Stories of an Entrepreneur’s Resourcefulness

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to hear Jewel Burks Solomon share her entrepreneurial journey and it was incredible. Reflecting on the Partpic story, the piece that stood out the most was her neverending resourcefulness. Setbacks, adversity, challenges — no match for her.

Within her journey, hear are a few stories that stood out:

  • Jewel joined a company’s management training program and was assigned to run a call center. Only, on a daily basis she was bothered by angry customers needing to solve a problem — what’s the name and number for this part? She came up with an idea for a software product that analyzed a picture to determine the part. Yet, management at the company had no interest in pursuing her idea. Hence, the idea for Partpic — a computer-vision system for identifying parts — was born.
  • After investing her lifesavings in the idea, and running out of money, she started entering pitch competitions — anywhere and everywhere — as a way to fund the business. $250,000 and multiple pitch competition wins later, she had cash (bonus: it was mostly non-dilutive!).
  • When she decided to raise money, she pinpointed Joanne Wilson as her desired angel investor. Instead of approaching Joanne directly, she worked her network and met with several entrepreneurs Joanne had already invested in, and then asked them to intro her to Joanne in the same week. Joanne was the first angel investor.
  • Wanting to get on the radar of Amazon.com, she pointed out to the Amazon Web Services conference manager there weren’t enough women speakers, and she had just the person — her technical leader that was a machine learning expert. Amazon.com took her up the idea, her technical leader presented, and Amazon.com’s corporate development team was in the audience during the talk. After the talk, the corp dev team gave their business cards to the technical leader, who then gave the cards to Jewel. Jewel followed up and the rest is history — an acquisition by Amazon.com

Resourcefulness is one of the most important traits of successful entrepreneurs and Jewel’s story painted one of the most compelling pictures I’ve heard. Special thanks to Jewel for sharing her story and helping the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Growing Endeavor in the Southeast

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to spend a day in Birmingham, Alabama with the Endeavor Atlanta team in an effort to expand the non-profit to other regions of the Southeast. Endeavor, an international organization with offices in 32 countries, is leading the high impact entrepreneurship movement around the world. Think of Endeavor as an organization that supports scale ups (startups post product/market fit in the scaling phase) with mentorship, continuing education, networking, and an all-around high impact entrepreneurship ethos.

In Atlanta, we have eight Endeavor Entrepreneurs building amazing companies. These companies range from lease accounting software to second home rental marketplaces to Bitcoin payment processing platforms. Endeavor isn’t limited to tech companies. In fact, globally, most Endeavor Entrepreneurs aren’t in tech. The key: high impact entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is one of the most powerful forces to help communities through job and wealth creation.

Now, with Endeavor Atlanta off to a great start, we’re looking to grow the Endeavor footprint in the Southeast with regional offices. These regional offices would support their local entrepreneurs and lean on the Atlanta office to interface with the global network. Once a regional office achieves enough scale, they’d then become their own full office. The Southeast, with 80+ million people, is the fastest growing region in the United States and has a tremendous number of entrepreneurs.

If you’re an entrepreneur, or supporter of entrepreneurs, in the Southeast, please reach out as we’d enjoy talking about ways to grow Endeavor in the region.

Frequent, Quality Communication as Success Indicator

Recently I was talking to a friend and he asked about indicators of entrepreneur success post investment. Now, pre-investment, entrepreneur personality traits like grit and resourcefulness come to mind, but after partnering with an entrepreneur, it’s a behavior that’s most indicative: frequent, quality communication.

Frequent, quality communication is an action, not a personality trait, and one that every entrepreneur can do. Only, too many entrepreneurs don’t do it.

So, if communication is an indicator of success, why don’t more entrepreneurs do it?

Easy, prioritization.

Many entrepreneurs simply don’t prioritize frequent, quality communication. To some, it’s beneath them — simply not worth their time. To others, they don’t understand the benefit.

Frequent, quality communication with all constituents — employees, investors, advisers, mentors partners — develops more clarity of thought and a vehicle for feedback and help. Just the act of communicating forces an articulation of position, strategy, and approach. More communication, more results.

Communication comes in many forms. Some of the most effective methods are the weekly update, simplified one page strategic plan, and daily check-ins.  Whether the communication is written, in-person, or virtual, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s frequent and high quality.

Communicate early and often. Put in the effort. Make communication a priority.

12 Ideas to Strengthen Culture

Corporate culture is a funny thing. Similar to my favorite definition of brand — how you feel about the last experience with a company — culture is expectations of how people behave, both internal and external, at a company. Only, without intentionality around culture, culture will be inconsistent and corresponding behavior expectations low. The strongest cultures have clear values, repeatable processes, and high expectations.

Culture is powerful.

Culture is a unique differentiator.

Culture is the only thing in complete control of the entrepreneurs.

Here are 12 ideas to strengthen culture:

  1. Establish the mission, vision, and values
  2. Develop a Simplified One Page Strategic Plan and update it quarterly
  3. Build SMART goals/OKRs and revisit them weekly
  4. Run daily check-ins for active organization of priorities
  5. Organize an interview flow for the desired values
  6. Integrate culture check teams in the hiring process
  7. Ensure quarterly check-ins to review results and areas for improvement
  8. Highlight the hero and idea of the month
  9. Send a weekly update email to keep everyone aligned
  10. Solicit regular employee feedback at all levels
  11. Incentivize internal referrals for people with similar values
  12. Escape the office with regular off-site retreats

High performing companies have high performing cultures. Use these ideas to build a strong, enduring culture.

SaaS Enemy #1: Churn

At time we sold Pardot several years ago, our monthly gross churn was 1.4%. On an annualized basis, it was roughly an 80% renewal rate. Back then, we had next to no upselling of customers due to a poor pricing model (it was subsequently changed), resulting in a net renewal rate (upsells less downgrades and cancels) that was essentially the same as the gross renewal rate.

With a growth rate of 100% year over year, we weren’t concerned with plateauing where new customer signings are negated by customer churn resulting in a no-growth business (general ballpark, depending on a number of factors, is that the growth rate goes down 20% per year e.g. 100% year one, 80% year two, 60% year three, etc.). Only, without a much better net renewal rate, ideally over 100%, it was clear that in the next few years the customer base would get so large, and the new customer signings larger, but not large enough, that the business would no longer grow.

Customer churn is the #1 enemy of SaaS startups.

So much shine wears off a startup when it isn’t growing fast, and the fastest way to ensure that it keeps growing, is to not have any churn (nearly impossible save for software to large, enterprise customers), or low churn plus upsell, resulting in growth even if no new customers are signed. Everything from custom professional services to great customer support to heavy qualification of the potential customer before they’ve signed should be employed to ensure the highest probability of customer success, and thus the greatest chance of being a customer for life.

Churn is part of the SaaS experience, but everything possible should be done to minimize it and maximize the chance for net negative churn.

What else? What are some more thoughts on churn as the #1 enemy of SaaS startups?

Start a Startup with Community

Recently I was meeting with an entrepreneur that’s early in the search for product/market fit. With a few paying customers, he was looking for scalable ways to find people that would both be potential customers as well as provide feedback on the product. Instead of just looking for potential customers immediately, I suggested a different approach: build a community of like-minded people that care about the problems and opportunities he cares about for his startup.

But how? Create a local meetup.

Find five people that care about the idea or topic. Don’t worry if they are potential customers or potential competitors. If they care about the common idea, get them together. Invite a guest speaker or develop some conversation starters for the group.

Meetups like this promote idea sharing, help everyone develop personal relationships, and make great content for future blogs, tweets, and videos. The human connection shouldn’t be underestimated. Even with all the digital interactions, people want to be around other people, live and in person.

Then, how do you scale this? Go to another city.

Find a like-minded person or customer in a different location. Setup a dinner at a central restaurant or ask another company to use their board room. Build more relationships, share more ideas, and create more community.

Community starts with one other person. Then another. And another.

Like any overnight success many years in the making, community takes time. The best time to start is now.

What else? What are some more thoughts on starting a startup with community?

So you have a startup idea, what’s next?

Earlier this week I was talking to an entrepreneur that has a startup idea, but is having a hard time making progress. Naturally, he’s intently focused on raising money and believes cash from investors will solve the problems. While cash from investors would help with building his idea in its current form, it doesn’t validate a need in the market. In fact, demonstrating authentic demand would significantly help convince investors to invest.

So, what’s next? The recommended next step is to read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. From the book blurb:

The Lean Startup approach fosters companies that are both more capital efficient and that leverage human creativity more effectively.  Inspired by lessons from lean manufacturing, it relies on “validated learning,” rapid scientific experimentation, as well as a number of counter-intuitive practices that shorten product development cycles, measure actual progress without resorting to vanity metrics, and learn what customers really want.

Some startup ideas need a go-forward-at-all-costs approach because the market doesn’t know what they want. The vast, vast majority of startup ideas are better off going the “validated learning” approach where the entrepreneur starts with a thesis, works to get ideas and input from potential customers in an unaided fashion (don’t lead the witness!), and then iterates from there.

With an idea and a vision, the next step is to validate it.

What else? What are some more thoughts on what to do next when you have a startup idea?