Don’t Confuse Good Feelings with Progress (From 6 Secrets to Startup Success, by John Bradberry)

 

(NOTE:  Here’s another revised excerpt from the new Kindle version of 6 Secrets to Startup Success.  I’m excited to announce that we have secured the rights to the book from the publisher, and will be refreshing and repackaging the content/tools over the next few months).

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In a startup environment, every choice sets a tone and initiates a pattern.

  • What is talked about?
  • What is avoided?
  • How are tough issues raised and resolved?

These questions plant the seeds of your future culture, which will grow into a force beyond easy control. “As a parent, or as an entrepreneur,” writes Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, “you begin imprinting your beliefs from Day One, whether you realize it or not. If you have made the mistake of doing business one way for five years, you can’t suddenly impose a layer of different values upon it. By then, the water’s already in the well, and you have to drink it.”

Instead of surfacing tough issues, many venture teams surrender to a psychological pressure to do the opposite. A kind of beggar’s mentality takes hold of you. Grateful for support from customers, partners, and investors, you shrink from delivering bad news or raising thorny topics. You want to seem—you want to be—on top of things. Your energy goes into posturing instead of seeking the truth. The paradoxical result is that the most critical topics are the least likely see the light of day. As consultant Ken Macher observes, “the thing that people feel most sheepish about bringing up is often the very thing that needs to be discussed.”

Many books and careers have been dedicated to the practice of healthy human communication. Over the next few posts, I’ll outline a few core principles that will determine whether or not you create smart communication and healthy culture:

Feeling Good Does Not Equal Progress 

One by-product of entrepreneurial passion—and the hype-driven media that feed it—is that founding teams often behave as if positive emotion means forward movement. If we walk out of a meeting feeling great, the thinking goes, then things must be on track.

People who ask scrutinizing questions are cast as negative or disloyal. Doubt is an enemy to be banished.

But every new venture journey is fraught with real risks and real threats. Doubts and fears, when smartly filtered, lead to problems that desperately need attention. “Startups are right to be paranoid,” says Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham. “But they sometimes fear the wrong things.”

This tendency for positive spin shows up in a familiar shell game between entrepreneurs and investors, in which founders amplify good news and sanitize the bad. But smart investors know that rosy reports don’t equate to value creation. Chris Holden remembers how impressed he and his colleagues at Court Square Ventures were when a startup founder raised “bad news” just after finalizing the investment deal. “One of the reasons his business took off so fast is that he had no pride about coming back to us, five minutes after the ink was dry on our deal, saying I think I might have misjudged this piece of the equation, and we need to change it this way or that way. In many other deals, Chris has has seen the opposite: founders who won’t acknowledge tough issues. “They don’t want to go back to their investors with anything that makes them look like they weren’t perfectly prescient, with perfect foreknowledge, or anything that makes it look like things are shaky underfoot,” he says. “But in reality, what the investor craves is the opposite. Because you know that things are going to be shaky underfoot. You’re on shifting sands always. What you want to see is their reaction.”

So, think of adversity as more than an unwelcome companion on your startup journey. It’s a sign that you are focusing on knotty problems that need to be untangled. Turbulence builds muscle and opens windows into your team’s talent, character, and commitment.

Mastery in any field comes through tough stretches of grinding and problem solving. The path to sustained venture success is no different.  Most value creation is the result of unglamorous day-to-day toil, not satisfying high-five moments.

NEXT:  Invest Time to Cultivate Integrity

John Bradberry                                                                                                                         President – ReadyFounder Services                                                                                           Author:  6 Secrets to Startup Success                                                                                              Co-Developer:  Entrepreneur Core Characteristics Profile

 

 

 

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Seeing Through the Lens of Potential: Startup Lessons from a Visual Artist

(NOTE:  The following is a revised excerpt from the new Kindle version of 6 Secrets to Startup Success.  I’m excited to announce that we have secured the rights to the book from the publisher, and will be refreshing and repackaging the content/tools over the next few months).

Launching a new venture is a creative act, and challenges faced by the passionate founder run parallel in many ways to the work of the artist. Like entrepreneurs, artists give shape and life to new ideas through experimentation and discovery. And, like most entrepreneurs, artists invest a great deal of passion and emotion in their work.

I first met Shaun Cassidy as part of an entrepreneurial session at the Innovation Institute, a hands-on, experiential, artist-led program in Charlotte, NC that builds the creative capacity of individuals, teams, and organizations. Shaun is an artist leader with the Institute, a professor of sculpture at Winthrop University, and an internationally recognized sculptor and painter. His teaching centers around the theme of creativity as an iterative process, one idea leading to the next toward an increasingly valuable piece of work. This theme echoes my own founding experience and that of many successful entrepreneurs I have observed and studied.

Shaun tells the story of how his idea for an acclaimed public work started with a mistake. Working on a commissioned sculpture for a beer company in 2005, he spilled wet concrete on an old sweater that had been a gift from his wife. In an effort to save the sweater, he let the concrete dry. “The next morning,” he says, “I pulled the concrete out and found that the fibers from the woolen sweater had become embedded in the concrete.” He set aside the concrete chunk for a day or two, and “began to recognize that this chance happening revealed a really interesting potential. And the potential was that if you cast concrete over woolen objects or fabrics, a residue of the fabric is going to get embedded into the concrete.” This led him to an entire series of works where he cast concrete over woolen gloves, hats, and socks, then pulled the objects out, leaving a negative space in the concrete along with fibers from the clothing.

A year later, Shaun was awarded a commission to do a major public art project in a Charlotte park. The city sponsors wanted something highly durable and vandal proof to be built on a low budget. He and his assistant went around the community collecting clothing from the people that lived around the park. They then cast a long winding bench out of concrete, into which they embedded and removed the community members’ clothing, leaving overlapping impressions of the community’s personal belongings in the bench as it stretched through the park.

“The idea for that project,” Shaun says, “could never have come had I not recognized the potential in that first mistake. And, to me, it is an example of how one thing can lead to another, and to another. If you trust the process and you let the process play out long enough— sometimes over years—your solutions to problems will be more innovative because you’ve got a richer pool from which to draw. If someone had sat me down and said, ‘Well, design me a public art project,’ and I hadn’t had that experience in New York, I don’t think that the solution would have been nearly as interesting.”

Of the many lessons from Shaun Cassidy’s work and teaching, here are some that are especially relevant for new venture founders:

  • Allow solutions to come through a process.  Shaun says that his conceiving is always the result of an iterative process. “It’s never just sitting down and thinking of a good idea or coming up with a way to solve a problem. It’s always the result of a process that might begin with something weird or accidental but then builds and improves over time.”
  • Look through the lens of potential instead of rejection.  Shaun works with leaders to help them “develop a lens that will allow them to see the potential in almost anything instead of rejecting it instantly.” Every iteration of an idea, he says, “contains a nugget of potential that can lead you to another iteration of the idea. So in that sense, nothing you do is ever wasted.”
  • Don’t settle too soon.  Shaun believes that too many people are content with early ideas, rather than pushing themselves to higher standards. “I think people settle way too soon,” he says. “They’re hell bent on coming up with the answer right now, instead of allowing it to develop and reveal itself. So, this idea of ‘not settling’ is very important to me. If you become static, you’re lost.”
  • Push for improvement until the very end.  Early in his career, just before graduate school in England, Shaun worked for Sir Anthony Caro, a legendary abstract sculptor, who would sometimes force radical changes at the last possible moment. “He would force us to weld these big sculptures. They would take six months, sometimes, and we would think we were closing in and finished. And if he thought there was a one percent chance that we could make these sculptures better, he would have us drag out the torch and cut these things in half, and flip them upside down. He would force us to make incredibly radical moves very, very late in the process. So this notion of laying it on the line all the way through the process, not just the beginning and the middle, but even at the end, in order to make something innovative and breathtaking, that was a real education.”
  • Use disruption as a positive force.  One of Shaun’s many artistic residencies was with the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in California. “In my own studio I have a lot of equipment welders, overhead crane, all this kind of stuff ” he says. “I got to California and the director led me into the studio where I would be working. There was absolutely nothing in the studio, just polished concrete floor. Of all the residencies I have been on, that was the most disruptive to my normal creative habit. I had to spend the first week of that residency walking and thinking and reflecting upon what I wanted to do and responding to the emotional and physical characteristics of the site. I went to the hardware store with the facility guy’s truck and bought a whole lot of wood, and bought a chop saw, and bought a cordless drill, and built this huge installation out in the landscape. And it never would have occurred to me to do that had I not been so disrupted from my normal flow. I think that I learned more about myself on that residency, and made probably the best work of my life because of that disruption.”
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Attach to Your Customer, Not to Your Idea

 

Paul Graham's Y Combinator

 

NOTE:  This post is excerpted from Chapter 4 of 6 Secrets to Startup Success – recently re-released on Kindle (check out the new cover).

The next time you’re in line at a fast food restaurant or a corner drugstore, pay attention to the transaction happening in front of you.

Do you see a product being sold, or a human need being met?

Do you see a hamburger, or hunger? A bottle of Ibuprofen, or a spouse at home with a killer headache?
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Founder Profile 2.0 + Research Opportunity

Strange as it seems, being around 600+ people helps me come up for air and reflect a bit, so here’s a quick update from the floor of the Southeast Venture Conference in Charlotte, NC, where we are proud to serve as a conference sponsor once again.

LOOKING BACK

  • The past year has been fast, furious and fruitful.  We have enjoyed working with clients in locations as varied as Chicago, Boston, Seattle, Hartford, London, Paris, Singapore, St. Petersburg, Bratislava, and Dubai.
  • One favorite project has involved immersive work in helping a $25B global biopharma company develop a more entrepreneurial culture.
  • Also in 2014, we helped hundreds of leaders in global tech and financial services companies operate more successfully across boundaries and extend their positive influence and impact.
  • I’ve also enjoyed serving as a mentor for the Lean Startup Conference as well as for Eric Ries’ new kickstarter campaign.
  • Most excitingly, over the past year, we rebooted our Entrepreneur Core Characteristics Profile (ECCP) and moved it to a new hosting platform (PAN).
LOOKING FORWARD

  • We want to generate additional data — lots of it — on what makes entrepreneurs tick.
  • If you work with entrepreneurial populations, please get in touch if you are interested in using the assessment tool for research, education, coaching/advising, etc.  We can make the tool available at minimum cost in exchange for having access to the data generated.
  • We are especially interested in helping large enterprises identify, retain, and develop entrepreneurial talent (before it walks out the door to chase that big idea….).
  • Interested in exploring?  Contact me via twitter (@johnbradberry) or email Dawn Ballenger at db@ReadyFounder.com.

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The Problem with Absolutes

 

 (This is a revised version of a post I wrote for American Express OpenForum a couple of years ago… )

With much of the world’s work and play taking place online and the rest of our lives moving in that direction, Web content is clamoring and competing for your attention. It’s a world in which bloggers, authors, and other experts besiege us with ideas and opinions — and where extreme views often carry greater perceived value than facts.

As one of those authors who posts an occasional opinion, I’d rather not get caught up in the attention-getting sweepstakes — the sea of articles that attack common business practices with titles like “10 Things to Never Do With Your Website,” “Say No to Meetings,” and “The 4 Deadly Sins of Business.”  It’s not the formats of these pieces that give me heartburn. It’s the dogmatic language, designed by advice-givers to seize your attention and hold it. And usually lurking underneath the title is an impassioned argument that presents a particular business principle as an ironclad law.  No questions asked.

My usual reaction is: “Really? Are readers expected to believe their businesses are failing because they hold meetings? This is why sales are plummeting?”

The problem with business absolutes is that while they might reflect sound principles, they don’t apply perfectly within the real world of everyday business. Experienced entrepreneurs and leaders know this and consider everything they read with a grain of salt. They use their own judgment, take what is useful, and discard the rest.

Here are a few of my favorite absolutist attacks from the past few years:
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What Would You Do? The Hidden Cost of Hurriedness

(NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from a book chapter I wrote titled “Integrity of Communication.”  It outlines a classic social psychology experiment that sheds light on the question:  Why do we so often avoid taking the most obvious and essential steps to building a solid startup foundation?  I’ve shared this story many times in 2014 while helping a large global company build a more entrepreneurial culture. Many of the leaders I’ve worked with — in this company and others — are haunted and hounded by pressing to-do lists, compressed calendars, and a sense that they are always behind schedule.  While speed/agility are critical to entrepreneurial success, the “hurriedness” that accompanies them can have debilitating consequences).

  • Why do we, as founders, not put adequate attention to the things we (say we) value?
  • Why do we not do what we know to be good for us?
  • What gets in the way of doing the right things?

I’m convinced that a major obstacle is the unrelenting urgency and haste—the perceived lack of time—that dominates most startup environments. It can be argued that time is a founder’s most precious resource. Infusing your venture with high-integrity communication requires the use of this resource. Venture changing conversations can’t always be scheduled in advance or put on a convenient agenda, and they don’t lend themselves to hurried shortcuts.

Social psychological research supports the idea that hurriedness is a major culprit in our lack of attention to things we say we value. In a famous study conducted in 1973 at Princeton University, John M. Darley, a professor of social psychology, and doctoral student C. Daniel Batson, researched the phenomenon of “Good Samaritan” behavior. They wanted to know what kinds of personality traits and situational factors influence a person’s likelihood of stopping to help an obviously distressed victim. In the study, they asked seminary students to walk across campus, one at a time, to a building where they would give a presentation. En route, each subject encountered a man (an actor) in obvious need of help, slumped in a doorway, moaning and coughing. The question of interest was: which students would stop to help and why?

Upon analyzing the results, the researchers were surprised to find no relationship between subjects’ personalities and whether or not they would stop to help the victim. Instead, helping behavior was mostly tied to a single variable: the degree to which subjects were in a hurry.

  • Of those subjects who were told they had “plenty of time” to arrive at their presentation site, 63 percent stopped and rendered aid to the victim.
  • People who were told they had “a few minutes” to spare stopped 45 percent of the time.
  • A third group of subjects, those who were told that they were “already running late” to their presentations, stopped only 10 percent of the time, even though they passed very close to the victim (a few even stepped over him on the way to their destination).

The message of the Good Samaritan study is that our sense of urgency can greatly influence whether our actions match up with our espoused values and priorities. The “hurried” seminary students in the study would claim to be just as altruistic as the other participants, but their sense of urgency clearly diminished their ability to act according to their stated values. Similarly, many entrepreneurs intend to create highly functioning, well-communicating teams, but often cast these good intentions aside amid the time pressures of the startup climate, where an ever-growing list of urgent concerns and to-dos crowds out more fundamental value-creation opportunities.

J.C. Faulkner, when asked about how he established trust and cohesiveness among his high-flying management team, concurs with the idea of no shortcuts. “It’s real simple. It took time” he said. “Trust is not something that you can buy, or that happens quickly. It is an intense thing that has to be developed over time.” The paradoxical good news for D1 was that this investment of time led to terrific speed and growth. “We had a goal to produce forty million dollars of business in a three year period,” J.C. recalls, “and we did it in twelve months. In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought it would happen, but I learned that an efficient management team that trusts each other can make so many decisions. The question is: how quickly, how effectively can you have conversations to make the best decisions? Some teams are too slow in making decisions, and some are very quick to make bad decisions. But if you are fast and you make the right decisions, it’s explosive.”

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The Commoditization of Ideas

Had a great time last week working with 50+ students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Flagler Business School. The students are part of the GLOBE program — an 18 month program bringing together undergraduates from three business schools: UNC’s Kenan-Flagler, Copenhagen Business School (CBS), and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

IDEAS ARE SEEDS

I took the students through our Entrepreneur Core Characteristics Profile (ECCP) and helped them identify implications of their results — how their personality matches up with what is typically required to launch a successful venture.

One of our more interesting conversations was about the relationship between ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurship.  I find that a lot of aspiring founders believe that startup success is mostly about the idea, when, in fact, ideas have become commoditized in today’s world. Because the world’s knowledge and data are instantly, globally google-able and sharable — chances are any brilliant idea you’ve developed is hatching in multiple sites and minds across the planet.

INNOVATION IS A HEALTHY PLANT

The metaphor we discussed is illustrated in the three posted pictures …

  • Ideas are like seeds:  plentiful, inexpensive, easy to access.
  • Innovation is getting a healthy plant out of the ground, generating fruit.
  • Entrepreneurship is farming — it’s about pulling together an entire process for creating value, putting food on tables (metaphorically) for a market that will pay for that value.  As such, entrepreneurship requires a wide range of capabilities and resources, not the least of which is time and (almost always) lots of patience.

ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS FARMING

Here’s the full slide deck from my talk.

Thank you Ted Zoller and Chris Mumford for inviting to work with the students.  Look forward to next time!

 

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Why Startups Fail at Communication (“Let me close the door”)

The newest computer can merely compound, at speed, the oldest problem in the relations between human beings, and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem, of what to say and how to say it.

Edward R. Murrow, 1964

On the face of it, you’d think startups and small businesses would be bastions of open, healthy communication, full of people who have sworn off the secret obsessions and toxic climates of the big corporations they left behind.

It should be easy to have direct, no-nonsense conversations in an early-stage venture. Right? No bureaucratic red tape to stifle candid dialogue or common-sense problem solving.

The reality is not so simple.

Case in point: An early-stage startup I advised a few years ago — a venture with only fifteen employees — where the firm’s COO listened to my private conference room interviews through the wall of his adjacent office by putting his ear to a cup against the wall (you can’t make this stuff up).
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Don’t Let Complexity Kill Your Value Proposition

I was working with a senior leader of a Fortune 100 company last week.  He was nervous about an upcoming product launch, one that had gotten countless hours of development and a treasure full of capital. Product developers were beaming and corporate expectations were through the roof.

His concern: the product would be dead on arrival because it was too complex for core customers to understand, and, at a more basic level, it was too complicated for even the company’s own salespeople to grasp and explain.

While the basic premise underlying the product was brilliant, the concept had been overtaken by feature creep — a proliferation of bells, whistles, bed knobs and broomsticks. Value had been eclipsed by complexity. Perfect had become the enemy of good.

The chart above, by Marc Effron, illustrates a simple, powerful business principle: the value/complexity curve. Effron uses it to explain why so many HR programs and systems are never implemented by an organization’s managers. Simply put, most corporate programs are too complicated for the average manager to put into use (Effron’s primary focus is on talent management systems, but the point travels well across all HR programs, and across nearly any internally driven corporate improvement program). The reality is that no program or product has any value unless it is implemented, and the tragedy is that few managers have the time and bandwidth to implement most programs, however well-intentioned, because the programs are over-thought and over-designed.

As Effron notes:

Our belief is that implementation is everything — if we simply get talent management practices implemented, they are going to deliver the results that you’re looking for.  And, if we can prove to managers that the practices will add more value to their life than more complexity, they are much more likely to use them.

His point reminds me of a strategy truism:  A B-level strategy, effectively implemented, is infinitely more valuable than an A-level strategy that is poorly or sporadically implemented.

The value-compexity curve applies in spades to the startup process, and emphasizes the value of getting a minimum viable product in your customer’s hands.

Simple works, mainly because it’s more likely to actually happen. Everything beyond that is called improvement.

 

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Here’s to Sharper Attention and Greater Depth (Update)

 

I first came across Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, nearly two-and-a-half years ago, in June of 2010, as I was piecing together the last chapter of my own book.  When I say “came across,” I mean that I learned about Carr’s book via online publicity, scanned some of its content, and skimmed a few early reviews.  Within a few computer clicks, I had grasped the book’s message (I thought) so confidently that I referenced it in Chapter 8 of my book, right there on page 186:

“And in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr offers the well-formulated thesis that our 24/7 information age is robbing us of nothing less than our ability to think deeply.”

I knew at the time that Carr was on to something tremendously important. At an intuitive level, his core premise resonated with my experience almost perfectly.  Of course, I didn’t actually read his book. I was too busy finishing my own. And I certainly didn’t understand, at the time, the comic irony of my quickly and shallowly dipping a spoonful of content from the deep well of his synthesized work.

On Saturday afternoon, I finally picked up the new paperback edition of The Shallows and immersed myself in it over two days.  It’s been at least 20 years since a non-fiction book gripped me with such force, and I can’t think of one I would recommend more highly. Carr isn’t formulating academic theory, but instead, through his synthesis of a wide array of historical observations and neurological research, he’s telling a tale about how the human mind interacts with the forces of technology, for better and worse.  For all the incredible advances and conveniences offered by networked computing, we humans are riding a technological wave that might be returning us back to the viscerally-directed attention patterns of our pre-literate ancestors.

The book’s insights not only hit home for me at a personal level. Most of my professional work involves supporting and improving the performance of executives and entrepreneurs.  Many of them are harried, distracted, and drowning in torrential streams of unfiltered data. They reflexively snap their heads back and forth in hopes of capturing a few key bits and bytes of information. When they move with speed it’s usually toward unclear destinations, but more often they feel as if they’re running in quicksand.  Our ongoing joke about adult ADD has become so common that it just tires us even more.

Plenty of controversy has flown back and forth about Carr’s conclusions, with valid viewpoints on both sides, as he points out. But, when it comes to understanding the stuff of which we are made — how we think, choose, and act — and the direction in which we are moving as a species, this debate might be the most fruitful of our time.

Here’s wishing you, your families, and your firms a wonderful 2013, full of clear thinking, deep attention, appropriate velocity, and the joy of engaging in all the right challenges!

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Two notes: (1) The absence of hyper-links in this post is intentional — read Carr’s book to find out why (not a permanent practice, just a nod on my part). (2) This is not a PR-driven post. I don’t know the author or his publicists.

UPDATE – click on ‘comments’ below to get a broader perspective and more detailed response from Elizabeth Helfant (@ehelfant). Elizabeth’s expertise is in instructional technology (check out her bio here) and she’s more deeply versed than most of us.  Please add your thoughts as well… Thanks – JB.

 

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