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:

How To Respond To Job Offers

This is a story about when I almost blew it.

I had moved to be closer to my girlfriend (now wife!) and was looking for work. I had graduated from college a couple years earlier and during the interim had attended Military Intelligence Officer School (as part of my Army Reserve commitment following college) and had spent a a year and a half in a giftware importing business in the Chicago area.

As I looked for work, I was closing in on two opportunities: one was a sales position for a successful business telecommunications firm where I would be given a territory, a quota and would sell long-distance telecommunications services (voice and data) to large businesses in my territory, the other a “management trainee” position in a local bank, where I would spend several weeks in various bank departments before settling on one particular area.

The obvious choice these many years later was to take the sales role in the telecommunications firm. It was a better fit for my work style (on the move throughout the day instead of going to the same office every day, more room for improvisation, etc) and – again this is more clear in retrospect – it was a tiny but important part of the big technology revolution that was sweeping through society.

But the bank thing had a certain respectability about it, and many of my friends were in the banking space and doing well (I didn’t stop to consider the fact that they had majored in finance and I had majored in International Business for good reasons).  Anyhow, and THANK GOD, the telecommunications company called me first to offer me a job.

This was where my mistake happened. When I got the call offering me the job, I wasn’t sure this job was the right one for me (not really considering that I was unemployed and without significant work experience).  The guy who called me was a senior guy in both age and experience, and I could tell he was thrilled to be offering me the job. I was the guy they chose.

And I played it very cool.

A Business Primer for Young People

In this political season we’ve been hearing a lot about Donald Trump and his business success, his business skills, his business experience. I often remember that even when I was majoring in business I didn’t really have an appreciation for what “business” really was. Sure – I learned basic accounting, marketing, management philosophies and the like – but the “business world” was murky to me at best. Now that I’ve been out of college for a few years (ahem), I thought I’d share my perspective with young people – whether they’re graduating or not, or whether they have any interest in business or not – on what “business” really is.  We all should understand some of the basics.

510_top1

Business is social
Although business is more complex than ever, we do tend to over-intellectualize an endeavor that hasn’t changed much since the middle ages. Business is the process of people solving one another’s problems and, in so doing, both parties become stronger. In 14th century Venice, the guy who grew tomatoes wanted fish, and the fisherman wanted tomatoes. The exchange system benefited both parties. Eventually money was created so they could store value and invest in a new tomato stand, or more boats and nets for fishing.  Although this is too simplistic a picture to totally capture what business is, it’s not a bad image to keep in mind when things get complicated.

The Death of a Salesman

The tragedy of Willie Loman is that he was incredibly talented at one thing, but spent his life doing something else that he was mediocre at.

He thought success meant that he had to make a quick buck in sales, rather than working with his hands. His neighbor, Charley, observed that Willie should be doing what he was great at (carpentry), and quit trying to be someone else in a world he wasn’t suited for (traveling salesman).

I often run across Willie Lomans. They have incredible talent, but are in the wrong job. They THINK they have one set of skills – skills that conform to a picture they have of themselves – but in fact they have a different set of skills.

Willie Lomans are frustrating for leaders. It’s one thing to counsel the 21 year old intern about how his true gifts might be inconsistent with his career path, but another to deliver the same message to someone who is 48 years old and has a kid in college and a mortgage. One of the reasons why Willie Lomans are so frustrating is that they truly are talented, yet much of their talent lies untapped.

More than ever, we have choices for how we spend our time and our careers. Never before in history has a person had so many different ways to earn a living. But to really find our place we need to be introspective and honest about what our gifts are.

In the past I have written about Strengths Finder – one of just many tools available to help us isolate our strengths. Asking people you respect to comment upon what they believe to be your greatest strengths can also be insightful.

There are Willie Loman companies too. They tell the world their strengths are what they wish they were, rather than what they are. How many technology companies tell the world that they are “innovative”? How many truly are? How many companies say that they build great products, but what they’re really good at is building low-cost supply chains?

The tragedy of Willie Loman was that he lived a life of denial.

When companies do this they typically blame their underperformance on external factors. When people do this they miss an opportunity to make an impact, to feel fully alive.

Evaluate your strengths. Push others to be honest about their gifts. Don’t live someone else’s vision of what success is.