patience

BALANCING PATIENCE AND URGENCY

Patience is the most difficult mindset to master when you are naturally urgent. It doesn’t come easily to me or many of my colleagues. And the irony that entrepreneurship is equal parts patience and urgency isn’t lost on us either.

I have found that while you need to be urgent and patient simultaneously, the mix of each one changes with time. The issue is you only realise that in retrospect.

In the early days of a venture, founders are in full control of their time. They can design and tinker in the relative privacy of their development environments. Urgency is high, patience can be low.

As ventures grow and expectations on investment and growth start to take hold, that mix should change.

And it might. Slightly. From say a 90% urgency, 10% patience ratio to 80:20.

This slight increase in patience is afforded to internal activities where larger teams take longer to collaborate and get things done. And for the most part, the activities the team are focused on are relatively contained and controllable.

The nuance here is that growth also comes with additional external dependencies, all of which take time.

The one thing that founders never want to think, hear or embrace is that despite their best efforts to create urgency, the world outside their venture’s walls moves at its own pace.

Partnerships take longer to form, consumer marketing takes time to optimise and product development needs to respond to a broader audience.

The cumulative effect of these realities puts obvious pressure on runways. It also creates stress on the already limited bandwidth of small teams and narrows the universe of available tactics to extend the time in market.

Urgency:Patience

I think the urgency to patience ratio is an important mindset to help founders manage teams and think about time (this would be advice I would want to hear as my younger self).

This ratio is not about having an amount of patience and a separate amount of urgency to deploy.

The point is that you have a finite amount of energy to deploy. And you can choose to deploy it being urgent and being patient but it’s impossible to be 100% patient while being 100% urgent.

Think of the changes in the urgency to patience ratio as the gears that change in a car when you accelerate. To create motion from a standing start urgency is high and patience is low. Urgency is still required over time but as momentum starts to propel the venture forward, the need for patience increases as the next level of products and partnerships are built to fuel growth.

The urgency:patience ratio changes over time and being aware of it is half the battle won.

It’s also important to understand what stops founders from moving from one gear to the next. The way they think about leverage usually has a lot to do with it.

Pursuing leverage

Markets are made by creating products that few companies can make and that many people love. The scarcity of supply creates a number of advantages. One of them is leverage.

In most cases, leverage allows suppliers to scale and charge (more) for their products.

What makes decreasing urgency and increasing patience more difficult to achieve, agonisingly so, is a lack of leverage.

And in startup leverage is the one thing you never have in the beginning.

As most founders (and investors) comes to realise with time is that the tide on leverage only turns if you stay in market long enough to crack the code of value for large groups of people.

When leverage takes longer than expected and founders get stuck in a high urgency, low patience gear, they tend to commit a cardinal sin of building a business: mistaking ambition for leverage.

Don’t get me wrong, ambition is to be admired. It will convince a lot of people of future value.

But there is a line that should be approached with caution.

And that line is crossed when a founder is so convinced of the (future) value of their product that they try to make a prospective investor or partner feel as though they have no choice but to engage.

In other words, they use leverage they don’t have to force an outcome.

This is a bummer because the founder loses twice.

Not only do seasoned investors and decision makers see this coming a mile away and disengage, teams also see this behaviour and start to question their grip on reality.

Take these fundraising and partnership scenarios as case in point.

In an investment round, this can look like a founder saying that they have commitments for a large proportion of the capital being raised and that demand is so strong that it looks like the round will be oversubscribed.

All it takes is for the investor to ask for the term sheet and tell the founder that they will be the last money in.

In a partnership negotiation, this can look like a founder trying to play two companies in a duopoly or close-knit industry off against each another.

All it takes is for former colleagues to make a call and ask if the founder's story is legit and if it’s not, the game is over.

It's not worth overplaying leverage

As a hustler from birth, born impatient and known for enjoying ‘the thrill of the chase’, I can tell you I’ve visited, and on a couple of occasions crossed, the ambition line just to fall flat on my face due to a lack of leverage.

It’s up to each founder to know when they have leverage and when they don’t. Just know that investors and partners know when you do and know when you don’t.

Either way, be honest about the leverage you have at any given time and adjust the urgency to patience ratio accordingly.

How to be urgent and how to be patient

I think about the component parts of the urgency to patience ratio like this:

Being urgent means:

  1. Getting product into the hands of users and customers as quickly as possible (and being embarrassed because you think it’s not ready)
  2. Being continuously and constructively dissatisfied with the status quo
  3. Learning as quick as possible by creating a rapid experimentation tempo on sales processes, product platform and features, marketing and culture
  4. Planning for the long game while creating and capturing value in the short and medium term to increase momentum. In sales, this means maintaining your strategic and run rate businesses.
  5. Forcing time in the week to stop, reflect and (if need be) course correct

Being patient means:

  1. Maintaining what it means to be urgent, PLUS
  2. Increasing the discipline of planning and precision of delivering on the plan
  3. Over-communicating the context of the company and progress across all areas of the business
  4. Creating more value for allies at prospective customer businesses and also subtly reminding them that timing is everything for a startup
  5. Finding ways to help fanatical users or customers share their love for your product

Urgency:Patience in action

I use time as the guide to adjust the ratio. It’s not a hard and fast rule, and there are exceptions, but it’s served me well.

  • 100% Urgent 0% Patient: First six months. Side project. No co-founders. Learning through experimentation. Focused on pre-sales.
  • 85% Urgent 15% Patient: Six to 12 months. Start working with potential co-founders. First version of a product in the hands of users. Iterating like mad to deliver on pre-sales.
  • 70% Urgent 30% Patient: 12 to 24 months. Raise first round of financing or cash flow is small but growing and stable. Building a team. Managing growing pains.
  • 60% Urgent 40% Patient: +24 months. Clearer than ever that there is a there, there. Enter and exit multiple troughs of despair. Capital is raised and invested. Teams expand and contract. Sales and business development activities evolve. Business pivots (and pivots again).

Three last things … 

People don’t often associate urgency with marathons but if you understand building a great company takes ~10 years, you’re likely to recalibrate how you organise your time and lead and provide air cover to your team. The idea of urgency can be misunderstood for a high level of activity. Don’t make this mistake. Momentum isn’t created by output, it’s created by results.

Second, and while mentors can be very helpful, I find having a small tribe peers who operate in similar roles huge help in trying to work out how patient I should be. They provide the moral support and real examples that you can relate to. My tribe has people who work in senior business development roles at Xero and Cisco to name a few. Assemble your tribe, you won’t regret it.    

And finally, rest.

You and your team will be running hard for a long time. Give permission to your team to rest. At AirShr the entire team, founders included, stopped work at 12 pm every second Friday and did whatever they wanted. There was only one rule: Don’t be working. Perspective increases when you have time to stop, decompress and reflect.

It will also help you work out if the urgency to patience ratio is on the right setting.


mission

COMING TOGETHER ON VISION AND MISSION

The first time I get a sense of a startup’s mission is when a founder describes the problem they want to solve.

If I relate to the context of the problem, I quickly start calculating how a business can be built around the opportunity.

This is also how co-founders and early hires initially band together.

They galvanise around a problem and believe they can play a role in the solution. They may also have a sense of the opportunity’s size.

My theory is that if you ask 80% of new teams, ones who are yet to take a product to market or have released their first version, they won’t articulate the same vision or mission.

That’s because creating a clear and compelling vision and mission is difficult. And the time it takes to land on the right set of words is universally underestimated.

You want co-founders, first hires, partners and investors to be instantly captivated by what you stand for. But how do you do that when you don’t know if your starting hypothesis is correct?

In other words, how do you nail a vision and mission statement when you don’t know if people are going to buy what you plan to sell?

I don’t think you can.

Some will disagree. They will claim it comes down to sitting down and methodically working through a framework.

And I understand that people can feel paralysed without guiding principles to start a journey.

But many startups I see and mentor face this challenge and it usually plays out in one of two ways.

The first way involves founders having an interesting idea and creating a prototype. Shortly soon after they receive an enormous amount of conflicting feedback which (ironically) bogs them down. Their response is sequential. They pause on product development and spend time defining their vision and mission.

The second way is founders spend a large chunk of time defining a vision and a mission in a vacuum. They write without any real feedback on their business model and as a result, they (often) end up with generic, noun-rich statements that do little to inspire, much less provide clarity to the job at hand.

I have fallen into both of these traps. And even with the help of the branding agencies, we could afford at the time, clarity on something that should instinctively be simple to nail still felt miles off.

That said, there is a way.

The LinkedIn standard

I have long admired LinkedIn. One of CEO Jeff Weiner’s first orders of business when he joined the company, 6 years after it was co-founded by Reid Hoffman, was to codify LinkedIn’s vision, mission, value proposition and values.

Vision - Create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce

Mission - Connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful

Core value proposition - Connect talent with opportunity at massive scale

Values - Members first; relationships matter; be open, honest and constructive; demand excellence; take intelligent risks; act like an owner

These statements are elegant, simple and inspiring.

And I have an admission.

I spent hours trying to deconstruct and (somehow) re-engineer LinkedIn’s messages in an effort to achieve clarity for my own ventures’ guiding principles,

Jeff proved that formulating compelling strategic narratives is doable.

However, he has a vastly different experience set to most founders. Jeff also benefited from arriving at a company who already had momentum and clues about how they would change the world.

For the most part, early-stage founders won’t have access to this experience.

Instead of putting the brakes on product development to focus on vision and mission or trying to define them in a vacuum, consider another option.

The third way

Here are five steps that have helped me to craft the dream (vision) and the overarching objective for the business (mission).

And while I don’t have your context, I assume you have read this far because you are frustrated and tired of not having strategic clarity for your venture.

1. Go back to basics

Coming together on vision and mission usually elongates when founders develop an obsession for word-smithing these statements. In doing so they also often disconnect from what inspired them to start in the first place.

Go back to the experiences that inspired the venture’s genesis and then look objectively at the three ingredients that need to exist in order for a business to operate:

  1. Science - Do we understand and can we communicate the discovery or insight that was uncovered?
  2. Technology - Do we understand and can we communicate the processes that mean the discovery can be repeated efficiently at scale?
  3. Business model - Do we understand and can we communicate how to create and capture value from the technology?

At the very least there should be a hypothesis behind answers for each of these questions.

2. Keep learning

If you’re not learning you’re wasting time. Keep working to validate the hypotheses you have around your science, technology and business model.

These experiments will continue to inform vision and mission. And the alternative (no learning and postulating in a vacuum) isn’t useful and a surefire way to kill momentum and enthusiasm.

3. Add minds to the challenge

I’ve written about thinking publicly before and this is the next level.

Open a Google Doc (like this one).

Share it with your co-founder(s) and/or selected mentors.

Give them permission to add their versions of vision, mission, value proposition and values no matter how half-formed their thinking is.

Ask these same people to refine their thoughts each month.

You will be surprised at how this level of collaboration will help.

4. Practice

I was speaking with two mentees recently, Nick and Tristan, co-founders of Sempo.ai and they shared a valuable habit that has helped them advance their vision and mission: Apply for pitch competitions and accelerators once a month.

The point is to practice, regularly.

And if you’ve just asked yourself, “what if we win?”, you’ve missed the point.

5. Interrogate the feedback you’ve already got

I remember hearing a regular piece of feedback from AirShr users (our previous venture, this Shazam but for anything you hear on the radio).

“Your product makes me listen differently to radio”. We had provided a way for people to hold on to moments on the radio that they liked and wanted to dive deeper on or share while they were driving.

Over time we realised that listen differently was an important part of the value proposition and our users were telling us that from day one.

The moral of the story: Your users and customer have probably already given you your value proposition (and a key ingredient to help articulate vision and mission).

One last thing …

I understand how fatigue, waning cash and feedback paralysis can make achieving clarity feel like an insurmountable task.

Clarity comes with time.

I subscribe to the idea that learning and practical collaboration with people trying to achieve the same objective IS the way to craft clear, compelling and inspiring business strategy.

However, it’s one thing to be fatigued and frustrated at the lack of vision and mission and quite another for your heart not to be in it.

Every entrepreneur knows the difference.

If it’s the former, I hope these five steps help. If the latter, chalk it up to learning and move onto your next hero’s journey.


businesses

LESSONS FROM GROWING BUSINESSES THAT FAILED

LISTEN AND READ

Last week I was asked about the lessons learned from growing businesses that failed. At the time it felt like a loaded question but after probing, the person asking the question was curious about why you would do it again. I'll get to that in a separate post.

When I closed my first business I wrote a letter to those who followed the journey with 11 reflections.

Each one is born from an experience that came about through painful lesson or surprising revelation. And in a startup, it’s sometimes difficult to tell one from the other!

In any case, these reflections-turned-mantras are how I answered the question and have held true regardless of the business model and industry I’ve been involved in since.

1. Have conviction around your vision

Conviction is infectious and it can capture the imagination of the staunchest critics.

I’ve also come to learn that conviction and urgency are not only related, they provide entrepreneurs with a potent force multiplier effect.

And you can easily tell the level of conviction in an entrepreneur. It’s when they’re dog tired and at the far edge of sustained fatigue and they spring to life when they’re asked questions about they’re venture. They can’t help but be excited and that excitement is fuelled by conviction.

2. Always surround yourself with outstanding people

While this sounds obvious, few of us get hiring right every time so I put this thought into action in two ways.

First, by always asking myself if I would work for the candidate if the tables were turned. If yes, keep talking. If no, call it.

Second, I always start any working relationship, no matter how good I think the person is on paper or how excited I am about their potential to add value to the team with a paid audition.

Here’s the playbook I wrote on implementing paid auditions.

3. Telling the truth matters, especially if it is unpalatable

Beyond change, there are few constant factors when you’re building a company. One of them, however, is reputation.

It’s hard to earn and easy to lose.

The way reputations are usually tested in startup comes down to how founders (and by extension their teams) respond to surprises.

And there are the daily we-can-deal-with-this-product-issue surprises and there are the holy-shit-this-could-destroy-our-business surprises.

Investors and key customers and partners don’t like surprises so if you see one brewing on the horizon, act early, tell the truth and work through it.

Taking the alternate path just isn’t worth it.

4. Industriousness, intrinsic curiosity and strong values are the most important traits

You could be the best in the world at your craft but if you don’t have these, your value is limited. I look for these traits in co-founders, future hires and investors. And not surprisingly, my friends and colleagues have these qualities in spades.

5. If people don’t see the future, build a product to convince them otherwise

I remember the look on user’s faces when they realised the potential of AirShr (think Shazam but for anything you hear on the radio). I couldn’t code. What they were experiencing was a $400 iOS prototype I had made by a freelancer in Canada.

Unifying people around an experience usually eliminates the need to interpret a story or pitch deck. It also unlocks a whole new avenue for feedback and learning.

6. Move as quickly to generating revenue as possible. Rising capital isn’t a business model.

Business models can change over time but it’s a mistake to start a venture without knowing how to make money. At the very least you need hypotheses for how it is likely to play out.

Raising capital is a useful path for many ventures but as the old adage goes, revenue solves a lot of problems.

7. If an industry doesn’t feel they have a need to change, they won’t (…until it’s too late)

There is an alarming precision and inevitability with which industry disruption plays out. I wrote about those five steps a while back. And even if they conceptually know they need to change, there’s a solid chance that their romance with how money is made today will keep then anchored in position. Until it’s too late.

8. There are people who work each day to push their industry forward with a desire to innovate

Look for the resistance. They are there. They know the playbooks, the tunnels to crawl through and the ways to get stuff done. Create value for them first.

9. Invest in the fanatical lovers of your product

Reid Hoffman talked about this in episode 17 of the Masters of Scale podcast. His thesis is that the true seed of scale begins with a tiny kernel of die-hard fans.

I think he’s right.

And I broke down how I do this recently in a post called Love Is All You Need.

10. Be global from day one but start small, dial in the product and proposition and then scale

I remember simultaneously selling into distinctly different geographic markets at both at AirShr and inkl. It’s been a lot easier with inkl for a number of reasons and it's now is used in over 210 countries, sure doesn’t feel long ago that it was just available in Australia.

11. Don’t go it alone

This is probably the most important lesson of all. Building a business is hard. There are too many bases to cover yourself. Find co-founders. Have mentors. Create value with people you love working with to spread to the load.

One last thing...

The underlying lesson, perhaps #12, is that the most important measure for an entrepreneur to monitor is their rate of learning. The rate of learning (in my view) is proportionate to a founder's quality of decision making. One goes up when the other goes up and the reverse is also true.

Find ways to learn. For me, that includes writing, without which I might not have been able to recall these lessons.


bullying

REVERSE MENTORING & BULLYING

Mentoring is a secret weapon for entrepreneurs. It’s often the ballast needed to crack difficult problems.

Two weeks ago I said this on Instagram:

 

One of the many responses I received was from Rhonda Brighton-Hall, the founder and CEO of MWAH. Making Work Absolutely Human.

Rhonda and I met via Inspiring Rare Birds where we both mentor women entrepreneurs.

Our relationship strengthened as I began mentoring Rhonda and her co-founder and husband Michael on how to accelerate MWAH’s growth.

Rhonda’s advice on bullying changed my frame of reference. It also changed how I planned and executed a strategy to help a retirement village full of elderly citizens.

They have sustained systemic bullying for over a decade by its management which has consequently sent some broke and prevented families whose parents had passes away from achieving closure (due to an inability to sell deceased estates).

I’m going to share Rhonda’s advice in more detail but first, I think it’s important to realise that access to Rhonda’s perspective and wealth of knowledge came as a consequence of mentoring.

A 'One Way Street' Perception

From the outside, the mentor/mentee relationship can look like a one-way street where the mentee is always the one asking for help.

And it’s easy to understand why. For a large part of our early lives, we are formerly taught by teachers. And this process reinforces a knowledge dynamic where only people with experience can be the teacher.

However, the mentor/mentee relationship IS very different because, in order for it to work, both parties know that time and attention, the two most valuable assets, are being exchanged.

And the reality is that agreeing to mentor isn’t born out of obligation or just the desire to pay it forward. It also provides two new opportunities to learn.

The first is much like the way writing works. When you’re asked to explain or teach a concept, you have to find ways to make what you know useful and digestible. The more practice you have at explaining a concept, the clearer you become on what you know.

Second, mentoring broadens your knowledge horizon by exposing you to new ideas and products. Some may sit in industries adjacent to your own while others genuinely stretch your mind.

Mentees benefit in a different way. And while they are often very grateful for the investment in time, they detect inequality in the exchange of value.

They want to return the favour, they just don’t know how.

If this is you, relax.

Most mentors understand that value reveals itself in the long term and as a result, they are more than happy to reach out and ask for help when the time comes.

Today I mentor 17 founders and I’ve reached out to most of them with a genuine request for help. Their responses have been invaluable.

This is called reverse mentoring and it’s not uncommon.

Dealing with a bully

Bullies only respond to force. This is a popular opinion. It’s also an emotional response. And it’s the message I receive most often when I talk to people about bullying.

Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Bullying is deeply misunderstood, largely because it is such an emotional issue.

And thanks to Rhonda’s expertise, backed by years of research, case studies and supporting governments, companies and everyday people on bullying, she brought remarkable clarity to an emotional issue.

Here are my three key takeaways:

1. In nearly all circumstances, bullying is multigenerational.

People are exposed to bullying behaviour within the first eight years of life. This behaviour usually comes from someone who the child has significant exposure to, which may or may not be their parents.

By the time the child is 12 years old, they are competent bullies. By 40, they are specialists and by age 70, with 65 years experience, they are experts. And the cycle repeats.

I never thought about bullying in terms of a capability until this point.

2. Emotion is a bully’s power base

From a young age, bullies see the effect their behaviour has on others and as sad as it is to say, they thrive on it. The greater the emotional response they elicit, the more control they wield. This is why force and violence usually don’t work and have little lasting impact.

3. Bullies don’t change

Bullies must be removed from the situation they created. They will not change because their behaviour is so ingrained. And it's for this reason that it is also important to realise that compassion, empathy and being reasonable do not resonate with bullies. These are identified as emotions that can be exploited.

One last thing…

There is a simple way to apply these three principles. If you need to manage a bully consider an emotionless and deeply overwhelming campaign of fact-based questions.

It acknowledges the multigenerational nature of bullying, removes the base of power and as the answers to the questions are revealed, it will result in the bullies removal from the situation.

It saddens me to think of how bullying begins but the impact of their behaviour, in startups, big business or retirement villages is unacceptable. I hope Rhonda’s advice is as useful for you as it has been to me.

If you would like to reach out to Rhonda, do it here.


love

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED

Punchline: The need to grow companies quickly means founders sometimes prioritise acquiring anyone who likes their product instead of people who love it. They fall for the ‘like mirage’ which is often terminal.

Love is all you need

Love is all you need is the title of a recent episode of the Masters Of Scale podcast (highly recommended).

Sam Altman from Y Combinator, the world’s most successful incubator for technology startups, is renowned for backing companies with small groups of fanatic customers or users very early in their business lifecycle.

They talked about the difference and effects that come from people liking a product or service versus those who love it.

I was literally stopped in my tracks during an early morning run while listening to this episode.

I realised hadn’t been obeying a cardinal rule in entrepreneurship: Love always trumps like.

The ‘like’ mirage

Let’s be clear on what ‘like’ means. It’s a signal of interest and it may even provide a clue of future intent to commit or buy.

But it’s transactional and often a fleeting reaction to stimulus.

Think about the last time you clicked on a headline or pressed the heart below a picture on Instagram.

Marketers will argue that although fleeting, these interactions build awareness.

They’re right. You need to be interested before you buy.

And while converting interest into revenue is the main game, founders must first grow to show momentum.

This means getting people to like and then use their product. And usually, any user will do.

Herein lies the beginning of the ‘like’ mirage.

First-time founders often believe that once they have the interest they can work on generating revenue.

Without giving too much thought to the conversion experience and how difficult it is or how long it takes to get right or at what point they should start actively converting interest into revenue, founders can get hooked on spinning likes (or an equivalent) as the main measure of momentum.

And by ‘spinning likes’ I mean trying to use any vanity metric to show growth.

While most companies eventually work out how to convert interest into revenue, many leave it far too long due to an obsession with the like mirage.

The companies who don’t run out of cash spend much of their time trying to increase the conversation of people who they think are interested in paying.

But why aren’t we growing faster?

Increasing the number of people who like your product and increasing the conversion rate of people who pay is a journey.

At the end of the day, and if you’re experiment and data-driven, this approach will help unveil ways to increase conversions and revenue.

It takes time and it will deliver some growth but I bet there are many founders who are baffled by why growth isn’t happening faster.

I’ll bet they’re also wondering why their company hasn’t yet benefited from the features they built into their products that were designed to create network effects among their users.

Leaving aside big shifts in demand that can come from wholesale industry changes, I think this lack of expected growth comes from thinking two things.

First, that optimising the sales funnel is the entire game i.e. finding more people who like the product and converting them into customers.

It’s not, it’s 60% at best.

And second, that those people who ‘like’ your product will somehow magically turn into fanatical lovers.

They won’t.

Look for love

The stress that comes with the realisation that growing the number of people who ‘like’ your product isn’t translating into revenue is intense.

And this frustration can lead founders to ignore or place little value on the fanatical lovers.

And why care about this subset of users?

Because they are the ones most likely to share your story and lead two other people to your product!

Here’s how I look at this opportunity and it starts with understanding what makes someone a fanatical lover of what you do.

Step 1: Get to know your top 10% most active users

Fight to understand the facts. And this is important. Don’t hypothesise why they act or who they are. That will come later.

Instead understand when they signed up, how often they use your product, what happens when they do, when they last used it and for how long. Look for time of day/week/month trends.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but it’s a good start.

Step 2: Add demographics and social cues

If you don’t capture basic demographics like age and sex, but you have a clue about their name through their email address, look for ways to find them online and then add these details to their profiles.

It’s a bonus if you can find social cues for your product. In other words, look for mentions of your product (by name or hashtag) on social media.

I also include any verbatim feedback from the 10% most active people, it adds colour to the numbers.

Remember this is for 100 people if you have 1000 using your product.

Step 3: Do these lovers match your target user and customer?

I wish I had a dollar for every time a founder discovered that their target user or customer was vastly different to those who actually use their product.

Undertake this step and let me know how you go.

Prediction: You’ll be surprised and it will inspire a pivot or new product idea.

Step 4: Contact them and ask one simple question.

What is the one thing we could do to make [Product Name] awesome?

The insight from these four steps are the ingredients to create an experience for people who are naturally inclined to introduce two new people to your product.

What's not to love? :)

Two last things...

Fanatical lovers that fall exclusively into one group can be a red herring for founders.

Reid Hoffman the host of the Master’s of Scale podcast provides an interesting example about how at one point in LinkedIn’s journey there was a growing group of people who believed it was OK to connect with everyone on the platform.

These people, known as LinkedIn Open Networkers, believed that everyone would want to connect with them.

Not true.

LinkedIn moved passed this by looking into multiple groups of people who loved the platform.

Follow LinkedIn’s lead if you find your fanatical lovers are all saying the same thing. Love don’t come that easy!

The second thing to note here is that if you don’t provide your fanatical lovers with easy ways to share their experience, get rewarded for bringing people to your product or in any way make it difficult to share their love, you can kiss them goodbye.

Don’t fall for the ‘like mirage’.

Get up close and personal (pun intended) with fanatical lovers of your product.

And make it simple for them to share the love.

What did I miss?


How To Validate An Idea in 30 Days

HOW TO VALIDATE AN IDEA IN 30 DAYS

Where do I start with my idea?

I get this question a lot and those who ask usually possess infectious excitement about an idea, are new to product development and remain convinced that their addressable market of customers is massive.

The irony is that 90% of people who ask where to start, don’t.

Deep down they know why and it usually comes down to three reasons.

Fear is the first reason (and there's an antidote)

The first reason is fear. People fear what they don’t know and more specifically, people fear what others will think of their ideas.

I don’t like venturing into motivational territory because what’s usually said isn’t practical but in this case, I’ll offer two thoughts that always prove true.

The greatest triumphs live just on the other side of one’s fears.

And when you break it down further, fear only plays a significant role when the person believes that the only way forward is all-or-nothing. When it comes to building a company, it’s rarely ‘all in’. The reality is that it’s a series of small experiments and a few successes for every ton of failures.

Here’s the second thought:

The only person who cares enough to be anxious about your ideas is - you guessed it - YOU!

And here’s the antidote for fear in entrepreneurship. Just ask yourself two simple questions:

On the downside, if going from idea to business isn’t all-or-nothing and it’s a series of small experiments, what have you got to lose?

Then on the upside, what happens if someone is willing to pay it?

Feel free to post a photo in the comments with the ‘oh yeah, he’s right’ look on your face 😉

Time is the second reason

As I often write, time is THE most valuable asset.

The idea of ‘finding the time’ is the first quandary that soon-to-be founders have to negotiate and I understand that adding a new experiment to juggling family, work or study just adds to the trade-offs of each 24-hour day.

But I can tell you from experience that founders who work in their businesses full-time spend much of their life optimising for time. And the reason they do this is because they’re driven by a deep interest in the problem they’re trying to solve. The sooner they learn, the sooner they’ll achieve their end game.

You can’t know why time is so important until you start.

And, it’s all talk

This is the third reason why people don’t start.

These people romanticise startup culture. They are the groupies. They may harbour fear but more often than not, they are looking for a tribe, not a problem to solve.

The 30-Day Challenge. Are You Up For It?

It’s time to think differently about how to validate an idea and here’s the punchline: The sooner someone pays for your idea, the better.

With that in mind, the 30-Day Challenge has a basic hypothesis: An idea should be pursued if someone (you don’t know) pays to pre-order your proposed product or service.

The way to go about validating this hypothesis isn’t rocket surgery.

It’s not about building out an entirely new product or service.

It’s about learning and evolving as quickly as you can.

You have 30 days starting today.

This timeframe is designed to acquaint you with the value of time and how much you can learn in a month.

During the next month, there are three major steps you need to take. Each step reinforces the other. In other words, the first step informs the second step and so on.

There’s a high chance you’ll go through this cycle (i.e. step 1, then step 2, then step 3) at least five times during the 30 days. This is because you’ll develop a habit of iterating as you receive feedback on each version of your future product or service.

Step 1: Get Clarity On 1 Page

Go to leanstack.com and use bullet points to answer, as precisely as possible, the questions asked in their business model canvas.

This canvas is the first version of your business plan.

It’s all you need.

And yes, it’s a waste of your time writing a multipage business plan at this stage because you don’t know if there’s anyone willing to buy what you’re selling.

And in the spirit of tough love, if you’re a first-time entrepreneur and you think you’re focused on what matters to move an idea into a money-making business, just look back at the number of ideas you had in the last 48 hours and the distraction that’s caused.

Get clarity on your business model by spending 20 minutes answering these questions and then share it with two other people you know, who have started a business before, and ask for their feedback.

Refine the canvas based on their feedback. This will be the first of many refinements.

PRO TIP: Get someone else to research your idea.

If you can’t do this, the next steps won’t be of much help.

Step 2: Learn as much as possible

This step involves learning from two different groups of people.

The first group are ‘friendlies’ and the second group are customers.

Get your friendlies on board

  • Create a list of 10 people who you think will provide you with rapid and honest feedback about your idea 5 times in the next month.
  • Send each ‘friendly’ an email asking them to be part of your idea development team for the next 30 days. Give them permission to be brutally honest with you on every level of your idea. Be sure to tell them that they can expect five emails from you in the next month and that you would appreciate a response within 24 hours of receiving the email.
  • Make them an offer to return the favour.

This is your way of setting expectations with people close to you. Expect 5 of the 10 people to respond to each email. If the other five respond that’s great but don’t expect it, life will get in their way.

The schedule of emails I send to friendlies usually includes:

Day 3

Thank you and request for feedback on business model canvas (share it from leanstack.com or download and send PDF copy)

Day 6

Request to review version one of website (more on that later)

Day 10

Request to review version two of website

Day 13

Request to friendlies to share website with five friends who might find proposition of interest to themselves or other friends

Day 23

Insights discovered and one final request to share

And finally, at the end of day 30, send a thank you email and let each friendly know that you’ll be in touch in the next five days to share what you learned, how many people pre-ordered and what you plan to do next.

Step 3: Pre-sell

The second group you’re going to learn from is customers.

The pre-sell is THE most important signal of buying intent of a new customer. And Apple has been using this technique for well over a decade to determine the demand for its products.

Their formula involves an elegant explanation of the ‘coming soon’ product and the promise to be ‘one of the first’ to experience it if you pre-order.

I use a similar approach and I encourage you too as well with a couple of exceptions. You won’t be building a product in the background and you won’t be taking pre-payment from new customers.

Instead on Day 3 (as you start receiving feedback from friendlies):

  1. Visit Godaddy.com and buy a domain for your product that ends in .com (don’t spend more than 20 AUD)
  2. Visit Squarespace.com and set up a single page website (here’s an example), the investment is 22 AUD for the month
  3. Connect the domain to your website.

The example website I’ve used here is one we use for an inkl product. The proposition is clear and the call to action is booking a call with me!

In the case of pre-selling, you can use ‘Get your pre-order code’ as the call to action.

When this button is pressed, the person will be asked to enter details into a form (name, email address) and when they press ‘submit’ they will be thanked and be told of the next steps. And you will receive an email with their details.

This is a proxy for a pre-sale!

But I’m not a coder...

Me either! The reason for suggesting tools like Squarespace and GoDaddy is that they are specifically designed for people interested in building out ideas, so all you need to do is give it a try.

And, if you have questions, just shoot me an email.

Closing thought

Entrepreneurship is about growing a product or service through learning. Before you spend a fortune talking with lawyers and accountants or sink a bunch of time writing a business plan that gives you (and no one else) comfort, start learning if someone will pay for what you’re selling.

It’s easier than you might think and you’ll get a Go/No-Go decision on your idea based on insight and not just intuition.

And one last thing. You might be thinking, I can validate an idea in less than 30 days. Let me know if you do by leaving a comment below.


HOW TO FRAME OPPORTUNITIES

Founders are never short on opportunities. For the most part, however, opportunities are red herrings. The ones I’m talking about are those that arise after you’ve started building product.

‘We’re looking at a couple of different opportunities’.

This statement by a founder triggers a red flag in my mind. And if the founder’s follow-on statement describing the opportunity is loosely defined, we start moving into DEFCON territory.

The reason I react this way is that every moment spent exploring ideas is time you’ll never get back and runway you can’t recover.

It’s always all about time.

Always.

Just Focus

It’s easy for bystanders to urge focus but any founder will tell you that such a statement is easier said than done.

Entrepreneurship by definition requires exploration and discovery. Each day is chaotic and uncertain. Ironically, this is compounded by the nearly continuous flow of opinions from people closest to the founder; spouse, parents, friends, co-founders, advisors, mentors, customers, users, investors and channel partners.

Not surprisingly, founders usually want to process and apply each person's feedback.

And while it’s true that an entrepreneur’s secret weapon is the speed at which they adjust and execute on massive opportunities, there is an all too familiar reason why many founders end up spreading themselves too thin and running down dark rabbit holes just to be greeted by a dead end.

The Need To Be Desired

Desirability is at the heart of why opportunities are instinctively appealing.

The need to feel wanted is human. And when you’re building a venture and fatigued after prolonged periods of uncertainty and resource constraint, the smallest signal that your product has piqued someone’s interest can be deeply appealing, if not intoxicating.

As ventures develop their notoriety, these signals increase and it becomes difficult to make decisions on which feedback are signals and which are noise.

The main message here is to be very aware that the need to be desired can be a distraction.

The other reality that can compound this issue relates to strategy.

Early stage startups usually don't have strategies, they have pitch decks. Each version of a pitch deck is an approach that will be subject to continuous iteration based on the signals that founders receive.

Speaking from experience this combination of signals, noise, and strategy (or lack thereof) can have founders scratching their heads about which opportunity to pursue and which to kill.

It’s all about T.T.I.M.E.E.

It’s always about time. See what I did there. 😉

This is the acronym for the six questions I always ask founders (and myself!) each time an opportunity presents. They carry equal weight and there’s a good reason why these are closed questions (i.e. Yes or No only). The T.T.I.M.E.E. framework is specifically designed to assess an opportunity as quickly as possible. As such, each question should be answered quickly and honestly.

My general rule is if YES is the answer for at least four of these six questions, consider it an opportunity.

1. Time - T

Will it help someone regularly reclaim time? This is a proxy for habitual use and if an opportunity isn’t likely to regularly save someone time (and therefore convenience), it’s not likely to work.

Take inkl, the venture I’m helping to grow, as an example. We’ve built features and engagement strategies around helping people save time each day as they understand the essential news from a diverse array of the world’s highest quality publishers. Gone are the days of jumping from website to website trying to get across the news. It certainly helps explain why inkl is used by people in more than 180 countries.

2. Testing - T

Can you be testing the idea or opportunity within a week? Answering YES means your team has developed a culture of rapid experimentation. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers on the specifics of how you’ll test. It just means you’ll find a way to start within seven days.

If the answer is NO, it could be that the opportunity is too complex but it’s more likely to be a cultural issue as most founders find ways to break down and test the component parts of an opportunity.

3. Idea History - I

Are there at least three examples that show how this opportunity has been pursued? Ultimately the answer to this is YES, if like me you believe there’s no such thing as an original idea. Whether successful or a failure, there is always something to learn. Answering NO just means the person doesn’t know how to use Google in which case this might help.

4. Market - M

Do you have experience or unique insight about the market within which the opportunity lives? If NO, can you acquire that insight in the coming week? If not, the answer to this question is a  definite NO.

5. Experience - E

Is the experience you need to create to nail a pain-point crystal clear? In other words, do you understand the pain-point? This is one of the trickier questions to answer because it requires the suspension of personal biases. Where you can, look to data to support the answer.

6. Economics - E

Is the unit economics for this opportunity known or easily determined? Answering YES means that you know how much you’ll earn, what it will cost and the time period over which you expect this to take place.

Answering NO significantly increases the chances of time and resources being burned up. I don’t like giving people a free pass on this question but if it seems overwhelming ask if ‘the path to the first dollar of revenue is clear’, and go from there.

But Is It B2B or B2C?

One factor that often complicates how people assess opportunities is whether the opportunity is business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C). I'm also surprised about how often it's ignored altogether!

B2B sales and business development often have a higher per unit payoff but take longer to execute and involve negotiating a complex network of stakeholders. In contrast, B2C products and services usually, but not always, have the opposite characteristics.

Although the B2C / B2B trade-off is important, start with T.T.I.M.E.E. and stop being paralysed by every opportunity that comes knocking.

If you learned something new, let me know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!


MENTORING FROM ZERO TO ONE

One of the most satisfying parts of my work is mentoring.

On Wednesday I heard pitches from the new batch of founders moving through the H2 Ventures Accelerator Program and I was reminded of how much first-time founders have on their mind.

My job, and that of my mentor colleagues Aurora Voss and Ben Heap, is to help teams fine-tune their path to mission success.

At the end of the evening, Ben asked for my closing comments and I shared four thoughts.

1. Make Time Your Priority

Value time above anything else. Be conscious of how it's spent because supply doesn't increase.

2. Fight For Insight

Fight to capture and apply insights from those people you're trying to serve as quickly, thoughtfully and consistently as possible. This is the lifeblood of product development.

3. Leverage Mentors

This is as much about taking advantage of the lessons learned from those who have walked before you as it is about being vulnerable and saying 'I don't know what to do next'. We've all been there.

4. Love it

Many aspire to be part of the startup movement. You opted in and now have the unique space to create and do your life's best work. It's hard. It's stressful but it's an incredible amount of fun.

So in the spirit of reducing the time it takes to move from zero to one, here are six posts that early stage, first-time founders have told me they found most useful.

The Entrepreneur's Roller Coaster

The Pyramids Aren't As Tall As You Think

Moving From Friends To Co-Founders

The Best $50 I Spent As A Founder

How Do I Raise Money For My Start-Up

11 Things You Don't Know About Raising Capital The First Time Around

If you learned something new, let me know by leaving a comment below, thanks!


HOW HISTORY CAN HELP ENTREPRENEURS

History is easily forgotten.

It's an unfortunate reality in many aspects of life. And whether it's ignored due to ego or unknowingly dismissed, waste is the byproduct.

At one extreme, waste can mean bloodshed and loss of life when public policy is enacted in the absence of history’s wisdom.

For founders, waste takes the form of lost time and money, neither of which they can afford.

https://twitter.com/philhsc/status/904238708236271616

Assuming History Is Understood Is A Mistake

I’ve listened to hundreds of pitches. Those who deliver well-rehearsed presentations can often seem to have a handle on the history of their business model.

Nine times out of ten this will prove incorrect. This is because their perspective is usually grounded in the current market conditions they can see.    

I ask about history for two reasons.

The first is that it exposes how passionate the founder is about their topic. Good ones always seek to learn from those who have walked before them. This is a leading indicator that they are predisposed (and impatient) to de-risk their business model by leveraging prior knowledge to accelerate traction.

The second reason is that there's no such thing as an original idea.

As a result, there is a very high probability that an idea has been at least thought of or attempted at some point in the past. Anyone who disagrees can't use Google properly.

I’ve seen founders dig in about this and protest that their idea is entirely novel even in the face of suggestion (by potential investors) that they are aware of something similar.

This isn’t smart if you’re trying to build rapport with future supporters.

It's Easy To Make History Part Of Your Culture 

The history of any idea or business model should be part of the decision to move forward (or kill and move on). Here are four ways to make history part of your organisation's culture.

1. Make it mandatory

If your organisation uses business case templates add a history field and mark it mandatory for completion.

2. Create a ‘History’ slide for each pitch deck

I’m not saying this slide should be included when pitching, there won’t be enough time alongside the other 10 slides that need to be covered. However, this slide should be included in the deck that’s emailed to prospective investors and detail how the history will be leveraged in the near future.

3. Phone a friend

When I wrote about the best $50 I'd ever spent as a founder I referred to getting someone else to find historical evidence of an idea online. This one act has saved people a lot of time and effort.

4. Just ask

If the founder has a compelling answer consider this a good sign.

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The bottom line is that understanding and acting on history reduces the waste of time and money.

Do you agree? Let me know by leaving a comment below, thanks!


5 STEPS TO MAKING A PODCAST WHEN YOU'RE CLUELESS

LISTEN AND READ

I say I had no clue. That's not entirely true but it's not far from the truth either.

I knew why I was creating a podcast, I just didn't know how to make it happen.

After researching best practice, I ended up with a 60 episode podcast. I also walked away with priceless lessons to share, answers to my questions and this playbook.

Step 1: Know Why You're Doing It

When I decided to make the Founder To Founder podcast it was to conduct research for a book I'm writing.

The book is called In Between and along with blogging, it’s one of the ways I increase collective wisdom. In Between is about how to move between ventures and projects in ways that help entrepreneurs become more effective in their next play. Think of it as a way to manage and grow stronger from grief in business. The founders I interviewed on Founder To Founder helped me to evolve the frameworks that I have come to rely on.

Step 2: Make Sure The Content Will Help At Least One Person

I’ve written about the 51% rule before and this step is an extension of that rule. And although I had an ulterior research motive when I started Founder To Founder, I still surveyed 100 people my weekly email list to see if mishaps and learnings from international entrepreneurs would change their life for the better.

86% said yes. And today I have hundreds of messages and emails that prove this podcast was helpful.

Step 3: Design For The Desired Experience

This is a podcast designed for commuting. And it’s purpose-built for those who want to learn about what it takes to build extraordinary products and companies without the sugar coating. That’s why the tag line is Real Founders. Real Talk. Real Advice.

I also thought carefully about the average commute time. It turns out that it’s between 25 and 45 minutes. This guided average episode duration. Although not every episode lands within that duration, I remained very aware that I was competing for attention and the longer the episode, the more likely I was to lose listeners.

Finally, understand where your podcast will be heard.

iTunes is by far and away the most popular destination for podcast listeners but a hint for new players; Each episode’s audio files don’t live on iTunes. They live on a hosting service.

I started hosting on SoundCloud and I recently moved to Whooshkaa for four reasons. First, it's free. Second, it’s the only podcast host with tech that has a native Facebook audio player. Third, Whooshkaa is Australian made and fourth, their customer service is amazing.

Step 4: Use A Replicable Format

I used a five question interview format as the content strategy for Founder To Founder. Listeners have written me saying that they appreciate the consistency and it also (selfishly) made my research easier.

And in terms of structure every episode has four elements:

  1. Introduction which has the same cool music I bought on Premium Beat for $49 and the same voice over my friend Dee from Right Hook Digital recorded late one night.
  2. 'The What' a short custom introduction providing context to what you're about to hear. I asked my friend Katy Golvala to help with this and she’s done a great job
  3. Interview featuring the guest founder
  4. 'Outro,' also voiced by Dee, which closes out each episode with a call to action (which in my case is to visit my blog).

Step 5: Get Help To Create The Podcast

I don’t know the first thing about producing a podcast. There’s a good chance you don’t either. And if you just thought “I can learn this, how hard can it be?”, stop kidding yourself.   

Get help.

Introducing Fiverr where I met Joel North (press play on the episode above to hear what he’s got to say).

I didn’t spend a cent before I started recording. We chatted about how to record on my computer and how to do virtual conversations using teleconference software (like Skype or Zoom).

Soon after we set up this workflow:

  1. The intro and outro were stored in a DropBox folder
  2. I wrote ‘The What’ script and emailed it to Katy which she recorded. She then dropped that file into the same Dropbox folder
  3. When I finished the interview with the founder I downloaded the audio recording and put it in the same Dropbox folder
  4. Joel then took all these ingredients and produced a finished product (free of ums, ahs and other weird stuff) which he put back into Dropbox
  5. I uploaded this file to Whooshkaa and they also magically took care of it appearing on iTunes

Episodes cost between $20 and $50 to get produced, depending on episode length.

And that’s it in a nutshell. I used my MacBook, the microphone in my iPhone headphones, Zoom and Fiverr to bring Founder To Founder to life. It really was that simple and I really enjoyed the experience.

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I hope this was useful. If you learned something, let me know by leaving a comment. Thanks!


3 QUESTIONS TO HELP FOUNDERS NAIL GROWTH

On any given day there’s a lot to think about as a founder. This only increases as a business grows and while you get used to juggling priorities, it gets overwhelming from time to time.

During these periods even the most experienced entrepreneurs will temporarily retire to their ‘safe place’.

If product is your thing, you’re likely to tinker with features.

If you’re a business development ninja, you might retire to LinkedIn to identify new leads.

And if you’re a software engineer, there’s a good chance you’ll have a play with your side project.

These are forms of personal survival, and I'm guilty of all of them. But no matter whether I'm advising a business or helping to grow one, when it comes to surviving growth as a company, three questions are always in the back of my mind.

1. What was our last OODA Loop?

An OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide and act) is a decision cycle designed by US Air Force military strategist, Colonel John Boyd.

Traditionally used by pilots to develop a habit for quickly adjusting to changing flight conditions, this cycle is also useful in two startup contexts.

First, this framework helps growing teams to galvanise around a learning and action orientation. This is particularly useful as growing teams usually consist of people who have different points of view on what action means and how quickly it should happen.

OODA Loops also create a record of learning. These lessons can be shared with new hires and across the company to strengthen culture.

They can also be shared with prospective investors who often use ‘rate of learning’ as one factor to determine investment potential.

2. How else can we extend what we’ve already built?

It’s rare that a business model only has one application. In other words, even if founders have strong conviction around Product A that is designed to serve Customer B, the right perspective from an outsider will more often than not help to unlock an opportunity that can be captured tweaking Product A.

This is how inklpay, one of the businesses I’m developing, had its origin.

It obviously takes time in market to build the initial versions of a product and then have the confidence to leverage what’s already been built. And speaking from experience it’s difficult to see these other opportunities from the get go.

The key takeaway here is to continue engaging with mentors and trusted outsiders as the core product is being built. Keep asking them how else your product can be leveraged

3. How do we communicate wonder?

Products and services that lack a narrative don't survive. The ones that win embed a sense wonder in their narrative.

If you’re wondering what I mean, think about the last time you said “that’s so cool” in response to a new product experience.

I’ve written about this before and it’s easy to point to Apple as the master of this domain. Their product design and clever reductive language is inspiring. It’s also been perfected over 40 years. It’s never that easy in the beginning and founders agonise over it.

I agonise over it.

And as much as I hate to admit it, communicating wonder takes time. It often relies on how someone outside your organisation describes what you do after they’ve been inspired by your vision. That’s why I often ask people “how would you describe what [company name] does if you had to explain it to a friend at a bar”.

- - -

As Paul Graham once wrote, startup equals growth.

Remember to consciously keep learning, find ways to create more value from what’s been built and fight to communicate wonder. This, and regularly connecting with mentors and founder friends, is the best medicine for growing pains.

Thanks for reading. If you learned something, please feel free to leave a comment.


disruption

BRINGING A KNIFE TO THE DISRUPTION GUN FIGHT

Disruption comes with two inconvenient truths.

The first is that it's happening every day, in every industry, in every sector. And while you think disruption is a cliche, the reality is that if an industry hasn’t already been displaced or isn’t grappling with how to respond to new threats, it’s very likely that it lacks the self-awareness to appreciate that its future exists on borrowed time.

In the last month, I have twice presented a perspective on how disruption plays out. On both occasions, the audiences were companies who are responding to disruption. They were looking for advice on how to innovate. Instead, they were greeted with the second inconvenient truth; that failure drives innovation.

The irony, beyond showing how disruption plays out to organisations being disrupted, is that there IS time to fail and by extension, time to innovate.

And here’s the grossly obvious, frog-in-boiling-water punchline: The longer an organisation postpones decisions to refactor its core businesses, the shorter the available time it has to experiment and learn (through failure) and ultimately benefit from reinvention.

Disruption doesn't happen overnight, but it will happen.

It takes time for disruption to play out. It can decades but more recently, decades have become years. And there are usually two reasons why it takes this long.

The first is that new threats in the form of start-ups, led by enlightened industry veterans or naive entrepreneurs, need time in the market to refine their proposition so that they can deal sufficient damage to incumbent business models.

The second reason hails from the romance tied to how money has been made in the past. The human addiction to familiarity and relative stability for the ‘tried and tested’ more often than not drives decisions that favour the status quo and more importantly the misdiagnosis of threats.

This combination of sustained ambition from entrepreneurs, fuelled by vision and the size of the prize (which isn’t always financial) and slow speed of appropriate response from incumbents sets the stage for inevitable disruption. And by the time spectators feel confident to call out that a company or industry is facing disruption, the horse has already bolted.

The fascinating idea here is that incumbents were once start-ups.

There are 5 steps to industry disruption

There is an alarming precision with which these steps play out. Transportation, retail and media are the popular case study but take a moment to consider just how practical these steps are and the fact that the closer you get to the fifth step, the smaller the available time to experiment, fail and reinvent.

Step 1: Competitive response

On realising a threat has emerged, incumbents create a short term competitive response, usually price driven, to flex their market muscle. This is designed to discourage start-ups or new entrants for proceeding but this is like bringing a knife to gun fight. It never works. Not only does it provide new players with competitive intelligence on how incumbents react, it’s usually the only response they have which isn’t sustainable.

Step 2: Underestimate the full scope of disruption

“It’s just an app.” How many times do you think these words were spoken by management teams at Budget, Avis and other car rental companies when they first learned of Lyft and Uber? That romance for how money is made is also responsible for narrowing how people analyse trends, meet needs and do business. After all, their rewards are tied to delivering in the short term.

This is disastrous because it means the full breadth and depth of the pending disruption is either ignored or completely misunderstood.

Step 3: Invest in the wrong innovation

Setting up a corporate venture fund to invest in startups is in vogue. However, the hard truth about these funds is that they invest in interesting startups that aren’t likely to resolve the core issues of the parent company. In other words, these investments don’t create capabilities that the parent company can use to out-manoeuvre threats.

Step 4: Cut costs

There’s only so many times you can cut costs.    

Step 5: Look to consolidation to drive sustainability

The cumulative effect of the first four steps drives companies to the brink where the only real option for survival is joining forces with or being acquired by another company.

The Red Pill And The Blue Pill

With disruption taking place everywhere there are two options to consider.

The red pill: Discard disruption as a fad and take your chances with the five steps of industry disruption. That’s it. Good luck.

The blue pill: Accept disruption is normal and become a badass innovator. Here are the six behaviours that these people live by:

1. They value time

They know it’s the most important asset and they treat it as such.

2. They think in public

There is next to no value in an idea that no one knows about and people don’t (often) steal ideas so learn by getting your idea to people that can help you learn and evolve.

3. They experiment in short cycles

There’s something wrong if you’re not learning something new every week about what you’re building. The faster the learning cycle, the faster the progress.

4. They celebrate lessons (the byproduct of failure)

People fail. Products fail. Markets fail. That’s reality and how humans learn. Celebrate the lesson learned and be ok with the idea that failure and learning are inextricably linked.

5. They are aware of luck

Whether you like it or not, luck has a role to play in just about everything. Innovators and entrepreneurs know that. They don’t rely on it. They just know it exists and that helps when the unexpected, good or bad, happens.

6. They create air cover

It’s wrong to assume that leaders are the only source of air cover for divisions and teams. Colleagues and teammates are the primary sources of air cover and this comes in the form of having their backs while at the same time living up to high shared standards.

---

At the end of the day, there's no reason why you can't take the blue pill and it's also important to be aware that it's not just David's fighting Goliath's fighting it out. Start-ups are also disrupting start-ups. Game on!

Here's the audio from MediaCom's ComX 2017.

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If you learned something, let me know by leaving a comment. Thanks!


prototyping

HOW TO AVOID THE 4 BIG PROBLEMS WITH PROTOTYPING

Yes, there’s a problem with prototyping and here it is: People expect to use products that ‘just work’ out of the gate.

As a startup, you’re not going to have one of these. You’re going to have version one. It’ll be a hack. It will be a brave first step for which you should be congratulated.

But there are four reasons why you’re not going to get the feedback you want (or need) with this first version or the next one.

1. Threshold expectation

Try comparing the laptops, handsets, operating systems and apps that we used a decade ago to what we obsess over today. Millions of hours have been spent in refining how to welcome you into a new experience, where buttons appear and how they act, and how quickly you can become connected.

Today we expect an app or service to just work and this learned behaviour has decreased our patience to explore further or empathise with the maker’s intent. What happens next is simple: If it doesn’t ‘work’ people delete the app or service in the same time it took to download.

2. People generally don’t know what to do with a prototype

Friends, family and colleagues are usually the first group of people who are ‘invited’ to experience initial prototypes. It’s a safe play but those people will often struggle to provide candid feedback for fear of hurting your feelings. Of course it’s also helpful to introduce prototypes to people who are likely to habitually use your product.

In both cases, these people won’t have the background or context that inspired the prototype in the first place. Even if you invest significant effort in videos and emails to explain everything the likelihood of the intent being well understood is very small.

As a consequence, your prototype will be downloaded/opened, used and then closed.

Now what?

Testers might click on that link to email you their thoughts. They might even call you but will they be able to describe their experience sufficiently to be useful in product development…

3. Time is more valuable than you think

It might only take a few minutes to set-up or login to a prototype but even people who volunteer to be your testers usually over estimate their availability.

4. What people do is different to what they say

When you ask for product feedback not only are you asking someone to recall their experience, you’re asking them to articulate how they felt AND package their thoughts in a way which is useful and constructive.

This is tricky because people generally believe their memory and recall is sharper than it is. The bigger problem here is that articulating an emotion (like disappointment which is easily seen on someone’s face) is really tough.

This means that despite best intents, any response to feedback is going to sanitised and this can affect product development decisions.

How significant is the impact of these problems?

The short answer is ‘very’.

The reality in many cases is that there will be a very, very small amount of people who show interest in (and know how to examine) a prototype. Their limited feedback will be captured over a longer than expected timeframe and then used as an important input to validate a product hypothesis.

That sounds harsh but this is an unfortunate reality of prototyping in a startup.

And I say this as someone who believes deeply in prototyping as the only way to make products that create habits and change people’s lives.

Building a crack team of prototype testers is the answer

Innovation is messy. And that’s why in early product development you need to get the first five versions of your product into the hands of people who know how to handle and work with prototypes.

The ideal team is four people (two females and two males) who agree to connect to discuss each prototype version.

In addition to having a strong emotional tie to the problem you’re solving, each team member will be characterised by at least one or more of the following:

  1. They have studied engineering or science — these disciplines teach and value trade offs; or
  2. They have formal design training; or
  3. They work at or are alumni from firms like IDEO; or
  4. They have backed at least five Kickstarter projects — so they are familiar with how long product development actually takes; or
  5. They have built and shipped products at ventures; or
  6. They are founders.

A cross-functional team with this experience will not only bring patience and empathy to product design, they will ask right questions and be able to articulate detailed observations while respecting that time is your most precious resource.

So where are these people?

If you’re wondering where to find these people, start with your network on LinkedIn and ask your relationships for an introduction to potential candidates.

In my experience, people are generous with their time and flattered to be approached. And how should you reward each team member? They might like a bragging-rights title (like ‘Advisor’), permission to use their time with you as a case-study or well, pizza. There’s no set model at such an early stage so just ask them!

Prototyping will help you validate your hypothesis but remember that time is your most valuable asset.

Build a team that helps you capture insight quickly so you can build a product changes people’s lives or move on to the next business model that will!


How To Respond To: “This Is A Feature, Not A Product”.

This comment can paralyse founders. It suggests that you’re a long way off from having customers or a business. And in the absence of traction (the only antidote to combat this comment), investors will usually make this observation for one of three reasons.

Reason 1

The investor believes what you’ve just pitched is novel but they invest further up the value chain and as a result they perceive that a business they’re involved in could integrate what you’ve got as part of an existing product.

Perhaps the most famous public example of this came from Steve Jobs after Dropbox founder Drew Houston declined Apple’s advances to acquire his file sharing service. Steve Jobs claimed Dropbox was nothing more than a feature (that could be part of iCloud) and it would die. Drew’s position in the value chain suggested a different outcome and today Dropbox is valued at $10b.

Reason 2

The second reason is that investors know that an incumbent product manufacturer who applies a relatively small amount of effort could build what you’ve just pitched and get it in their customer’s hands with ease.

I’m always wary when a venture’s premise is based on a statement like, “we thought wouldn’t it be great if [insert Apple / Google / LinkedIn / AWS / SalesForce / Facebook / Pinterest] was able to do [insert function]”. There is a growing trend of companies affording teams time at work to explore side projects that may drive innovation and value.

And for this reason alone setting out to build a business based on creating a small improvement or a not yet available component of an existing product from the outside (and worse still, which relies on the incumbent product to function) is dangerous territory for any founder to find themselves.

And there is no way to know if or how far away that small improvement or component is from being brought online by an incumbent product manufacturer. Investors intimately understand how this confluence of issues is likely to play out. Not well.

Reason 3

The final reason is the simplest, investors just want to see how you handle confronting feedback.

Before responding, understand the basics.

Features lead to products which lead to platforms

It’s easy to understand that a product is a collection of features. It’s also relatively straight forward to grasp that a platform (like LinkedIn or Facebook) is the base from which multiple products can be built and deployed to users. But very few know how to define where this all starts — with a feature. 

In other words, a person will be able to describe how a small element of a product made the experience better (or worse).

In this context remember that:

a) Value isn’t always financial. In fact, where early features and products are involved, value equals how regularly and how deeply people use your collection of features to create a habit that changes their life; and

b) It’s difficult to immediately monetise a feature because it usually only goes part of the way to solving a pain-point.

To add colour to definition, think about Dropbox soon after launching in 2007. Sharing files via the cloud was useful feature but it didn’t completely scratch the itch enough to pay for it. Fast forward to today. 500M registered users think sharing, syncing, reviewing and editing files across all devices with different tiers of storage is pretty good. And I agree.

So how should you respond when an investor says, “this is a feature, not a product”?

No matter whether an investor uses reason 1, 2 or 3 (above) as the motive to make this comment, your most powerful defence is traction and knowledge about the investor’s context.

So, if you do have traction:

Step 1:

Ask why they made this observation and note that you’re keen to understand their context and perspective.

Step 2:

Re-confirm who your target users are, add qualitative or anecdotal feedback about why they like what you’ve built.

Step 3:

Remind the investor of month on month growth in new users, revenue, product engagement and churn (to begin with).

Step 4:

Re-confirm the size of the prize and that you have a compelling plan to take XX%, if not most or all of it.

Step 5:

Be a sponge for feedback and listen carefully to what the investor says next. They may change their perspective (i.e. you have more than just a feature), in which case the conversation will likely dive deeper into your future plans and objectives. Or, they may not, and in these cases, valuable product and market advice usually ensues.

But what if you don’t have traction?

See Step 1 (above) and then listen carefully.

You’re probably about to receive feedback you don’t want or agree with but it’s worth hearing it.

Add it to the signals you’ve received from beta testers, friends and colleagues.

It’s never easy processing feedback that contradicts your vision but without the ability to embrace different perspectives, the probability of success only decreases.


This Is The Least You Can Do When You’re Pitched An Idea

In January I joined Gautam Mishra on a quick around-the-world trip to connect with investors. Gautam recounted Inkl’s origin story in each meeting and one act he performed religiously in the early days in response to each pitch struck a chord with me.

If a new venture is in your future, you should follow Gautam’s lead.

But first, what happens when you’re pitched an idea?

For starters, you’re facing another human who has mustered the courage to share the vision they’ve been obsessing over for weeks, if not months.

They practice their pitch before going to bed, in the shower, countless times during their day and again before bedtime.

The opportunity that awaits, in their mind, is crystal clear. The value to be captured is ripe for the taking and the path to the way ‘things will be’ is just a few steps away.

It’s that simple.

Or it is until they pitch it to you.

Watch closely as they start their pitch. They’re summoning 99% of their energy to communicate the most compelling set of messages they hope you’ve ever heard. The remaining 1% is focused on simultaneously processing your every cue, from the notes you jot down to your facial expressions. Don’t be surprised if some of these acts result in slight corrections to the intended messages.

Right now the person opposite you is as vulnerable as their fledgling vision, which could very well be the next big thing.

They don’t have your context or experience and you don’t have theirs. All you need to do is listen hard, suspend judgement and hold onto the questions you’re itching to ask and the comments you’re desperate to make.

“Thank you, any questions?”

The pitch just ended. Here’s where you come in.

You’re about to draw on your experience and context to respond to what you’ve just heard.

And if like me you’re an optimist, you’ll hunt for value in new ideas and business models and try to help evolve the current thinking of the entrepreneur and their team. This might take the form of diving into unit economics, business development or looking at ways to accelerate traction (or anything in between where you can add value).

Of course, it’s also just as easy to rattle off a long list of reasons why you think it will fail.

You might see the latter as lacking empathy but the truth is it’s probably a little more valuable. And this insight became Gautam’s super power as he set out to build Inkl.

In every early meeting, Gautam sought to intimately understand, from news publishers and readers alike, why Inkl would fail.

After formulating his vision he set out to systematically solve each issue that his prospective partners and customers said would lead to failure. The rest is history and today Inkl’s marketplace metrics continue to impress.

“Why do you think [venture name] will fail?”

There are three reasons why it’s important to ask this question each time you pitch from now on.

1. It gives your audience permission to be candid

Time is valuable. The quicker someone believes they can be honest about their thoughts, the quicker you’ll have insights to examine and action. Without permission to speak candidly people can have the tendency to sugarcoat feedback and that’s less useful.

2. It demonstrates you’re prepared to learn and grow

Investors look for entrepreneurs who have the mettle to rapidly process and adjust to feedback signals. It’s a precursor to understanding how well they will perform when the going inevitably gets tough.

3. It gets people thinking

I’ve found that people who accept permission to be candid on why a model or venture will fail are the same people who offer up additional insight after the initial conversation. This has come in the form of ideas for product features, offers to test and introductions to other interested parties.

Next time you’re pitched an idea, think about responding with a constructive list of reasons why you think it will fail and ask if they’ve received similar feedback. It might be the most valuable email they receive this week.


FREELANCERS

15 MISTAKES I'VE MADE HIRING FREELANCERS ONLINE

I believe in learning quickly. I also believe that prototypes help their maker express their vision and determine if a new product appeals to its target users.

There often comes a time in product development when diagrams and presentations need to give way to higher fidelity prototypes. And I’ve been there many times just to be reminded that I lacked the technical skills to ‘build an app’.

A skilled workforce is closer than you think.

In the last decade, my technical skills gap (and that of many entrepreneurs) has been closed by online marketplaces that offer to connect you with the talent you need without entering into a traditional, long-term employment contract. I’ve used Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr and Toptal, to name a few. None of these platforms are new. They continue to evolve to deliver on their visions and as more people rush to supplement their incomes with freelance services, each of these platforms are improving how they manage supplier quality and job timeliness to encourage repeat use by customers.

AirShr would not have started if it weren't for a software engineer I engaged on Freelancer to build the first prototype. Many ventures start this way. And keep in mind that software engineers are only one of many freelance skills you can hire. I’ve accelerated workflow by hiring experts to draft press-releases, create logos, brand identities and voice-overs as well as outsourcing administration to personal assistants.

I remember my first time.

I remember pressing ‘Submit’ on my first freelance project. The anticipation was palpable.

Would anyone respond?

Who would I end up working with?

This is going to be awesome!

How do I protect my intellectual property?

What IF someone responds!? … Whoa, someone just applied!

Time is your most valuable asset.

Here are the 15 mistakes I’ve made in no particular order when hiring freelancers. Some will seem obvious. Some are embarrassing in hindsight. Embrace each one so you can begin learning as quickly as possible to build and ship a product people will love.

1. My idea is awesome and freelancers will be just as amped as I am to make a great product.

For the most part, online freelancers are inspired to develop a strong reputation based on being paid to do great work. And although this is a solid basis for a working relationship, before the project kicks off you are a complete stranger to them and vice versa. Understand that it will be nearly impossible for them to be as excited as you are about your vision.

In my experience experienced and engaging freelancers will want to understand as much as they can, as quickly as possible, to meet and even exceed your expectations. They don’t need to embrace your vision the same way you do so approach relationships with freelancers as ones which will help advance the pursuit of your vision. Anything else is a bonus.

2. I will hire a freelancer on the basis that my IP will be stolen.

This is THE most common concern I hear from aspiring founders following a tech vision. Here’s what I tell them:

  1. No one cares about your idea as much as you do and even if a freelancer does, they have to muster all the passion you have to pursue it. In any case, there is a very very very good chance that they are freelancing to build the resources to follow their own passion, not hijack yours.
  2. You don’t know enough (yet) to know if you actually have IP. You’re building a prototype to learn, i.e. validate a hypothesis about a need and opportunity. If a need and opportunity have been validated it’s more likely that you would be building a team to develop the IP as part of taking a product to market. What stage are you at right now?
  3. Your idea isn’t new. It’s a discouraging statement, I know. Here’s the rationale.

Many find these observations confronting. And I appreciate that the desire to protect IP is based on the need for trust between two parties but the bottom line is that you need to be real about whether you actually have IP or not.

Here’s another way to think about it.

In the very early stages of an idea, how is someone supposed to help you build a prototype if they don’t understand the situation or use-case they are solving for…? They are there to help you build a product prototype that people will (hopefully) habitually use to improve their lives. And every product needs a business model to be successful. Does the freelancer need to understand the business model to build a product prototype? No. So reveal what’s required to build the product prototype and get learning!

3. Freelancers have done this task before = we share the same context.

Nope. The best freelancers are masters of their craft and can (usually) apply their knowledge to your brief. This doesn’t mean they’ve spent all the time you have on researching/understanding/designing your future state. The project brief should include as much context as will be useful to developing a shared understanding of the objective.

TIP: The best freelancers will ask you questions which in their experience expose the right level of context for them to understand what’s required and how to get started.

4. Collaborating and iterating the product design is part of the deal.

Every version is perfected with iteration. In non-coding projects like drafting press-releases or creating voice-overs (and many others) freelancers will usually include working on iterations as part of the deal. After all, they want you to be happy!

In projects involving coding/software engineering, you will inevitably want to evolve a design or a feature as you have the opportunity to test versions that your freelancer sends to you. This is where being clear on expectations and milestones is essential.

Your project is designed to get you to a learning outcome, not a perfect product. When your prototype functions in a way to help you learn and you’re embarrassed to send it to people to test, you’ve achieved a minimum viable experience — ship it and get learning!

TIP: If you expect, without discussing prior with your freelancer, to keep iterating on your initial design one of two things will happen:

  1. It will become expensive because the freelancer will charge you the standard hourly rate; or
  2. Under a fix-fee project, your freelancer will become frustrated and possibly quit because they are being asked to do more than the original scope.

5. The freelancers' hourly rate is the proxy for quality.

Not necessarily. When assessing the quality of freelancers on face value I look at (in order):

  • Number of projects/hours worked and the corresponding average rating
  • References provided by their customers
  • Price

I favor freelancers with a large number of projects/hours and a 90%+ rating with favorable customer references.

During any freelancer review, I also look for RED FLAGS including:

  • 100% rating across a small OR large number of projects/hours worked — no one is perfect.
  • A large proportion of one-word or templated customer references — doesn’t inspire me with confidence that these customers are real.
  • Price is too cheap — If a price is too cheap then quality will almost always be compromised and philosophically I believe it’s important to pay people what it takes for them to do their life’s best work.

6. Freelancers must work at Apple / Google / LinkedIn / Facebook / Pinterest /… by day and freelancer by night.

Um, no. People who work at these companies aren’t generally freelancing on the side.

7. Cultural differences won’t be too big an issue.

Do not underestimate the value of a different cultural perspective when building a prototype, it can be enormous. However, clear communication is the essential ingredient to progress and when this is compromised speed to delivery and therefore the speed of learning slows.

If communicating during the interview process with a freelancer is difficult, consider this a sign of things to come.

8. The platform (ie Upwork, Freelancer, Fiverr and Toptal) vets every freelancer.

Each of these platforms has a continual focus on increasing quality but don’t mistake this to mean they comprehensively vet each freelancer. In some cases the platform will promote certain freelancers due to their sustained high performance with customers or they may even have a dedicated concierge service to help you find the freelancer(s) you need. Ultimately, who you hire is up to you. Hire wisely.

9. I’ll work out who to hire when I see which freelancers have applied to work on my project.

It’s dangerous to be guided by the quality of applicants who have applied to take on your project. Be clear on the qualities an A-team freelancer should possess before you submit the project online and measure candidates against that expectation. It seems simple but it’s easily forgotten.

10. When I agree to hire a freelancer it will an exclusive working relationship.

Don’t expect this. The economics of freelancing usually means that a freelancer supports many clients simultaneously. This only becomes an issue when a freelancer does not apply the appropriate level of focus to projects. The core of this issue can usually be traced back to a lack of realistic, clear and agreed to project milestones.

11. Freelancers working for agencies are the same as freelancers working independently.

Not true. The agency model usually involves a very articulate and convincing business development person securing projects which they then hand-off to other people to deliver. Unfortunately I’ve had very low success with this approach and as a result, prefer working with independent freelancers.

12. As soon as I press submit (to publish the project) I’m committed to hiring a freelancer.

The project only starts when you hire the freelancer and not before. You can always withdraw the project from the platform without hiring.

13. The only way to hire a freelancer is to wait for them to find my project.

In many cases, you can reach out to a freelancer you have identified as a potential fit and encourage them to apply.

14. Email is the best way to communicate with my freelancer(s).

There are a variety of ways to communicate with freelancers. My preference is to use Skype for regular check-ins if the project term is longer than one week and then use a messaging service like Slack to go back and forward on other questions.

The bottom line with communications is to use whichever medium is going to accelerate progress and reduce ambiguity.

15. Skill = skill proficiency.

Freelancers generate business by selling their skills. They will market the languages they code in, the programs they design in and the disciplines they bring to the table, to name a few. Remember that this is marketing. Possessing a skill and being highly proficient in that skill are two completely different things. In addition to their online reputation, check their education credentials where possible, it will give you a sense of their pedigree.

Also, be aware that many freelancers are self-taught. This can be a good and a bad thing. Good because people can develop and monetise new skills; bad because they may not possess foundational knowledge taught as part of a formal education. This can manifest in different ways but ultimately quality can be compromised.

Is your experience the same?

Update: 1 October 2017.

The team at Hubstaff Talent reached out and wanted to build on my experience using this handy infographic that goes into more detail on how to hire freelancers. Enjoy!


$50

THE BEST 50 DOLLARS I'VE SPENT AS A FOUNDER

It’s intoxicating to have a new product idea. All of a sudden you begin to envision how it will look and feel and how it will change the lives of millions of people. The speed at which your mind makes calculations to help you imagine the future of your product is nothing short of amazing.

It’s important to remember that your mind is also naturally biased to your knowledge and experiences. This is why your initial product idea will temporarily ignore the practical aspects of what it will take to build a great company. This early stage of operating in a 90% visionary, 10% practical go-to-market mode is normal and obviously these ratios change as you move to test, learn and evolve from your initial hypothesis.

At this early stage there is one thing that first-time founders nearly always do (and get wrong!): They search for competitors.

Sound counter-intuitive? After all, it’s a necessary step to completing a business model canvas and it provides early validation that your idea is sufficiently unique that it has a chance of achieving product/market fit, right?

When a first-time founder starts Googling for competition at this early stage they are likely to:

  1. Identify wrong competition
  2. Ignore obvious competition
  3. Miss previous pioneers

Personal bias plays a significant role when you begin Googling for competition because you base your keywords on a product idea that doesn’t have a clear value proposition. As a result you search based on what comes to mind. This can lead to clicking through pages and pages of search results to companies that may not actually be competition (1). Similarly, the lack of value proposition clarity may cause you to ignore obvious competitors because you convince yourself that your product is somehow different (2).

There is no such thing as an original idea. As discouraging as this statement may appear, it’s one that I’ve subscribed to for some time. Using this as a starting point (even if I’m wrong) reminds me that it’s very likely that someone, somewhere has tried to build the product that’s just come to mind (3). It may be out there for sale right now or it may not. One way or another clues do exist that can plug into your thinking. Searching for competition usually focuses on very recent history and ignores previous pioneers — one of the most powerful inputs to product development.

An outcome which I’ve heard many times before, which is a by-product of identifying wrong competition, ignoring obvious competition or missing previous pioneers is this: “No one is doing what we’re doing.” If you land at this perspective, remember this from Guy Kawasaki:

This is a bummer of a lie because there are only two logical conclusions. First, no one else is doing this because there is no market for it. Second, the entrepreneur is so clueless that he can’t even use Google to figure out he has competition. Suffice it to say that the lack of a market and cluelessness is not conducive to securing an investment. As a rule of thumb, if you have a good idea, five companies are going the same thing. If you have a great idea, fifteen companies are doing the same thing.

The best $50 I’ve spent as a founder (and I’ll do it again!)

Each time I’ve had a new idea or looked at investing in a venture, I’ve asked a trusted colleague who is disconnected from the idea/venture (and who is a straight shooter) to spend one hour Googling for similar products.

I pay them $50 for their time and they provide me with a summary of links / brief explanations as to why the links are relevant. The value in this approach is three-fold:

  1. Increased Value Proposition Clarity — You’re forced to articulate (as best as possible) the value proposition of the product idea so the search can take place.
  2. Decreased Personal Bias — Your personal bias is removed and whilst it may be somewhat replaced by that of the person conducting the search, they won’t have your baggage you do.
  3. Wider Insight — Following on from the point above, I’ve repeatedly found that asking a trusted, straight-shooting colleague to conduct this type of search has returned rich insight about competitors and previous pioneers which I was probably unlikely to uncover.

I talked about this and other fun topics recently during a Rare Birds ‘Ask Us Anything’ webinar alongside my friends and colleagues Therese Tarlinton and Rhonda Brighton-Hall. You can listen in full here and on behalf of the Rare Birds team, we hope you love it!


Take The Call

Here’s the punchline: If you’re a start-up founder, make sure you’re a point of contact for help and support requests. It’s essential to your venture’s future. If you’re a leader in a large organisation and not spending a few hours each month in a call centre listening or taking calls from people your company serves, there’s a better than average chance you’ve lost touch with your customers.

My first job after leaving the Army was as a call centre consultant at a bank. I helped customers answer simple questions about their personal finances many times each day. After leaving this role for one in the bank’s ‘corporate centre’, direct contact with customers was rare. I missed hearing about their needs first hand and why the service we provided helped them live their lives.

Without these interactions, reports that presented summaries of data collected in customer satisfactory surveys became the primary source of knowledge about customers. I soon realised that organisations over rely on this data and use it as a key input to make decisions about strategy, marketing and product development.

Two years later I had the chance to return to the call centre for a day to jump back on the phone to customers. The calls varied as they used to be, some people were happy and others were frustrated and disappointed.

That day reconnected me to the people I was ultimately paid to serve and reminded me about the importance of preserving empathy for customer needs, no matter how far you might be from the front line.

Although most startups don’t have vast call centre operations to support customer service, the more compelling ventures have made user or customer support a core capabilityAirShr is no different. We want to be known for being responsive to ideas and think that can make AirShr essential to the lives of many. That’s why my co-founder Opher and I are the people who receive and manage all support communications from radio broadcaster (our customers) and radio listeners (our users) in addition to everything else that we do. Our obsession with user experience means that each time someone reaches out, we focus intently on the issue or feedback and move to address it as soon as possible with our engineering team. This approach has helped us uncover new product ideas and manage unexpected bugs that had the potentially to affect large audiences.

Here are three things we’ve done to create value from feedback and better connect with the people we serve:

Be grown up about dialogue

Gone are the days where having a support@ or info@ email address is sufficient. Today the expectation is that a conversation will take place soon after an issue has been raised with a human not a queue or an autoresponder. “But what if people know my contact details? I’ll be bombarded with calls and emails”. As absurd as this statement sounds, I’ve heard at least 10 first-time founders make this comment only for them to find the opposite when they start responding to support requests which include their contact details.

My friend and serial entrepreneur Adam Theobald taught me the value of this years ago when I sent him feedback via his BeatTheQ app. Only four to five minutes passed before I received a personal email from Adam addressing my issue. Impressive. Our contact details are made available in each of our responses to broadcasters or listeners who reach out to us. In fact, the more people that hear directly from Opher or me, the more we are greeted with

Our contact details are made available in each of our responses to broadcasters or listeners who reach out to us. In fact, the more people that hear directly from Opher or me, the more we are greeted with surprise that a company leader would make the time to respond. The truth is that this is one of the only ways for us to get raw feedback and we love it. Even if the call is difficult because the listener has been let down for some reason, we can understand the issue and make quick decisions to resolve their issue.

This played out for us just last week as one listener helped us understand that our Android app wasn’t playing nicely with the Galaxy S7, Samsung’s new flagship handset. This issue affected a portion of our audience with the same device and thanks to that listener engaging in a dialogue with us, the issue is a long way to solved.

Organise support workflow

It’s never been easier (or cheaper) to receive and respond to support requests from people using your product has never been easier. UserVoice and zendesk are two platforms that do this very well. We use UserVoicebecause it also helps us receive and organise new product ideas from people wanting to champion new AirShr features. Listeners can reach out to use from inside our apps or via our website and our customers can ask a question or suggest a feature right from within our online broadcast platform. And importantly we can access and respond immediately to any contact from our iPhone. Simple.

Spread the word

All team members need to understand why customers celebrate your product or why they recoil from its use. That said, not all feedback is gracious and constructive. It can vary from being complementary to abrasive and everything in between. One thing is for certain; for every person taking the time to contact you, there is a larger number of people who decided not to. So we make it a point to characterise each issue that we see via UserVoice. This typically involves having a call with the person who raised the issue, attempting to replicate the issue and then designing a solution if one is needed. This process involves the entire team which means we get to leverage the combined creative talents of the team to dissect and understand what we’re up against.

If all of what I’ve said sounds completely foreign, do yourself a favour and take three customer support calls in one day. What did you learn?

And remember, glowing references about your business don’t count :)