Founder Feedback Year #2: Its Not Just About Execution Anymore

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Today is the two-year anniversary of StackSocial.  Exactly one year ago, I published a blog post that helped me survive the emotional rollercoaster that is being a startup founder.  Writing that post forced me to put down on paper some important reminders not only for others, but also for myself. I love writing (and learning), so I’m back for another installment of founder “lessons learned”.  Hopefully this year I’ll keep my resolution to write more than once per year!  :)

For me, the first full year of business was an all out war.  In the trenches with my comrades, day in and day out.  There were no days off…no timeouts….it was an all or nothing battle, or so it seemed. My post last year discussed the toll that can take on any human being and ways to best handle it.

This year I want to address how our growth has helped us evolve our focus and mature beyond “survival mode” to “thriving mode”.

Typically, we don’t toot our own horn much around Stack HQ, but Its worth celebrating some of the extraordinary “wins” we’ve had since a year ago.  The number of StackSocial customers has grown nearly 4X from 130,000 to over 500,000, our team has grown from 5 full-time employees to 16 full-time employees.  Our publisher commerce platform has never been stronger: we have over 25 white-label integrations and our commerce partner roster includes prominent Internet titans such as: AOL, CNET, Gizmodo, LIfehacker, TNW, and others.  We completely redesigned our site from the ground up improving every aspect of the user interface and customer experience.  Our product inventory on site has never been better — the brands are stronger, the apps/services are more relevant, and the gadgets are more innovative.  We’ve captured a lead and uniquely positioned ourselves in the epicenter of the shift to “native commerce” on the web.  We’ve listened to our users and we know where 2014 is leading us — mobile, social, and native.  I’ve never been more excited about the future of this company and all this was done while raising less than $1 million in seed capital and never spending a dime of it.

And with all that being said, times could never be more volatile.  Last year, I discussed how founding a startup is like a rollercoaster; this year I feel a better analogy is to that of a Class 5 whitewater rapid.  You are moving forward at a rapid pace in a monstrously powerful river and all you have to steer is a tiny oar.  There are huge boulders to the left, right, and just ahead to navigate.  Each new moment brings an alarming mixture of awareness and anxiety that makes the hair on your arms stand up.  

How could this happen? It can’t be done. I have no f*cking clue what to do.These are all phrases that have been said by many an entrepreneur before.  Funny enough, somehow we manage to continue down the rapids and find our way to an exhilarating, demanding, and, yes, enjoyable journey.  If year one was about simply getting down the rapids without smashing into a rock, year two was about figuring out how to steer a fleet of rafts down that same rapid.  

Here are 4 more lessons I’ve learned this year that helped me navigate:

1. Lesson #1: Its Not Just About Execution Anymore

There are many types of leaders out there. My style is all about execution by example as opposed to visionary by story-telling.  It served me well in year one: signing contracts, calling potential partners, raising capital, doing customer support, paying out vendors, designing the product, creating facebook ads…whatever needed to be done.  As we grew, I was forced to hire (happily) and that brought new challenges: communicating a vision, cultivating a culture, discovering talent, instilling process, and building a brand.  

As you grow, you must leverage your time and be prepared to switch your focus from being “task-oriented” to being “people-oriented”.  Its no longer about “getting it done”…now its about building a team that can scale at the same or better efficiency you can.  Stop doing - start managing.

2. Lesson #2: Build Something You’re Proud Of

Sounds obvious, but actually my advice for anyone prior to year two - is to just build something (fast) and test it.  Don’t waste time building the “perfect” product only to see that there isn’t a viable market.

But, once you’ve ascertained some product/market fit, you have customers and traction - there is nothing more powerful than working on something that you are truly proud of from both a front-end and back-end perspective.

People told us that our product was selling just fine on our old site design (which it was)…and not to focus on anything other than “growth” features.  Its certainly sound advice for many, but for us, post re-design we saw an surge in pride of ownership within our team — and its made all the difference in the way both our customers and our employees perceived our product.  It wasn’t just the “skin” that had changed — we took the entire team offsite to discuss our values and mission statement and integrated that into a totally “re-branded” company.  We get more inbound leads from partners, investors, and potential employees than ever before. Never underestimate the power of great design.

3. Lesson #3: Hire Slow, Fire Fast

Its been said many times before by smarter people than me, but I’m here to reiterate this tried and true advice once again: Hire Slow, Fire Fast.

On the firing front: there is nothing more debilitating, more poisonous to your team’s morale (and culture) than an employee that is not a fit for your organization.  The lack of fit could be in the form of an employee who is a “C Level” player, a “non-believer”, or someone’s who’s simply not a team player, etc.  Regardless of the reason, you need to cut them out of the organization as soon as you become aware of the reality. One bad apple can affect the morale and efficiency of the entire team.

On the hiring front: we’ve been cautious with hiring, perhaps overly cautious…and every time we jump the gun because “we REALLY need to fill that role” — it seems to backfire in the long run.  

Once your culture is “set”, create a consistent hiring process that ensure multiple employees vet each new hire across a wide range of facets including both quantitate and qualitative.  Almost every single one of our first 10 hires were through personal referrals of team members — its by far been the best resource to find talent early on.  As we’ve grown, we’ve used more recruiters which can be hit or miss…kind of like playing russian roulette — so always go in-house when you can.

4. Lesson #4: Find Your Secret Sauce & Make It Even Better

There’s always at least one (usually more than one) user acquisition channel…one type of customer…one product feature…one unique aspect of your company that sets you apart.  Something that your competition wish’s they had or tries to replicate, but you do better than everyone else.  Hone in on that.

Do insane amounts of due diligence on why that is….make it a science…then do whatever it takes to make it even better.  For us, our publisher platform is the key differentiator in our offering.  All of our competitors have either: a) a “destination” flash sales/marketplace site or b) a B2B platform focused on businesses (not consumers)…we have both.

Its been extremely daunting to manage two different stakeholders, two different products and many told us that we would fail if we tried to do both — but instead we’ve found them to be complimentary.  The key is that we built them so that they actually feed into one another and have helped us create partnerships and growth that wouldn’t have been possible had we only had one of the other.

But, ultimately, your secret sauce should always your people - at least it is for us.  Every time I think about the challenges that lay before us, the audacious goals we’ve set…I wonder how we’re going to make it and then realize its because we have the best f’ing team on the planet.  Bar none.  We started from humble beginnings and each day, each month we continue to increase our ambitions, our passion, and our will. I am floored by how much this group of individuals puts into our mission each and every day.  

If you don’t have that, you won’t get anywhere…so focus on the people.

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Founder Feedback: Celebrate The Small Wins

Exactly one year ago today, StackSocial was born unto the interwebs.  This week, we had a little celebration from our four-story beachside loft on Venice Beach.  As I look back, I find myself reflecting on what has been a very emotional rollercoaster….many ups, some downs and a lot of excitement.

I also find myself wondering what I could have done different…should have done different…and how to distill those experiences into a learning lesson for the future.  There are many, but the one I want to focus on applies to not only both current and future founders, but also to anyone leading a team of people: finding emotional balance.

Sounds pretty straightforward, but the real challenge is that your entire existence as a founder is unbalanced.  A funny story - the first week we joined the Amplify accelerator program, Jason Nazar (founder and ceo of docstoc) gave a talk in which he described how our lives were about to change.  He said that in general there are 5 fundamental aspects to everyone’s life: 

  1. Family - parents, siblings, wife, kids…
  2. Friends - best friends, college buddies, locals…
  3. Health - working out, sports, staying in shape…
  4. Work - your startup.
  5. Personal - hobbies, tv, reading, vacations, fun…

The average person balances their time across these 5 fundamentals in some reasonable fashion.  BUT…as a startup founder, you only get to pick TWO.

That is IT.  You get a) your startup and b)……. X.  Period.

A funny thing happened. I sat there in that chair actually feeling sorry for Jason - thinking it’s sad that he believes that he can only do two of the five.  He must be one of those overzealous founders that can’t figure out how to live a balanced life and be successful.

Well, let me tell you, one year later, he was more right than I ever could have imagined.  Being a founder means making sacrifices that you a) don’t want to make (i.e. - not taking vacations, not going out with friends as much, etc) and b) thought you would never have to make (i.e - your mental and emotional balance).  If I knew all that it took to do this job, there are many times where I doubt I would have gone ahead.

I don’t tell you this to scare you off or have a pity-party for founders, but just to let you know that it’s a bumpy ride emotionally, mentally, and physically.  When all your eggs are in one basket and that basket is constantly going up and down up and down…it’s damn stressful.  So, what to do about it?  

After a year or so, I’ve started to realize there are a couple things you can do to have some semblance of emotional balance in your life from a work perspective:

#1 - Focus on the long-term. 

You’re going to have some bad days, bad weeks, and probably a few bad months.  And, remember, you are the one that determines what “bad” means.  Most of us would be happy to hit 500 Million users in 3 years, but maybe to Zuck for Facebook - that wasn’t fast enough and he missed his goal.  Take a step back, realize how far you’ve come, and realign your expectations for the long-term.  Don’t let short-term bumps throw you off course.

#2 - Celebrate the small wins.

Dove-tailing off #1, it doesn’t sound hard until you really think about what it means to “win” in the startup game.  Your goals are seemingly ever-evolving and increasing as you grow.  A great example was just the other morning when I woke up:  

I checked our month-to-date revenue and it was 100.4% to goal.  Instead of sending out a congratulatory email to the team…I looked at it and thought to myself: “Huh….we underestimated revenue”.  So, I bumped up our goal by 20% with 2 days left in the month!  

That’s kind of like crossing the finishline of a marathon ahead of your time and telling yourself you were too fast, so you need to run an extra 4 miles instead of celebrating a victory!

No one is going to be pushing harder that you to make your company a success, but you have to pat yourself and your team on the back every once in awhile. Otherwise - what’s the point?  

#3 - Trust in Your Team

As a founder, no one wants to succeed more than you do, but that doesn’t mean you have to bear the entire burden.  That’s why you hire people smarter and more experienced than you.  Communicate the goals, share the weight, trust in your team to help you hit the milestones you set out to accomplish.

#4 - Seek out Advice

You probably formed an advisory board.  You may have some investors.  UTILIZE THEM!  And, don’t be afraid to go to them with bad news — in fact, that’s when you need them the most.  They are there to help you overcome the obstacles and bring back emotional balance to your life.  :)

You started this because it was a lifelong dream and it was actually insanely fun!  Don’t lose that spirit as you grow.  Expectations grow, pressure grows, but no matter what win, lose, or draw- don’t stop having fun.  

Celebrate the small wins.

Design Is How It Works.

I usually try to write fairly in-depth posts, but came across this blog post from John Gruber today that made a point that I find myself constantly trying to make, so I wanted to re-post it real quick.  

He writes about how Walter Isaacson misrepresents design as how a product looks and feels instead of understanding what it’s really about — how a product works:

Isaacson clearly believes that design is merely how a product looks and feels, and that “engineering” is how it actually works.

Jobs, in an interview with Rob Walker for his terrific 2003 New York Times Magazine profile on the creation of the iPod, said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

"Design" is so core to what Apple is and why it’s so successful that I’m glad Gruber corrects this distinction.  It’s unfortunate that so many people assume, as Isaacson did, that design is fluff (or veneer as Jobs puts it).  

User Interface design and User Experience design should be so intertwined that you never consider one without the other.  And therefore, clearly, design must be at the crux of every product…otherwise, what’s the point?

Wanna-preneur to Entre-preneur: 4 Steps to Making the Leap

Last week was a big week for me.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur.  And, although I had many characteristics of one, I never rose to what I consider to be the true definition of one.  (Now, I can finally say that has officially changed.)

Sure, I have been starting ventures, projects, and even full blown online companies with users and revenue since my first paper route at 12 years old, but none of these “projects” were ever my “full-time” job.  I always had some backstop (i.e. - a good excuse to tell people why what I was working on failed) whether it was school, a corporate gig, or another job that provided my source of income or security.

To spur on a bit of motivation, I would self-deprecatingly refer to myself as a “wanna-preneur”.  And in my opinion, a wanna-preneur is the worst kind of person in the startup world…the type of person that always talks about building a company, can recite every story from TechCrunch for the past 3 months, and is the world’s best critique of why your idea will never work, but never takes the big risk themself.

So, I began to think…why did it take me 32 years to become an entrepreneur even though I’ve known this is what I wanted to do since the 4th grade. So, I made a list and surprisingly, I could only come up with a couple reasons.  Here are my personal roadblocks to entrepreneurship:

1. Lack of personal network of technical people

2. Fear of letting go of a secure job and income

3. Belief that you can successfully build a startup while keeping a day job

4. Not becoming part of/participating in an entrepreneurial community

So, let’s break those down:

Lack of personal network of technical people.  

I was actually a Computer Information Systems undergrad and learned some front-end development skills (HTML/CSS/Photoshop/etc…) which lead to me building my first startup in 2001 from scratch.  So…why did I need technical people if I could code (a bit)?  Because as many solo founders will tell you – it sucks.  And, at my core, I am product/strategy/design guy even though I can understand and code a bit…it’s not my forte.  

Point being, I knew I needed to find a technical cofounder, but I had no idea where to find one.  All of my friends were marketers/BD guys/sales guys…and all of their friends were too.  I am shocked looking back at how few engineers I hung out with earlier in my life.  There is like this invisible Chinese wall between communities of business guys and engineers.  Usually they don’t share the same interests and therefore they’re usually hanging out in very different places.

A huge mistake I made was not taking the time to make purposeful attempts to find and develop friendships with more technical-oriented people…whether they were software engineers, designers, web developers or whatever.  It never dawned on me that building a personal circle of friends that were engineers was important instead of trying to simply “hire” someone. (Google: “Wharton MBA seeks Code Monkey”…yeah, not good).

Fear of letting go of secure job and income.  

All four of these reasons tie into one another in some way…but this one is probably the biggest issue for me.  Growing up in a lower-middle class family, we always had enough, but I knew I wanted more.  And right way out of college, I found my first year salary to be more than what I ever remembered growing up with.  This was a big deal.  Giving up this income to start a company would very likely mean that I could end up back in the same financial position where I grew up…and that was simply unacceptable. Instead of letting that fear motivate me into going full-time into my entrepreneurial endeavors, it paralyzed me to stay in a corporate gig I hated.

I had actually built and coded a fairly successful ecommerce startup during my senior year of college and ran it for a couple years afterwards, but it couldn’t generate enough revenues because I refused to go full-time, I didn’t have a technical co-founder to add the functionality necessary to differentiate it from competition, and I refused to quit my job because of the above reason.

So, I was stuck.  

What have I learned on this point?  Take the biggest risk acceptable to you. 

If you refuse to quit your job for security/income purposes…sit down and calculate how much money you would need to “securely” make that decision.  

Secondly, start building the company on the side and get it to a stage that you feel comfortable displays enough traction to get others interested in your idea/project.

If fear and security are your issues, systematically attack them.  Make goals and promise yourself that you will take certain actions after certain milestones are hit.

Belief that you can successfully build a startup while keeping a day job.

Including this is someone hypocritical of me since I just said in the previous paragraph that you should start a company as a side project.  To a certain extent, you can, but you have to know when to say when…and usually most people never say “when” at all.  And that’s the point of this post – don’t be like me and take 10 years to grow some balls.  The truth of the matter is that keeping your day job makes it infinitely harder to build a successful startup.

Paul Graham has laid this argument out much better than I ever could, but basically it comes down to the fact that it allows you give up so much easier than if you don’t have a backstop.  Obviously, it also takes away from your ability to give it 110% as well as reduces your credibility when trying to get co-founders, partners, investors, advisors, etc) to work with you.

No one really takes you seriously until you are “full-time” on your start-up, especially yourself…so, if you believe in yourself, don’t wait.

Not becoming part of/participating in an entrepreneurial community.

You may say, well…duh, doesn’t take a genius to figure out you might want to network with other entrepreneurs.  But, I think people severely underestimate the importance of deeply integrating yourself with like-minded people.  This is how you meet co-founders, vet ideas, learn best practices, bounce ideas off people.  Otherwise, you’re stuck in your own head or reading reactively what others did in the past.  Innovation comes from something as simple as a few guys sitting around talking about problems and how to solve them.

What I’ve learned here is that if you truly want to become an entrepreneur…you need to a) geek out w/ some engineers, devs, etc b) contribute to the community and not just troll and c) do it consistently.

My whole theory of becoming a “true” entrepreneur is just to “get myself into the game”.

That’s 80% of the battle right there.  I’ve always been confident that if I can get myself on the field of entrepreneurship, I will win…so now the biggest battle is behind me.  I’ve been practicing the fundamentals of entrepreneurship long enough that I’m confident the rest is going to come.  I have no doubt in my mind about that.

This post probably won’t apply to a lot of people, but if you’re currently a wanna-preneur I hope this helps you to start mapping out actions and milestones to becoming what you really want: an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur Series: Part 4 - Intro to PR

In my previous entrepreneur series posts, I covered developing the idea, the name, and doing field research.  Now you’re on the path to launching…and you want to come out guns blazing.  Let’s run through some of the do’s and dont’s and get you on your way to your first TC article.

The pic above is a photo used in one the articles covering the launch of my current startup.  Its a reminder for me of what a pain in the &$$! getting PR can be if you don’t have the connections or the right “kind” of startup.  If you are a Silicon Valley insider with social media connections to your buds like Adam Ostrow @ mashable or MG @ TechCrunch…well, then this post probably isn’t for you. But for the rest of us, PR requires a long-term strategy that needs to honed…read on for some basic tips to hacking your way into a bit of PR for your launch.

Lesson #1:

Plan in Advance.  Now I know most of you are probably saying to yourselves: “no shit sherlock”…but hey, when you’re busy these things can creep up on ya!  I made the almost hilarious mistake of waiting until 1am the night before the day of our launch to start emailing PR folks.  For some unknown reason, I totally underestimated how busy bloggers and press folks actually are…do not make this mistake.

If PR folks are just hearing about your launch a few hours before everyone else is…it’s too late. Its all about “the scoop” with bloggers and the press.  That’s really the only currency you have to offer as an unknown startup…that is unless you already have a serious track-record.  My suggestion…start creating your PR list about 10 days in advance and start emailing folks about 5-7 days before your launch.  

Lesson #2:

Build your own Momentum.   Imagine…you have launched nothing other than a LaunchRock launch page, but you’ve been designing and building your startup for months.  When you reach out for a cold email to any blogger, the first thing they will do is google you.  What will they find?  

Obviously, you will have your blog up.  But, what type of content will be there?  Will you be perceived as an expert in your space?  Will you give your startup a personality that resonates with your potential customers and partners?  It sounds obvious, but for those of you not in YC, TechStars, and the rest…you need to start somewhere.  Start early.

Lesson #3:

Bloggers write about lines not dots.   I’m borrowing this phrase from a post I read by Mark Suster that said the same thing about how VC’s invest.  They invest in people that they have a series of encounters with them so they can plot several markers to make a determination to say ‘yes’ to investing in an entrepreneur.  Bloggers are much the same.  A cold email is not all that cold if the blogger has had quick convos with you on twitter or in the comments sections of their articles.  

You can’t follow everyone, but pick a few favorites and make sure you follow them on twitter and read their articles consistently.  That way, when an email comes in from you…your name may actually stick in the back of their mind somewhere.

Lesson #4:

Get some heavy hitters in your corner.   Now, for the most part, this entire article series is aimed at very early entrepreneurs that are just getting started…so I’m assuming you’re not well-connected in Silicon Valley yet.  But…regardless, you need to line up some “heavy-hitters” to back you up on the day of your launch.  And by “heavy-hitters”…I don’t mean Darryl Isaacs…I mean, anyone in the tech industry that has connections to VC’s, startup CEO’s, bloggers, etc…and has some serious klout

Again, its all about building relationships.  Reach out to anyone that you admire in your space and ask them to have coffee.  You’d be surprised how many will say yes…people have big hearts in the startup world and they know what goes around comes around.  So, get out there are mingle…and if they believe in what you’re doing and they ask how they can help…this is fairly easy way.

Lesson #5: 

Give something away.  If all else fails and you missed steps #1-4 above, then do what I did…give something away.  We built an e-commerce startup, so we reached out to niche bloggers (not TC et al) and offered them a handful of promo products to give to their customers as a giveaway.  Its not quite the same as getting a “real” review, but hey…at least you’re getting some press.

If you don’t have a product to giveaway, then buy an iPad or something and give that away.  Look at it as an investment…a way to get your foot in the door.  Once you’ve worked with those bloggers/publishers once…hopefully the next time you have a scoop, you do it the right way and they write about you for real.  

Good Luck!

JNP