Identify Your Next Ten Customers

Entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs run on optimism. They get excited and see the possibilities. Like almost any positive trait, this inclination to get excited – and to excite others – can also have a downside.

The problem is the journey from the specific to the general. Typically, the flames of entrepreneurial passion are fueled by a single early customer story. The story is a big customer opportunity that not only is exciting on it’s own merits, but starts to look like one of many opportunities. In another blog post, I referred to this as The Golden Story – the story that is repeatedly shared around the company campfire and in front of prospects and potential investors so often that it attains mythic status.

Recently I had the opportunity to be a panelist as students from an innovation class at a local college presented their end-of-semester projects. I’ve done this sort of thing a number of times and I’m always struck by how big of a challenge these students are faced with. In the midst of their other classes and school obligations, and in a fairly short timeframe, they have to team with others, identify a plausible opportunity for a new product, do some quick market research, product development, and all the other tasks one would associate with a start-up. Layer on top of this is the fact that the students likely have very little expertise in these areas, and you understand the immensity of the challenge they’re faced with.

But most of the time they produce a solid effort, and my role is to add a little stress to the proceedings by evaluating their presentation and asking them questions. And this leads me to notice a common problem almost all of these teams seem to have, and if makes them feel any better, well-established companies and well-funded entrepreneurs often miss this as well.

It is the inability to clearly identify the path from the first customer to the eleventh.

Rudy Sucked

I was visiting the HQ of the awesome company I work for shortly after the recent Astros-Dodgers World Series, when an impromptu office conversation about the series turned to the amazing play of the Houston Astros’ second baseman, 5 foot 6 inch dynamo Jose Altuve. His story is one of those amazing stories of perseverance. Due to his small stature, every stop in his baseball journey was supposed to be his last. He was constantly belittled (get it?) and told he had no future.

Jose and Rudy

But as the saying goes, it’s not the “size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” Altuve used every inch of his small frame to slug seven home runs (including three in one game) during the 2017 playoffs as the Astros won it all.

Since Altuve is a model of a small guy persevering and overcoming obstacles in pursuit of athletic glory, it was perhaps natural for someone during the conversation to say “he’s just like Rudy”, to which I replied “No – Rudy sucked.”

Many of you recall the movie Rudy – the story of the undersized Notre Dame football worshipper who insinuated himself into the program as an undersized student, and eventually was allowed to suit up and be on the field for a play or two. The movie portrayed Rudy as someone with grit, perseverance and determination. The climatic play in the movie – a play that was meaningless in the context of the actual game – was accompanied by stirring orchestral music.  When I first saw it, I thought it was great.

My wife thought differently. She thought it was pathetic.

And Dan Sullivan agrees with her. Dan is the founder and president of The Strategic Coach, Inc, and has a podcast called The Multiplier Mindset (each podcast a short thought for entreprenuers). In this episode, Dan talks with Hollywood Talent Agent Joel Zadak about the importance of focusing on one’s “unique ability” (something Dan talks a lot about), when the subject of “Rudy” comes up:

Ideas for Maintaining Balance

It’s been while since I posted on the subject of maintaining balance, so I thought I’d provide a couple quick ideas for you to consider. As you can tell by the tagline of this blog (“Leaning Forward, With Balance”), balance is something I consider to be an important part of being human. For me, balance means investing time and moving forward in these areas of your life:

  • Intellectual: stretching our brain by reading and learning new things. This makes us more interested in the world around us and more interesting to the people around us.
  • Productive: creating something of value for someone else, which can include shipping software or doing the laundry. This can be known as “work”, but may serve a higher purpose. As the monks say, “laborare est orare” (to work is to pray).
  • Physical: activity, strength, endurance, flexibility, nutrition, sleep, good habits. 
  • Spiritual: investing real time contemplating the divine, seeking guidance from wiser travelers as well as centuries-old wisdom literature while also confronting our outsized ego (pride).
  • Creativity: as the saying goes, “we’re human beings, not human doings”. We’re here to do something other than answer emails. Make bad art, write bad poetry, perform bad music (or, if you’re talented, make good art/poetry/music). 
  • Social: the research continues to be overwhelming and conclusive: happiness is largely a function of the quantity and quality of our social relationships. 

As I’ve written before, sometimes it’s ok to go out of balance for a period of time for good reasons. Sometimes you need to sacrifice the social dimension to buckle down and get something done. This is fine, as long as it’s temporary and you seek to return to balance reasonably soon.

So, with that lengthy preamble aside, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about to pass along. I hope one or two resonate with you…

Remember “Why”

Like many Americans, I was transfixed and horrified by the multi-part Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam war.  Among the failures of leadership during that conflict were the many instances of soldiers and marines suffering hardship, injury and death to take a hill, only to be ordered to abandon the hill a few days later and allow the enemy to re-occupy the hill – exactly as they had been doing a few days earlier.

I can’t imaging the grief felt by families who lost a loved one to such fruitless efforts. Many of them surely were watching the documentary, asking “why?”. Many soldiers and marines, as they were ordered to take a hill they knew they might immediately be ordered to abandon, had to ask “why?”. The answers were never satisfactory, giving a glimpse into the deeper pathology of the Vietnam strategy.

It reminds me of something I heard from a grizzled US Army Ranger sergeant during my young officer preparation training. He said: “remember, when providing orders to those you’ll lead into battle, to never forget the “five W’s”: Who/What/Where/When/Why”.

Do You Want To Be There?

Years ago, I was having dinner with one of my daughters at a local restaurant and we got to talking about the classes she was taking at her high school. Even when I was a student – and your own experience is no doubt the same – I was struck by the enormous variation in teacher quality at every level of my education. And so as we were talking about her own teachers, I asked: “What do you think makes your best teachers great? What separates the great teachers you’ve had from the other ones?”

She immediately answered it – in a way that someone answers a question they’ve already thought a lot about – and it was an answer I’ll never forget. When I asked her what made her best teachers great, she immediately said “they want to be there”.

They want to be there.

This tells us those teachers are bringing their passion and energy to the classroom. Their customers and fellow employees students could immediately tell that these teachers weren’t mailing it in, and these same customers and fellow employees students were infected by the teachers’ passion.

Most of us have lost someone close to us (bear with me during this sudden transition). When that happens, we grieve and reflect upon how short even a long life can seem to be. We also recognize that our own time is limited.

Epistemology and the Earth Apple

As you can tell by the title of this post, I tend to ignore the common title tropes of the blogosphere. If I were in the business of attracting as many page views as possible, I’d title this post something like “The 3 Secrets of Fabulous People”.  But I write for smart, witty (and already fabulous) people like you!  So what gives with the title?

Behraim’s Earth Apple

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with what we know, the nature of human knowledge, and what is knowable (you know?). It challenges our beliefs. How can you be sure that is true? Does our knowledge truly represent reality?

We live in an age where technical and medical leaps forward convince us that we know a lot. We carry a subtle sense of superiority when we think about the rubes from centuries past who thought leeches were an innovative form of medical treatment. Perhaps even those people thought themselves superior to the generations before them who hadn’t yet discovered “leeches 2.0”.

The idea of epistemology has been in my mind after listening to this a16z podcast on the advances in mapping technology. I’ve always had a love of maps. The “old” 2D paper maps of yesterday (as opposed to the digital 2D map on your phone or in your car) are, to me, like the difference between reading a paper book and watching a YouTube video. The latter conveys information well and may require concentration, but is passive. Paper maps require active reading and imagination, where we convert the information into something useful and have to find our route rather than having it show up as a magical blue line on a computer screen.

In the podcast, the guests talked about Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel Globe (“Erdapfel” being German for “Earth Apple”).  Created in 1492, it was Behaim’s best approximation for the earth’s layout. Painstakingly created from his many travels as a merchant and mariner, it is the oldest existing globe known today. And if you’re like me, when your brain registered the auspicious year of 1492 you immediately thought of something else that year is famous for (when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue”).

We wouldn’t use Behraim’s globe to circumnavigate the earth today due to a few minor mistakes – for instance, the lack of North or South America.  His globe represents Europe as one large landmass, with various islands around it. Japan is too big.

It was with this limited understanding of the world that Columbus took off that same year on what he believed was a voyage to India, and that’s what makes me think about us, today.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

The purpose of this post is to help the non-technical understand the term “Artificial Intelligence” as well as related terms like “Machine Learning” and “Deep Learning”.

Since I work in the tech industry, I know our industry’s legendary power to hype a new idea and create new terms. For example, the idea of using off-site computing resources was once known as a Service Bureau – a term that was later supplanted by “ASP” (Application Service Provider), then SaaS (Software as a Service), the Cloud, and so forth.  Embedded in these changes in terminology were changes in technology, but for as much as the tech world celebrates the power of individual it has a tendency to jump on the latest bandwagon en masse, which brings us to Artificial Intelligence.

A comic book prediction from 1965

You can’t swing a dead cat in the tech world these days without someone using one (or all) of the following terms:

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Machine Learning
  • Deep Learning

I’m going to keep things pretty high level here. Let’s get started…

Fear of Public Speaking? Five “P’s” to Help Harness Your Energy.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
– Jerry Seinfeld

We often read that people’s fear of public speaking is greater than their fear of death. The science behind this claim is probably dubious, but like any other juicy factoid this one has a life of it’s own.  I have spoken in front of many audiences, and some people mistakenly think that I don’t get nervous before walking on stage. But I do, and I want to share with you two mindsets that can help you as your heart rate elevates, your palms start to sweat, and your “fight or flight” instinct tells you to run for the nearest exit.

If these mindsets were on Sesame Street, we would say that they were “brought to you by the letter P” since each use alliteration and the letter P to help us remember them.

Lies, Movies and the Snowball Effect

Unless you’re a saint – and if you are I’m not sure what you’re doing reading my blog – you probably remember some time in your past when you told a white lie (at least it seemed white at the time), but then found yourself having to talk your way around it later (more lies). Eventually you find yourself in a bit of a jam.  I experienced this more than a few times when I was a kid, and fortunately I learned my lesson: the first lie is the biggest one.

I was thinking about this recently when I watched The Wizard of Lies, the HBO movie about infamous ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, starring Robert DeNiro. Richard Dreyfuss also starred as Madoff in an earlier miniseries. I thought both versions were excellent.

The Madoff story is amazing in how badly people got fleeced – $65 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”). But at the same time the key elements of the story are boring and predictable. Madoff didn’t set out to fleece investors of that sum. In the DeNiro version, Madoff explains to his flabbergasted family that he always thought he could make it back up and catch up to the lies. But he never did, the market tanked in 2008 causing people to liquidate the assets (they thought) they had, and the rest is history.

The Three “C’s” of Interviewing

I was talking to someone about interviewing. I told him I have found that interviewing is easy to do poorly and very hard to do well. Like any skill, it requires training and practice to refine and improve, yet few companies invest much time in developing interview skills. It’s ironic how little time is spent developing a skill that directly impacts the quality of hires a company makes. It’s like expecting an amateur to do a good job removing your appendix without giving him any training.

One of the all-time classic interviews, from the movie Office Space

As I thought more about interviewing, I recalled a great bit of wisdom I once heard on the subject of interviewing, and I pass it along here.

It is a rule to keep in mind when you’re interviewing a candidate. There are times when, as an interviewer, you’re distracted. You believe you have more important things to do (many times an interviewer is interviewing candidates who will end up in another organization if they’re hired at all).  Or maybe you decide early in the interview that this candidate is a poor fit, and spend the rest of the interview nodding your head and trying to look interested. Or you pretend to be a hard-ass to see how they’ll react to difficult personalities. Or you got to the interview late and plan to leave early.

Whatever the case, there are interviews where we don’t put our best foot forward. It is at those moments that it is best to remember the Three C’s: Every person you interview in your career is a future….

Colleague

Customer

Competitor

In all three cases, you want them to remember you, and your company, in the best possible light.

Interviewing takes preparation and focus. It is easy to get lazy. At those moments, it might help you to remember the three C’s.

Good luck!

P.S. For past posts on interviewing, go here and here.