight your own battles, but know why you are fighting them and when you should reconsider.

5) We are fearful of what will happen and if anything better will come

The last main reason why I believe many are unwilling to quit is because we are afraid about whether anything better will come along after you move past your current project. Perhaps the product you built is so beautiful, the culmination of what you thought you could make, could you make something better? The people you are working with, could you build a better team? The idea you have, could you come up with a better one? The money you raised, could you raise again with a failure under your belt?

Ironically, in some recent studies around happiness, it turns out that there are a couple of tendencies that play in your favour. Apparently, how you feel over time, is inherent to your predisposition towards life. This is called the Set-Point theory of happiness  In other words, if you’re a positive person, if something negative happens, with time you will rationalise it, integrate it into your life, and after some time, your life perception will return to how you were before. According to the theory, basically, no matter what you fear will happen, your perception of the eventual outcome after a time, will be no different regardless of the positivity or negativity of the outcome, it all depends on how you, as a person, perceive life to start with. If you want to read about this more, another definition for this is the Hedonic Treadmill.

So, if ‘time neutralises all wounds’, so to speak, would you be that much more willing to give something a shot?

After a Transition – Your Recovery Network

In the past, I’ve discussed the benefits of networking for the purposes of helping you develop your company and find the right people and opportunities. However, it also has a hidden benefit.. networking is your post-transition safety net. People that are open to meeting new people and do so on a regular basis are more likely to see identify new opportunities and are also more likely to have the very people they interacted with during their previous journey help them out in recovering. 

It is pretty common to have CEOs of companies that have moved on to other things become employees of other startups, or go on an start a new company and have many of the people they met in their journey back them in their new endeavour. One of the things we have seen time and time again in a close knit group of companies such as Seedcamp s, is that because of the nature of how founders get to know each other, is that they transition to other startups within their network, effectively providing them a safety blanket of options from being in the same network.

In Conclusion

1) Understand what your vision is and what success means to you
2) Understand who your target audience is and what being ’the best’ in your category means to you and them    
3) Take smaller bets, which can fail, but won’t over-compromise you or your resources
4) Quit/Pivot when you see the signs of not being able to ‘be the best’ in your selected segment after your time goal has passed
5) Acknowledge the emotions that come with quitting, but know that whatever crisis you are going through, it too will pass
6) Never stop building a network, this will be your net – keep them posted on progress, ask advice, and notify them if you are moving on. If you’ve been talking to mentors and investors and other startups and given to the community, they will remember you and help you out.

A big thank you to Nik Brbora (a Clipper Round The World sailor and Chief Software Engineer for Seedcamp company Saberr), Gabriel Hubert from Seedcamp company NitrogramShawn Zvinis (read his startup’s post mortem here), Ben Wirtz (read his startup’s post mortem here), Tomaz StolfaSarah Nadav  and Louis Chatriot for their feedback and input in writing this post.

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Creating a Brand that Lasts a Lifetime

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In my last post on “Understanding The Vision in a “Visionary Founder” I tried to tackle the softer side of what an investor looks for, and as a continuation of the thread, I want to try and tackle how that vision evolves into a brand and brand culture and brand positioning.

Last night, I had the chance to watch the movie ‘Bones Brigade: An Autobiography’, about the lives and histories of many of my childhood skateboarding heroes… including Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, and several others who were all part of the Powell & Peralta skate team: the Bones Brigade.

As I relived those memories, I recalled how passionate I felt about the sport because of how these guys made it amazing and accessible at the same time. They invented tricks, such as the ollie, which democratized skateboarding for kids so they could enjoy skating on their streets rather than hoping to see a half-pipe pop-up in their neighborhood. On a personal note, I can remember as a kid wishing I could be part of the Bones Brigade and riding with cool pro-kit from my favorite skaters. All the skater kids in school had Powell-Peralta stickers and patches sewn on (typically by disapproving mothers) onto our backpacks. I even went as far as building my own quarter-pipe and ‘branding it’ Powell Peralta!

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Yours truly (many moons ago & with hair) launching off of my home-made Powell-Peralta branded quarter-pipe. I made it in shop-class.. in case you’re wondering, I got a good grade in that class.

However, with more adult eyes, what really impresses me now is the visionary machine that was Stacy Peralta (one of the two co-founders of Powell & Peralta) in crafting the Powell-Peralta & Bones Brigade brands that captured the spirit of skating in a way that lured kids like myself and my friends in to want to connect with it and live it.

Great brand lasts a lifetime.

As an observer and appreciator of great branding (the way some appreciate art), It’s amazing to see how, to this day, even long after its death in 1991 (the company fell apart due to a founder dispute) and recent rebirth (the founders patched things up by request of the team) the Powell&Peralta / Bones Brigade story stands out as an inspiring tale of a visionary founder that created an awesome brand and culture, and positioned it to stand out above and beyond the crowd of the other me-too companies of its time. The fact the Bones Brigade autobiographical movie came out recently and the brands have been succesfully reborn almost 20 years on from their heyday,  is a testament to how much the whole brand, and what it stood for, stuck with many of my generation.

It starts with a vision.

Stacy Peralta, helped create a brand and culture upon which he positioned the company in a way that resonated with his customers and led to Powell & Peralta’s success both in attracting the kind of riders that lived this vision to join his team, but also in successfully selling many skateboard decks to kids wanting to live his vision themselves.

As a bit of background, Stacy himself was a champion skateboarder and member of the famous Z-Boys (arguably the first skateboarding team in the world), and in many ways that helped shape his vision about what a team should be like, having himself experienced the eventual falling out and disbanding of the Zephyr team.

Stacy’s vision of forming a better team without the attributes that broke apart the Z-Boys, drove the engine that would come to power the Bones Brigade brand from the very beginning. In the movie, you can hear Stacy himself share his vision (at minute 8:53) about how he wanted to make a team that would last, and (at minute 7:40), you can also hear how his co-founder George Powell narrates  Stacy approaching him on the idea of building a team with a specific ethos, which eventually became the Bones Brigade.

To dig deeper, the brand’s development and success wasn’t accidental (although there were likely many many many failed experiments along the way)…  rather, it was through meticulous work that Stacy Peralta and his team developed a culture, tone, and imagery to communicate the values and positioning he wanted to convey for the brand, both externally and internally.

It was this hard work, as well as Stacy’s ability to inspire his team, that can be attributed for keeping the Bones Brigade together for as long as they did. In one part of the movie, you can even hear several riders struggle with various aspects of their success, but ultimately staying with the team for Stacy.  If Stacy had simply been driven simply by money (or an ‘exit’) he wouldn’t have conveyed the genuine care necessary to merit the loyalty of his team.

To showcase the point about how Stacy chose how to communicate his vision through his brand, in the movie (starting at minute 29:40), Stacy Peralta shares how his marketing campaigns, ranging from the burning of a car while the guys posed for pictures, and the crazy advertising style choice over the typical ‘action shots’ of the industry’s advertising at time, were chosen to cement the new brand’s tone and voice as different from the rest of his competitors that were pushing out bland ads in the magazines of the day. I’m not sure they knew ‘for a fact’ that these crazy ideas would 100% represent what they wanted to convey and convert into sales, but I’m pretty sure they knew that if they did what everyone else was doing, they’d for sure NOT be able to be different in the eyes of their customer.

From the Bones Brigade website:

Stacy recruited the skaters and handled marketing along with his longtime creative cohort Craig Stecyk III. Rejecting the expected action shot marketing, they used their young team to create esoteric images conveying the culture’s sarcasm and disenfranchised dark humor. While spitballing about his stable of skaters, Stacy commented that he never wanted to call them a “team,” a label that invited all kinds of jock baggage. Craig shrugged and simply said, “Bones Brigade.”

In effect, Stacy understood his customers and how to position his brand within the  skateboarding competitive landscape of the time, and he recruited those that shared his vision, including the Bones Brigade team of skaters along with artists like Craig to help him evolve and communicate his vision and branding strategy to make it stand out from the crowd. Stacy & George worked hard to recruit the right riders, work with the artists that understood the brand, hire staff to help them build it, and attract customers that lived it.

As with most companies, that’s not to say that all was rosy within the Powell & Peralta company. In one segment of the movie, George talks about the disgruntlement that some of his more senior factory employees felt at the fact that his young team riders were making upwards of $20,000 a month from deck royalties.. however, it seems that George & Stacy were able to at least convey the importance of the Bones Brigade for the company’s success and managed to convince their factory employees to stay so that things could carry on for the brand. In effect, sometimes not everyone will agree with your vision, but sometimes you need to made difficult decisions.

And continues with Positioning and Branding.

Even if at times he was merely experimenting, Stacy Peralta intrinsically knew that what would make Powell & Peralta and the Bones Brigade successful, would be to have a strong positioning and branding strategy to help them differentiate from their competitors and to help bring the industry into the mainstream (for more on the difference between branding and positiong, read this article).

It was this solid company culture stemming from a strong founder vision around building a winning team, a clear positioning strategy of being different, and a strong brand values that powered Powell & Peralta and the Bones Brigade brands to success, and it was their consistency in execution, ranging from the art on the decks to the arguably kitsch videos they created (such as the classic “The Search for Animal Chin“),  that allowed Powell & Peralta to dominate the skate scene during this era and to cement itself in the hearts of many kids around the world for many years to come.

In conclusion, as you consider starting or evolving a startup, give thought to what really drives you.. determine what’s your vision, and once you know the ‘why’ and who your customer is, then communicate it and your brand’s values and positioning with your employees and partners so that your product or service is consistent with everything you say and do for your customers. Potential investors know that companies that nail down their branding and positioning strategy company-wide, are that much more likely to succeed in the sea of competitive startups out there.

In case you are wondering why I choose skateboarding as an analogy for this post, it’s because I believe there are many similarities between startups and skaters:

1) Entrepreneurs, like skaters get knocked down many many times before they succeed, but they keep on getting back up.
2) Startup life like skate life is very much its own culture, operating at a different speed and risk level than others.
3) By having a movie that highlights some of the key points, if you want to hear them from the founders directly, you can simply rent it.

 

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Understanding The Vision in a “Visionary Founder”

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Originally published by TheNextWeb on Feb 19th, 2014

“If you have visions, you should go see a doctor” – Helmut Schmidt, one of the most admired German chancellors

Because I know how confusing and frustrating the fund-raising process can be for a founder, one of the topics I like exploring is ‘how to get into the mind of an investor’ when an investor is evaluating you for an investment. And whilst the easier topics to tackle tend to be quantitative in nature, the harder ones tend to be the ‘fuzzier’ qualitative ones…

In that spirit, I think we’ve all heard how investors want to invest in a solid team and how they want to invest in founders with a ‘strong vision’.. but what does that mean exactly? With visions, mission statements, and all that kind of fuzzy talk being part of many self-help books that are often dismissed as snake-oil, do they really have any place in the fast-moving, cold & hard world of startups? In the context of the early stage high growth startup world, what does having “vision” really mean?

Let’s start by defining what a founder’s vision* is not… *(feel free to replace a ‘founder’s vision’ with a ‘leaders’ vision’)

Vision does not equal power

A founder’s vision is not about how much money you want to make once you exit, nor is it about obtaining power or prestige. It isn’t about knowing exactly what the future will bring, nor is it about doing something no one else has ever done before. Rather, a founder’s vision is about how you communicate and put into action your values, beliefs, and ideals in producing & creating something of value for yourself, your founding team, your employees, your investors, and your customers. A founder’s vision is the foundation of a company’s culture and brand.

In the words of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge — “There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing.

A founder’s vision, therefore, creates a company’s culture. This culture may not always be visible to outsiders of the company (nor is it generally communicated to potential investors specifically as such), but it is visible through the company’s culture, the brand and brand values of your company are ultimately determined. It is the brand of your company which is the outward-facing aspect to your company that customers and potential investors engage with. It is this brand that allows you to attract potential employees, customers, investors and partners. Thus, I believe that vision determines culture and culture determines brand. Think of many brands you love and respect and you will likely be able to trace their authenticity to one or several individuals (even if they are no longer there) who created the vision of the company and set the culture for all the employees to guide them through the creation of the products and services you love. Think of the ones that you liked at one point but no longer do, and you’ll likely be able to trace why to a point in time where there was a break-away or ‘sell-out’ from the original vision that started it.

How is a founder’s vision applied?

In some startups, a founder identifies a need they personally have (they are the customer), and thus, builds a company around a product or service to satisfy that need. Alternatively, there are other founders that find ideas within markets that didn’t previously exist (they intuit a need for a customer)… in some cases this happens by design and research and in some cases by accident, as was the case with the 3M Post It note.

Whichever way it may come, founders that have a strong vision that is synthesised, communicated and articulated to their team (and their customers) allows them to capture these opportunities and evolve them to become successful businesses. Effectively, a founder’s vision which is synthesized into a company’s culture and brand, facilitates the decision making process you and your team use to create your company’s products and services. It is through the clarity of a founder’s vision that  focus is brought to the planning and decision making process within a company, and as a consequence the company can function efficiently and increase its probability of success.

Authentically connecting with your clients

In a world were new products are constantly popping up and many being copied by unfair competitors, it is the strong adherence to your vision and the culture & brand it creates, that ultimately engages your customers to become loyal supporters and fervent defenders of your company. Unfortunately, if you betray your customer’s trust by deviating from your brand’s values, they will likely throw you and your products under the proverbial bus, so to speak.

In his TED talk about how great leaders inspire action, Simon Sinek, shares his golden circle of ‘why, how, and what’… and whilst I won’t go into summarising his talk here, the key point is that it all begins with the ‘why’ a leader must articulate to be effective… the “why” determines culture and the “why” determines ultimate “how” you do things and “what” you ultimately make.

A talented designer and good friend of mine, Gearoid O’Rourke  shared a thought in one of his talks that I really think captures why it is important to take the creation of a founder’s vision and company culture seriously, in his words: “Products can be copied, but culture cannot…” “Even if your products are copied, you will always be ahead of your competitors because they can’t copy your culture [and culture is what lets you innovate].”

Once determined, the culture of your company will help you make decisions about how to engage and communicate with your customers, whom to hire, what to prioritise, and whom to partner with. In effect, you vision, your culture, and your brand will become the foundation and focus of all you do.

Where to find your vision

Your ability as a founder to set this vision and culture is the attribute that investors look for. If you are unable to determine and set a vision and culture for your company, unfortunately, you are likely to have others, such as influential mentors and perhaps even your investors set it for you, and as we all know, we can’t be someone we are not, and ultimately, this will likely lead to failure.

Once you have determined your culture and then you want to communicate it externally, authenticity is the key to retaining trust. In the words of Gabbi Cahane  “if it’s just words on the wall, then it’s meaningless. Your culture is what you believe in and how you behave. Codify it, live it, recognise it and reward it. And do that every single day.” “Early stage investors are looking for the signs that you instinctively get this.”

If you are in the early early stages of starting a company and you’re really more just thinking of starting a company, I’d highly recommend you spend some time trying to understand what drives you and why, for if you want to embark on the difficult journey that is to become a founder and leader of future employees and future shareholders, it would really help you and them for you to be able to share ‘the why’ of why you do things.

And in case you are reading this and thinking to yourself, ‘but investors only care about traction’, I’ve seen several cases of where an investor is willing to take a huge leap of faith on a founder, even before any visible traction, but only when the investor feels there is a strong vision behind the company. Therefore, I leave you with this thought: Traction comes from happy and loyal customers, happy and loyal customers come from a great product or service that does what you say it does, a great product or service that does what you say it does comes from a team that has a coherent culture that allows them to know what to do, and a coherent culture comes from a strong and clear vision from the company’s leadership team.

Image credit: Shutterstock/Skylines

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Invest in Yourself

Originally Published in Netocratic.com on Jan 17, 2014

With every New Year, we all embark on a quest to improve ourselves and make new New Year’s resolutions to that end. Of course, there are those that find the whole thing quite unnecessary, but frankly, we can all find ways to continue to push ourselves, so I’m personally a big proponent of resolutions (although you shouldn’t wait for the New Year to start if you’re motivated!).

As an area for focus in the New Year, I wanted to highlight the one skill that I’ve seen yield a huge impact on the founders that develop it: The ability to network. 

I have consistently seen good networking skills make a big difference for founders, not only in terms of fundraising, but also in terms of finding employees, clients, and partners for their company. The old adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is very much consistent with what I’ve observed over the years. As such, it is just as valuable to invest in yourself in this area as investing in the more ‘obvious’ areas such as company building mechanics (marketing, etc).

So if you’re sold on wanting to improve your networking skills, the big question is always “where do I start?” (Particularly if this is an area you don’t feel comfortable with).

Over the past couple of years, and as part of my ongoing own personal journey, I have also researched this area and am happy to share a few ideas on where you can start if you are the kind of person that is panicked by the idea of building a network and having to go out to many startup events where you will meet many new people.

The self-learning route

The easiest place to start is the self-learning route: two books which I rank very highly in this space include Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferazzi and the Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane. These books really help you understand many of the social queues that are necessary for you to effectively network and they do a good job of explaining the ‘why’ of all things social, which is necessary for you to understand and internalise before going out and practicing your skills. These are ‘must reads’.

Professional coach

Next, if you want to step it up a bit, engaging with a professional coach can help you understand how to overcome some of the challenges you may have the prevent you in networking effectively. A coach doesn’t necessarily set the goals for you, but instead helps you ‘digest’ what might be good steps to take to achieve what you set out to achieve considering all the variables you may have at play. One coach I’ve had the chance to spend time with and see the results of is Mike Herman. He has worked with a few of our companies and I have seen founders progress in areas that had previously affected them quite a bit in interrelating with peers or shareholders. Yes, coaching works.

Improvisational comedy course

Lastly, the most extreme step is to enrol in an improvisational comedy course. I tried out imprology.com here in London. Boy was I in for a surprise. It was like shock therapy, but it gave me a crash course in some of the social dynamics that connect us to others that we frequently forget or ignore when out socialising. Oh, and if you think improvisational comedy is all about telling jokes, you couldn’t be further from the truth; I don’t think we told a single joke during the entire program, rather it was about learning to be open enough to be able to read others and react to their signals.

Key concepts that arose during the improvisation course were how to amplify other people’s emotional offers. meaning many times we are too closed in the way we converse and don’t pay attention (perhaps because we are too busy thinking about what to say next!), and that just doesn’t work in improvisation. Another key concept in improvisation is understanding the inherent social status we all have relative to each other and how that can change in different circumstances, and how violating status hierarchies can drastically affect how others perceive you. Lastly, by practicing these concepts and dealing with the anxiety you will naturally feel as you experiment, you start to learn to identify social offers that others give you to engage with them. The closest I can liken to taking an improvisation course is to jumping into a freezing pool of water on human social interactions. A bit radical, but can help tie various concepts together. BTW, the accompanying book, Impro by Keith Johnstone, is also an amazing read into how people interrelate; a must read if you take a course.

In the end, all of this takes practice, time and patience, there are no shortcuts. You need to put in time at events and meeting people, there just is no other way. One thing that was constantly said during improvisation class was ‘don’t beat yourself up’ when you don’t have the expected outcome. We are all pretty good at beating ourselves up, but if you are going to work on these skills and they don’t come naturally to you, they will take perseverance and patience with yourself and the natural anxieties you will feel. However, by identifying which skills you need to polish and working on those methodically, at least you can work more ‘smartly’.

I wish you the best in your personal journey for 2014!

 

 

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