Emails to a Young Entrepreneur: Finding Talent

Day 119 of Self Quarantine             Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  134,000

Finding Talent

Flip Comic created by David Robinson

“The true path to wisdom can be identified by three things,” said Petrus. “First, it must involve agape, and I’ll tell you more about this later; second, it has to have practical application in your life. Otherwise, wisdom becomes a useless thing and deteriorates, like a sword that is never used.

“And finally, it has to be a path that can be followed by anyone. Like the road you are walking now, the Road to Santiago.”

Coelho, Paulo, The Pilgrimage (Plus) (pp. 27-28). HarperCollins.


Glen Ellen, CA USA, Benziger Family Winery, July 10, 2013

Dear Mikhail,

Thanks for your kind words about how much the flipping perspective exercises helped you to start observing your audience and customers. I am already seeing differences in your observing and discovering mindset as you describe your exercises and insights. I appreciate your sending along what you learned from brainstorming ways to create an audience for your project. As I shared earlier, I am not qualified to judge what is right for you and your path.

While a young mother understands that she is not alone in nurturing the infant and transitioning to being a parent, she realizes there is a lot to the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child.”

It takes a village of partners to raise a new venture.

In your emails, I’ve read a lot about your idea and your background. I haven’t heard anything about your partners in this endeavor and the talent that is surrounding you.

Today, I would like to share the importance of three people in your village that will nurture and help you develop your new venture. The key talent roles that you need to intentionally seek out are – your co-founder, your growth partner customer, and your lead investor. The search for each of these partners is much like the search for your life partner in a marriage. You will be interacting with each of these partners during the intensity of the infancy of your venture as much or more than with your life partner.

As I struggle to understand and share the lessons of my forty years of conceiving and growing new ventures, I am reminded of an hour long presentation on the culture of Japan.  We tried to absorb these lessons the first morning of our arrival in Japan as part of a Total Quality Control Study Mission with twenty manufacturing managers from Digital Equipment Corporation.

Jean Pearce, a columnist for the English language Japan Times, is a diminutive lady who has been in Japan for several decades.  Her comments stick with me 25 years later as I attempt to share the culture of entrepreneuring:

“When I first arrived in Japan, I was able to write a full book about the Japanese culture.  After a year, I was barely able to write five pages about the culture of Japan.  Today, after thirty years of living in Japan, I can’t even write a single definitive sentence about the culture of Japan.  The more I experience the Japanese culture, the less able I am to generalize.  However, I can share many examples of differences between America and Japan and hopefully that will help you experience your stay in Japan in a different manner.”

Jean pointed out a difference between East and West through something as simple as eating utensils. Silverware is noisy, clunky and cutting. Chopsticks are quiet and have not been used by others before. They are natural and have sensitivity.

She pulled out a little cage for keeping insects in the house so that one can hear the song of summer. The cage is arranged so that you feed the insect cucumbers or watermelon. I asked her later about these cages and she pointed me to the following short story:


Lofcadio Hearn

“His cage is exactly two Japanese inches high and one inch and a half wide: its tiny wooden door, turning upon a pivot, will scarcely admit the tip of my little finger.  But he has plenty of room in that cage — room to walk, and jump, and fly, for he is so small that you must look very carefully through the brown-gauze sides of it in order to catch a glimpse of him.  I have always to turn the cage round and round, several times, in a good light, before I can discover his whereabouts, and then I usually find him resting in one of the upper corners – clinging, upside down, to his ceiling of gauze.

Imagine a cricket about the size of an ordinary mosquito — with a pair of antennae much longer than his own body, and so fine that you can distinguish them only against the light.  Kusa-Hibari, or “Grass-Lark” is the Japanese name of him; and he is worth in the market exactly twelve cents: that is to say, very much more than his weight in gold.  Twelve cents for such a gnat-like thing! . . . By day he sleeps or meditates, except while occupied with the slice of fresh egg-plant or cucumber which must be poked into his cage every morning . . .to keep him clean and well fed is somewhat troublesome: could you see him, you would think it absurd to take any pains for the sake of a creature so ridiculously small.

But always at sunset the infinitesimal soul of him awakens: then the room begins to fill with a delicate and ghostly music of indescribable sweetness — a thin, silvery rippling and trilling as of tiniest electric bells.  As the darkness deepens, the sound becomes sweeter — sometimes swelling till the whole house seems to vibrate with the elfish resonance — sometimes thinning down into the faintest imaginable thread of a voice.  But loud or low, it keeps a penetrating quality that is weird . . . All night the atomy thus sings: he ceases only when the temple bell proclaims the hour of dawn.

Now this tiny song is a song of love — vague love of the unseen and unknown.  It is quite impossible that he should ever have seen or known, in this present existence of his.  Not even his ancestors, for many generations back, could have known anything of the night-life of the fields, or the amorous value of song.

They were born of eggs hatched in a jar of clay, in the shop of some insect-merchant: and they dwelt thereafter only in cages.  But he sings the song of his race as it was sung a myriad years ago, and as faultlessly as if he understood the exact significance of every note.  Of course he did not learn the song.  It is a song of organic memory — deep, dim memory of other quintillions of lives, when the ghost of him shrilled at night from the dewy grasses of the hills.  Then that song brought him love — and death.  He has forgotten all about death: but he remembers the love.  And therefore he sings now — for the bride that will never come.

So that his longing is unconsciously retrospective: he cries to the dust of the past — he calls to the silence and the gods for the return of time. . .Human lovers do very much the same thing without knowing it.  They call their illusion an Ideal: and their Ideal is, after all, a mere shadowing of race-experience, a phantom of organic memory.  The living present has very little to do with it. . .Perhaps this atom also has an ideal, or at least the rudiment of an ideal; but, in any event, the tiny desire must utter its plaint in vain.

The fault is not altogether mine.  I had been warned that if the creature were mated, he would cease to sing and would speedily die.  But, night after night, the plaintive, sweet, unanswered trilling touched me like a reproach — became at last an obsession, an affliction, a torment of conscience; and I tried to buy a female.  It was too late in the season; there were no more kusa-hibari for sale, — either males or females.  The insect-merchant laughed and said, “He ought to have died about the twentieth day of the ninth month.” (It was already the second day of the tenth month.)  But the insect-merchant did not know that I have a good stove in my study, and keep the temperature at above 75 degrees F.  Wherefore my grass-lark still sings at the close of the eleventh month, and I hope to keep him alive until the Period of the Greatest Cold.  However, the rest of his generation are probably dead: neither for love nor money could I now find him a mate.  And were I to set him free in order that he might make the search for himself, he could not possibly live through a single night, even if fortunate enough to escape by day the multitude of his natural enemies in the garden — ants, centipedes, and ghastly earth-spiders.

Last evening — the twenty-ninth of the eleventh month — an odd feeling came to me as I sat at my desk: a sense of emptiness in the room.  Then I became aware that my grass-lark was silent, contrary to his wont.  I went to the silent cage, and found him lying dead beside a dried-up lump of egg-plant as gray and hard as a stone.  Evidently he had not been fed for three or four days; but only the night before his death he had been singing wonderfully — so that I foolishly imagined him to be more than usually contented.  My student, Aki, who loves insects, used to feed him; but Aki had gone into the country for a week’s holiday, and the duty of caring for the grass-lark had developed upon Hana, the housemaid.  She is not sympathetic, Hana the housemaid.  She says that she did not forget the mite — but there was no more egg-plant.  And she had never thought of substituting a slice of onion or of cucumber!. . .I spoke words of reproof to Hana the housemaid, and she dutifully expressed contrition.  But the fairy-music had stopped: and the stillness reproaches; and the room is cold, in spite of the stove.

Absurd!. . .I have made a good girl unhappy because of an insect half the size of a barley-grain!  The quenching of that infinitesimal life troubled me more than I could have believed possible. . .Of course, the mere habit of thinking about a creature’s wants — even the wants of a cricket — may create, by insensible degrees, an imaginative interest, an attachment of which one becomes conscious only when the relation is broken.  Besides, I had felt so much, in the hush of the night, the charm of the delicate voice — telling of one minute existence dependent upon my will and selfish pleasure, as upon the favor of a god — telling me also that the atom of ghost in the tiny cage, and the atom of ghost within myself, were forever but one and the same in the deeps of the Vast of being. . . And then to think of the little creature hungering and thirsting, night after night and day after day, while the thoughts of his guardian deity were turned to the weaving of dreams!. . .How bravely, nevertheless, he sang on to the very end — an atrocious end, for he had eaten his own legs!. . .May the gods forgive us all — especially Hana the housemaid!

“Yet, after all, to devour one’s own legs for hunger is not the worst that can happen to a being cursed with the gift of song.  There are human crickets who must eat their own hearts in order to sing.”

The cricket owner in the story didn’t understand the partnership he was in with the cricket to receive value from the song of summer. Just as the cricket had to find partners to keep him alive through cold and care and feeding, you will need to find the partners to nurture your business through these early fragile years. You will need to go beyond just the care and feeding to find the partner that can help you to conceive your products and your song of summer.

During my journey of “paying it forward” I have the privilege of meeting so many young entrepreneurs who are wonderfully committed to creating a business and making the world a better place. Dana Dyskterhuis is one of those special forces I rarely encounter – someone who is doing it AND is able to be reflective about her journey AND is gifted in communicating her story.

Dana was kind enough to describe her journey with her company Fanzo to my MBA class in entrepreneuring.

“I come from Omaha, Nebraska and I moved to Seattle six years ago. I took a job with Qwest Communications which is now CenturyLink. I was in marketing communications and got to work with the Seattle Seahawks. As part of the job I had to deal with a lot of the technical issues surrounding events at CenturyLink Stadium and had to be available 24/7.

“I graduated from a Nebraska college in broadcast journalism and started my professional life as a television news reporter. Then I went to the other side and did PR for an arena in Omaha, a hockey team, and a non-profit – The American Cancer Society.

“I was recruited from my arena job to do PR for this hockey team that was the minor league team for the Calgary Flames. I was really excited.  They’d been in town for a year and a half, but there was no buzz about them. No one was going to the games. However, my mom and I were going to the games and were wondering why no one was showing up.

“Then they hired a local president to run the team and he recruited me away. I had one question for him ‘Is the team here to stay?’ He looked me in the eye and said ‘the team is here to stay. You can leave your job and come with us.’

“So I left my job and started doing PR for the team and two months later they left our city. So I said enough. It is time to get out of Omaha, so I started looking at other cities like New York and the Qwest job opened up in Seattle. I’ll go there and retire. My grandma worked all her life for Qwest and I can go to Qwest and the rest of my life will be set.

“I spent a year and a half in my job and then there were layoffs. It was tough.”

“Let me take you back to when I arrived in Seattle.  I knew one person. How can I find people? I’m so shy. I wanted to find where all the Nebraska folks hung out. So I looked around for Game Day. Where did all the Huskers go for football game day? I couldn’t find the game day bar. I didn’t know where to go.

“Finally a few months later someone told me that all the Huskers go to Lucky 7 in Kirkland. So I went and it was this sea of red. Kind of a back home feeling. Cool.

“I didn’t think much about it at the time. In subsequent years I continued my PR work and did some consulting for mom and pop shops. I did business development in a startup. I was getting advice from lots of people that if I wanted to stay in Seattle, go join a startup.

“So I did the bus dev job. I thought it was the coolest thing. But then they ran out of money.

“About two years ago, I was noticing a pattern on Twitter and Facebook amongst my friends who were tweeting out all the time things like ‘Hey, I’m going to San Francisco where do I go to watch the game? I’m going to New York where do I go to watch Manchester United?’

“For some reason, I began noticing that this was a problem. So I just started solving the problem.  I began building a database of watch sites, designated watch sites for fans. It was a Google Docs spread sheet. I’m not a technical person. The spread sheet was for the Top 20 cities in the United States.

“I just started talking to people about this idea. They’d all say ‘yeah, I have that problem.’ The more people I’d talk to, they would share their version of the problem. I went to Kansas City and I didn’t know where to go.

“I felt I was on to something. Then I was at an event where there were Silicon Valley speakers. It was a motivational startup day event in Bellevue. I got 15 minutes with Micah Baldwin who started Follow Friday on Twitter. He is a huge presence. He’s an angel investor who had several startups before with both successes and failures.

“I had a couple of other ideas at the time. He went No to the first and second ideas. Ok, so I have this database of watch sites. He went ‘Tell me more.’

“I told him more about the watch sites. He said ‘Pursue that. Go find a technical co-founder.

“Oh my God. How do I do that? What am I doing? I am not a startup person. I’m not a technical person. I was feeling really lost and horrified.

“But I did it. I just started going to events pitching my idea. This is what I’m doing. This is what I need. I did a Startup Weekend event where you build a prototype in a weekend. So we did that with a team.

“Then it was at an event at the Amazon campus on South Lake Union that you could get up and give a 15 second pitch on what you were doing and what you needed. It was in the basement of the TechStars building.

“People were drinking whiskey and eating pizza. It was really casual, but super intimidating to me. There was a line all the way around the room of people wanting to pitch. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pitch. I was feeling really nervous.

“I had met a couple of people and they were like ‘you gotta do it.’ I was at the very end of the line and not going to pitch. But these folks kept encouraging me.

“Then the speaker said ‘OK, we’re done. Oh, but wait there is one more.’ I went ‘Oh God, OK.’ Then the speaker asked the crowd ‘Should we bring her up, should we bring her up?’

“The crowd yelled ‘Yeah, Pitch! Pitch!’ I went ‘Oh no. Extra pressure.’

“I got up and gave my pitch. I don’t remember what I said. Other than ‘If you want to start this business with me, come find me and we’ll go hook up.’ Then I realized what I said and went ‘No, No, I didn’t mean that.’ How embarrassing. I clarified that right away.

“After the pitch I stood around and talked to people and as luck would have it my co-founder Paul was there. I didn’t know who he was at first. Just this guy who came up to talk. He was interested and asking questions. What’s your business model? What’s your go to market? I had ideas.

“He’s like ‘OK.’ So then I asked ‘and who are you? Please tell me about you.’

“He said ‘I’m the CTO at Smilebox.’ My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe I was talking to him. I knew their space and I knew that they’d just sold for $40M. He helped co-found it and he was looking for his next project. And he loves sports.

“I went ‘Oh, this is my guy. I got to get him.’

“I spent the next several months winning him over. That meant meeting his parents, his wife, his children. Just like a family.

“We were hashing everything out. In that time also we created document after document – on competitors, go to market, business model, legal process, all of that.  All the grunt work that is really necessary. He left his job at Smilebox to join me full time about a year and a half ago.

“We just started testing the product out in the community. Paul said we can’t build a business off of watch sites. We have to think bigger.”

As I watched Dana, I saw her story come through to the class through her non-verbal skills as much or more than the words she shared. I told her about my experience of her presence.  She laughed and reminded me that she worked for a number of years as a TV reporter. One of the challenges of finding the talent for your new venture is practicing empathetic or deep listening. Researchers share that only 7% of communication is in the words that are spoken, with 38% coming from the way the words are said, and 55% from your facial expressions and posture.

Mikhail take some time to deeply observe the full messages through deep listening. I find it worthwhile to watch video of myself giving presentations and when interviewing others to understand how my full palette of communication channels are working (or not).

Each of us experiences the world in many ways based on our personality, learning style, communication style and on and on. We are a product of our life history. Yet, we have to continually communicate with others. Just as Dana was driven to pursue her idea and communicated in many different ways to find her co-founder, a key part of being an entrepreneur is adjusting your style to others. Being persistent AND flexible is part of the Finding Talent journey.

As Dana shared, finding the key talent AND recruiting them to your venture is a multi-step process where each person gains trust and rapport with the other talent over time.

During a weeklong intensive personal development seminar I encountered Mary Pipher’s “I am from …” poem. The exercise is taken from her book Writing to Change the World.

Mary’s “I am from …” poem is:

I Am From  

I am from Avis and Frank, Agnes and Fred, Glessie May and Mark.

From the Ozark Mountains and the high plains of eastern Colorado, from mountain snowmelt and southern creeks with water moccasins.

I am from oatmeal eaters, gizzard eaters, haggis and raccoon eaters.

I am from craziness, darkness, sensuality, and humor.

From intense do-gooders struggling through ranch winters in the 1920s.

I am from “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything,” and “Pretty is as pretty does” and “Shitmuckelty brown” and “Damn it all to hell.”

I am from no-dancing-or-drinking Methodists, but cards were okay except on Sunday, and from tent-meeting Holy Rollers, from farmers, soldiers, bootleggers, and teachers.

I am from Schwinn girl’s bike, 1950 Mercury two-door, and West Side Story.

From coyotes, baby field mice, chlorinous swimming pools, Milky Way and harvest moon over Nebraska cornfields.

I am from muddy Platte and Republican, from cottonwood and mulberry, tumbleweed and switchgrass, from Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and Janis Joplin.

My own sweet dance unfolding against a cast of women in aprons and barefoot men in overalls.

The exercise is to do a free write in the form of “I am from …” writing as fast as you can for seven minutes.

Mary’s instructions are:

“Follow a formula with each line beginning with “I am from…” Writing this kind of poem is a way to experiment with identity issues. The poem must include references to food, places, and religion. Give it a try.”

My free writing variant of the “I am from …” poem is:

I am from Marge and Harry, Leigh and Pearl, Grace and Edward

I am from the empire state, the rust belt, the old south, live free or die, and the other Washington

I am from a dog’s breakfast of European ancestry

I am from loving parents who agreed to argue with each other in whispers

I am from a family where my much younger sister has never known me without my bride Jamie

I am from a farm community where planting cabbage skips and picking black cherries was a summer adventure

I am from an age when I could ride my bicycle all over western New York and my parents never had to worry about the crazies

I am from a travelling salesman father by day and an unschooled medical device inventor by night

I am from a stay at home mom who grew up very rich and whose father lost it all in the great depression

I am from the gift of fifty years of knowing and marrying my childhood sweetheart

I am a non-smoker from a Southern University funded by tobacco fortunes

I am from our deep family rivalry of Blue Devils and Tar Heels

I am from the too much travel of a corporate executive who missed so much of being a dad for three great children – Elizabeth, Maggie and John

I am from the gift of two infant granddaughters and their loving parents who allow me to re-experience what I missed as a travelling dad

I am from constant personal generated challenges like learning to fly, Outward Bound and becoming a university faculty member without an advanced degree

I am from the invisible university of Ackoff, Goldratt, Christensen, and Alexander

I am from the highest highs and lowest lows of serial entrepreneuring

I am from the gift of fantastic collaborating colleagues who have given me more than I can ever repay

I am from the solitary meditations of hiking Olympic mountain trails

I am from the poetry of mudlucious E.E. Cummings and the melodious voice of corporate poet David Whyte

I am from the formation of thousands of books

I am from the biodynamics of fine wine growing

I am from the spiritual traditions of a childhood full of Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians and a chosen Catholic adult faith

I am from an unhealthy gene pool of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles who died at early ages

I am from the gifts of perpetual inquiry and an explorer of the world

I am Skip!

Near the beginning of your journey to rapport with your potential partners, the “I am from” poem is a great way for you to share your past in a unique way and set the tone for how you would like your relationship to evolve.

On my journey of learning how to become a better graduate school teacher, I attended Harvey Brightman’s Masters Teaching two day seminar in Atlanta. At the start of the seminar Harvey shared “your students are not like you.” Thanks Harvey, tell me something I don’t already know. As he looked at our skeptical faces, he said again “No, your students are really not like you.”

OK, you’ve got my attention. He then hit me with a curveball “70% of business students are ES (Extravert Sensing) in the Myers-Briggs profile. And 70% of business faculty are IN (Introvert iNtuitive).  The two styles communicate very differently. Most faculty members assume that the students are like them and teach in the same way they like to be taught. The problem is that if you communicate as an IN, then you lose all of the ESs right away. You have to be flexible enough to teach to the ESs, not the INs in the room.”

Sensing people process data with their five senses, so the Extraverted Sensing function allows a person to process life through their experiences. It is the ability to be keen to what is seen, smelled, touched, heard and tasted. It is energized by experience and it is able to live “in the moment.”

Intuitive people process data through impressions, possibilities and meanings, so the Introverted Intuition function allows a person to have a sense about the future. It is the ability to grasp and get a sense of a pattern or plan. Information that is usually hard to understand and dissect is easily processed through Introverted Intuition

The ESs are the doers and want to get moving. As a general rule, they don’t like abstractions. The INs are the visionaries and want to understand the implications of any new topics. The INs are the synthesists.

As Harvey described how to orient teaching materials to better suit the communication and learning styles of the ESs, I remembered Cathy Davidson’s discussions in Now You See It that class projects work best when there is maximal difference in the makeup of the student teams.

Armed with Harvey’s suggestions and my innovations for forming teams through maximal difference (combine Meyers Briggs, Social Styles Inventory, Tolerance for Ambiguity and demographic information), I launched into the new quarter with a revised set of slide decks and a new way for me to form teams. The class projects that quarter were significantly better than in my previous twenty years of teaching project based courses. I was feeling pretty good about my innovation and shared the process and results with my peer faculty members.

Professor Jennifer Turns realized that what I’d independently discovered was similar to what Doug Wilde had researched for fifteen years in the Stanford Engineering School. Doug had fifteen years of research on the success of maximal difference in teams. His metric was on the large difference in the number of national engineering competition prizes his student teams won before and after he used the teamology technique. Doug introduces the impact of melding personalities into teams:

“It has become a generally accepted premise that our world—or at least the technology we use in it— is increasing in complexity. Smart cellphones, touch-screen ATMs, personal robots, labs on a chip— all those things and many more are intended to make our world easier and more fun to negotiate. In general, the easier the devices are for us to use, the more sophisticated they have to be.

“The design of advanced medical devices, autonomous mechanisms, and tomorrow’s technological miracles requires a cumulative knowledge that exceeds a single person’s abilities. So as technology advances, products are increasingly being designed in the commercial world by teams of skilled collaborators. Each team member is chosen to bring a specific range of skills and experience to bear on the mission, and each contributor is essential to a successful outcome.

“But it is not only different types of expertise that people bring to the task. They also have distinct personalities, and different ways of approaching and solving problems. The proper application of those traits can be as important as combined technical knowledge to a team’s success.

“What we are talking about is whether a person is introverted or extraverted, and which mental process one is inclined to use in finding answers to questions: sensing, intuition, thinking, or feeling. Many people may have the initial reaction that some of these characteristics are irrelevant, or perhaps disruptive, to meeting challenges that are primarily technical and scientific.

“Informal studies at Stanford University strongly suggest, however, that all of these personality traits are indeed very relevant to a team’s success. Almost a quarter-century of records of student design teams, mainly in Stanford University’s mechanical engineering design program, indicate that performance improves when a team pays attention to its individual personalities. The basic principle learned, which may apply in corporations as well as universities, is that in the long run teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it takes longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve smooth communications and good cooperation.

“Before diverse team members can be integrated into a cooperative unit they must not only cultivate an openness to opposing opinions but also recognize the value of exploring a problem from various angles. Sharing personality information about each other facilitates this essential awareness.”

From “Personalities into Teams” by Doug Wilde.

As you get to know your co-founder and other talent that you recruit, it is more than meshing different skills, it is looking for maximal difference in your thinking and behavioral styles.  It is about encouraging and valuing multiple points of view.

Scott Page in The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies asserts that “diversity trumps ability”:

“Reviewers recognized that The Difference explores the pragmatic, bottom-line contributions of diversity. It does so using models and logic, not metaphor. The book’s claims that ‘collective ability equals individual ability plus diversity’ and that ‘diversity trumps ability’ are mathematical truths, not feel-good mantras.

“Diversity, as characterized in the book, means differences in how people see, categorize, understand, and go about improving the world. I should hasten to add that the book’s emphasis on cognitive diversity and the pragmatic benefits of diversity does not deny other dimensions of diversity. Those exist, and they matter. In fact, identity diversity and cognitive diversity often go hand in hand. Two people belonging to different identity groups, or with different life experiences, also tend to acquire diverse cognitive tools.”

As you look for your co-founder and your other launch team members, Dave McClure at 500 Startups recommends a starting team have members who can fill the roles of hacker, hustler, designer and visionary. I add another key role which is the lead customer or growth partner.

Figure 6 Key roles in the new venture

Mack Hanan describes the importance of this lead customer and growth partner:

“How can you grow your business?

“You cannot.

“You can only grow someone else’s business. His business growth will be the source of your growth. By growing, he will force growth back upon you because he will want you to grow him again.

The businesses you can grow have a name. They are called your major customers. Their growth must be the objective of your business.  The capabilities you require to grow them must be your asset base.

Growth requires a partner. A growth partner is a special kind of customer. He is a customer whose costs you can significantly reduce or whose profitable sales volume you can significantly increase. In one or both of these ways, you can improve his profits. This is the basis for his growth. It is also the basis for his contribution to your own growth. As the two of you grow each other, you will become mutually indispensable.

“If you cannot grow a customer, you cannot partner him. You can continue to do business with him, buying and selling, but the maximized profits of growth will elude both of you.  If all your customers are buyers instead of growers, you will be a slow-growth or no-growth business. None of your customers will be growing you because you will not be growing them.”

Read those first three lines again and again.

“How can you grow your business?

“You cannot.

“You can only grow someone else’s business.”

As an entrepreneur, I felt my fortunes were in my hands. Yet, as I reflected on my own experiences and started paying attention to successful businesses, it became obvious that in order to grow I have to grow my customer’s business. It’s not about selling, it’s about growing other businesses.

At Attenex for legal conflict of interest reasons, we were forced to go to market through service provider channel partners. Over the course of five years, we provided marketing and selling expertise to grow our channel partners businesses from a total of $5M in revenue to >$300M. One of our growth partners, FTI Consulting, liked our partnering capabilities and product so much that they bought us for $91M.

The sooner you can locate your lead customer and growth partner the faster your own business will grow.

Most people assume that the UX person (designer and researcher) can be the customer surrogate. However, I’ve found that it is crucially important to view the lead customer as a member of the team and invite them inside the product development bubble. The key to having the lead customer as a team member is to be able to regularly visit the customer’s work environment. Their work site is where the observation action is.

Let’s look at the four key roles of the ideal product development team:

    • Visionary (hustler) – the visionary sees the opportunity and imagines what technology is capable of solving the customer need. In an ideal world, the visionary sees not just a “nice to have” but a “got to have” solution and a business model that makes money quickly. A good visionary will have a big dose of hustler in them – the ability to “engineer exchanges to separate customers from their money (time/attention) willingly by creating, communicating and delivering unique value” (thank you Dan Turner for this definition). As Dan Pink shows in To Sell is Human, the hustling skills can be learned (and most of us are tacitly already “selling” most of our time).
    • Architect – builds the prototype and foundation for the product. While the term of the moment is “hacker,” I prefer someone that can go beyond prototyping and design at scale. They are able to translate the visionary opportunity and designer wireframes or physical prototypes into something that works. An ideal product architect will build at hacker speed and design for scale.
    • User Experience Designer – observes customers and translates the observations into human computer interaction designs and thinks more broadly about the full user experience design. The UX researcher needs to exhibit “beginner mind” and be optimally ignorant while observing customers “in the wild” and in their natural work habitat. A key role of the UX researcher is to See Organizations.
    • Lead Customer – the ideal customer is the manager who has the direct need and the budgetary authority to buy your product or services. They should have the time, expertise and commitment to see the project through. The “got to have” need has to have one or more (preferably all) of the characteristics of increases efficiency, increases effectiveness, increases revenue, and decreases expenses.

It is the responsibility of the Visionary/Hustler to find the lead customer. Visionaries need to go beyond seeing the opportunity and find the customers who can help them create the solution. Once they get the lead customer working with the architect and the UX Designer, the visionary/hustler needs to identify the business model that will not only grow their own business but help the customer grow their business (see Growth Partners).

To help identify good opportunities, the visionary uses a form of “backward chaining” by finding workflows that have a clear valued outcome and then working backwards to the starting point. A really good opportunity will have a decision point which leads to high value and/or a high risk outcome. Inserting a product into a high value or high risk workflow allows you the opportunity for value based pricing. The realization that the eDiscovery market was very high risk and high value allowed us to build a value priced solution with Attenex Patterns.

The Lead Investor is the third piece of your “finding talent” pursuit. Many investors have money that they can provide you. Very few investors have what you really need – the combination of experience, connections to influencers, purchasers and other investors, and an ability to provide tough love or what Vistage calls “carefrontation.”

Just as Dana described her pursuit for her co-founder, you will spend considerable time looking for the right lead investor match.

Marc Allen in Visionary Business describes his process of finding and working with his lead investor – Bernie.

“Can I help you?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said with a smile. He held out his hand. “My name’s Bernie.”

I shook his hand; his fingers were long and delicate and cool. There was something warm and friendly about the old guy, something that immediately put me at ease.

“I’m Marc.”

“Nice little business you’ve got here.”

“Well, it’s just a beginning, I hope.”

“How long have you been in business?”

“Oh, we’ve had the office about six months, though we’ve been working on it for over a year now no, wait, it’s been almost two years now.” I flushed, a bit embarrassed – where had the time gone?

“I like the way you’ve furnished the office.”

He said it with a smile; I didn’t know if he was kidding or not. The office furniture was a hodgepodge of the cheapest stuff we could find at flea markets and garage sales, with a few leftovers from our apartments thrown in. Our front desk was a sheet of plywood with two-by-fours for legs.

“It’s low cost,” I said.

“That’s what I like about it,” he said. “I’ve seen startups that have put all their money into the furniture. I invested in a company a while ago, and the two owners went out and bought Mercedes and custom-built oak desks. I couldn’t believe it! They even had custom-built bookcases! I told them they needed to spend their money on their business, not on their furniture. They promised me they’d be fine – and they went bankrupt before the year was out. They didn’t invest in the future.”

He looked around the office, then spoke with a sudden vehemence.

“As a start-up, you’ve got to spend wisely. Every bit of capital you’ve got is precious, and you’ve got to use it on the things that’ll make your company grow. And don’t buy a Mercedes until you can easily afford it.”

His story piqued my interest. I didn’t know what to say; there was a pause that felt awkward to me. He simply looked at me, carefully, with that slight smile of his. I felt as if he were assessing something, but I had no idea what.

“Are you looking for an investor?” He said it casually, giving it no more importance than if he was asking me for the time of day.

“Well … we could use some capital…”

“Do you have a business plan?”

“Ah … no, not really. Lots of ideas, and plans of course, but nothing really concrete on paper yet.”

He didn’t waste time getting down to business. “You need a plan,” he said. “I might invest; I might not. You don’t know me from Adam I could be a weirdo off the street who’s conning you for a free cup of coffee.” He said it with his enigmatic smile. He could have been speaking the truth I had no idea.

“But it doesn’t matter. If all I do is encourage you to get started on a plan, my little visit here will have been worth your time. You need a solid, well-written business plan before any investor will take you seriously. Every company needs a plan, whether they need investors or not. A business without a plan is like a ship without a course. You just wander around aimlessly, without reaching any destination, because you haven’t charted out the course necessary to get anywhere. You haven’t even determined your destination.

“Your plan doesn’t have to be long and involved; it doesn’t have to be complex. But it has to be clear, to you and to anyone else who’s interested.”

Marc Allen. Visionary Business: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Success (Kindle Locations 92-97).

While you continue to conceive your new venture and flip your perspective, make sure you spend equal efforts on finding the talent you need to nurture your newborn to the infant and toddler stage.

The tendency for young entrepreneurs is to work with people who are just like you. A great startup seeks to maximize the diversity of its team.

Finding talent is VALUING DIFFERENCES.

Yours in entrepreneuring,

Skip Walter

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Emails to a Young Entrepreneur, Entrepreneuring, Flipped Perspective, Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

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