Friday, April 25, 2008

Behavior

A few what's-up? shots have been thrown by way, jabbing at my apathetic blog behavior. I'm guilty; no excuses, and I'll commit to change my behavior.

Part of the what's up is a cool campaign I'm incubating with a comrade to raise money for Davis schools. The school system's a mess, the politics brutal, and naysayers abound. It's tough being a volunteer.

A key tenet of our endow-the-schools program is to perpetuate programs that do not alter the behavior of beneficiaries: Raise money by getting consumers and businesses to do what they do, with an incentive to participate. Sounds great as I type, but in practice it's going to be an uphill bike ride through the mean streets of Davis.

Part of my inspiration -- aside from the obvious: I'm a product of Davis's public schools, and my kids are current beneficiaries -- stemmed from a Contrarian perspective. One of my idols, Tower Records' founder Russ Solomon, was interviewed a few weeks ago on NPR. (Here's a admiring piece I scribed about Russ last year.) Russ was a baron: He helped create the music business, selling 78s out of his trunk on the corner of 16th and Broadway in Sacramento. The music industry and its artists owe much to Mr. Solomon.

Back to the NPR interview. Russ was asked about the accelerating shift in consumer behavior, away from buying tangible products, crescendoing toward bits and bites (digital downloads). He opined a strong case for the virtues of CDs and vinyl: Sound quality, the ability (and desire) to collect, awesome artwork, etc. Okay, I buy it, though market metrics disagree. My mentor then slipped: He said what's needed is for consumers (kids) to "get it," to change their behavior. It's there responsibility, or so I heard, to visit record stores and "experience" buying music.

I disagree. Big time. It's the proprietor's (and the industry's) responsibility to create an environment and experience that's superior to buying tunes for 99 cents. Customer behavior dictates preferences ... a building bonfire of consumers prefer to buy music ala-carte, via their PC, in their boxers. When they want, where they want, how they want. Our needs are filled -- better, faster and cheaper -- electronically, versus making a trip to the record store.

Just as other tangible media -- newspapers, books and magazines -- will not perish, CDs and vinyl will not die. But, they're a few feet underground, descending deeper (dug by consumer preferences and needs) by the day.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ubuntu

Most lunch meetings are uneventful: Raw fish, small talk about kids, bemoans about fatheads, cut-to-the-chase business dealings, and cordial encapsulation and good-byes. Starched shirts, formal posture, firm handshakes. Necessary encounters, but not necessarily memorable. I killed a plate of sashimi with a new friend last week that flipped the coin.

We began with the normal (aforementioned) stuff, but quickly transitioned into an assault of corporate speak: The lack of meaning, the void of sincerity, the apathy of communicators in communicating their message. I tossed The Cluetrain Manesto's first assertion across my bowl of rice: Markets are conversations. She flipped; we bonded.

Most communication -- personal and broadcast/marketing -- is unauthentic. It's sterile and apathetic. People are lazy, and their communication shows. It reminds me of two sage thoughts:

Matthew Arnold: Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.

Strunk and White (The Elements of Style,
Rule 17. Omit needless words): Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Back to my lunch. We dug deeper into the authenticity of people, their actions, their sincerity, and their communication. My new friend -- a fellow Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy Board member -- created a presentation for the SEA Showcase introducing and elucidating the African philosophy of ubuntu, which focuses on people's relations and allegiances with each other, and the authenticity of their interaction. She quoted Demond Tutu:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others ... affirming of others ... does not feel threatened that others are able and good ... for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole.
A greater whole. I had lunch this week with a CFO of a Fortune 500 company. His grand compliment of an entrepreneur he backed was his combination of persistence and his all-about-the-company allocentric attitude. Big pie, small slice. The entrepreneur played, played hard, and it was all about the greater good, not his self interest.

My new friend's SEA presentation continued, quoting my dad's many moons ago commencement talk to the Academy:
You will only find both satisfaction and success if you play at the process.
My heart strung, her presentation continued (quoting my dad):
I ask that you join a team of artists. I suggest that you and this team of artists play at the art of business. Please play.

This sucks; I've gotta have it

I've been awol for too many moons; big time remorse and no excuses. In a word, abandoning the blog sucks (though, of course, no one needs to have it). Which leads me to a cool story.

I enjoyed a thoughtful talk at UCD last week by Paul Hudnut, founder and director of Envirofit. Like most talks by accomplished, give-a-shit entrepreneurs, it was insightful and eye-opening. Among many sage observations, Paul opined that not every idea is a good idea, and not every opportunity is worth pursuing. Entrepreneurs who can distinguish an opportunity from a problem -- and, of course, act on it -- are, well, entrepreneurs. Good stuff.

Other meaningful morsels:

  • Make money by making meaning (quoting The Great Kawasaki)
  • Ask yourself: Are my goods good and do my services serve?
  • Create a company that, no matter how much it grows, it will be a good thing.
  • The average age of the founders of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! was 23. Cool.
Paul believes great entrepreneurs are driven by two observations:
  1. This sucks.
  2. What are we going to do about it?
The former sans the latter means little -- it's easy to bemoan what "sucks" without doing anyting. As Paul emphasized, the combinatorial magic is to identify what sucks, and then create a team to act upon it. I agree, but I think a more lucrative combination is the ID of what sucks in concert with an understanding of people -- not artificial, bschool-esque segments -- who convey the magic words: I've gotta have it. When you hear this, bottle it and run. Fast.

Identifying what sucks is the ante to starting a company. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs either do not act or apathetically sell to a want; many wants are perceived to be needs. The combinatorial trifecta is to figure out what sucks, identify gotta have needs, and then marshal a team to figure out the problem, fill the needs, and monetize the opportunity.

If you balk on one of the three, you're doomed for mediocrity (or a vocational exercise).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Who cares?

I created a seminar this weekend for delivery tomorrow to Venture Island entrepreneurs, 90 minutes of blah-blah about creating a kick-ass sales and marketing strategy. I dusted off a few old presentations, reshuffled slides, customized the content for the audience, and wrapped it in a bow. Should be fun.

One of my slides erroneously opined a CEO’s primary job is sales: Customers, partners, employees, investors, etc. Makes sense, but I was off mark. The paramount responsibility and challenge for an entrepreneur (or anyone who’s trying to lead a cause) is to get people to care.

Everyone is solicited, every day. Buy this, go here, invest there, attend this, support that. Requests for our time, interest and participation. I received such an email from the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy this weekend, engaging board members to spread the word about the Academy's annual Showcase. Because I care about the organization -- I'm personally, emotionally, historically and benevolently committed -- it was a no-brainer; I acted.

Back in August we touched on the imperative of getting people to care in a post, Be relevant. A snapshot:

What is relevance? To me, it’s getting people to care by generating value and interest and demand and intrigue and inspiration. It’s about creating and stoking a bonfire, one with ever-growing visibility and a desirability to participate. It's encapsulated in one of The Cluetrain Manifesto's theses: Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die. It’s hands down the paramount challenge CEOs face.

Relevance matters only in the minds of your constituents; it’s their perception, period, that counts. And, all stakeholders count: Customers, prospects, partners, shareholders, employees, analysts, competitors … your entire ecosystem. It’s doing something – a lot of things – to edge people to the front of their chair, to raise an eyebrow, to engage a phone call, to elicit an, “I’ve gotta do something -- invest, buy, partner, work, lead, support – with this company," action.

Fostering relevance is an (check that: the) ante to success. The rest – the blocking and tackling of business – is easy and boring. If you’re not relevant – if you can’t get key constituencies to care – move on. Treading water in an empty pool is painful for all involved.
In another post, Ode to Arco, we shared a post-script from an interview Marc Andreessen did with one of his entrepreneurial heroes, Stephen Wolfram. Here's a taste:
People have different motivations, of course. A lot of people think the big thing with companies is money.

Yes, if you luck out, you can make a lot of money. But it's really rare that money carries people as a motivation.

You have to actually care about what you're doing.

For some people, like me, it's the actual creative content that they care most about. For other people, it's the act of building the company. For others, it's making deals. Or winning against competition.

But there has to be something you really care about.

Back to the Be relevant post. It was sparked by an over-a-beer conversation with a comrade about a local publicly traded software company. Here's a recap:
What’s up with them? Earnings are lagging. Stock price’s flat. Growth has stagnated. The CEO’s fried. A recent acquisition fell apart. The CTO bolted. They’re running out of cash. They’re too small to be public. The board’s unhappy. Analysts don’t care. It was a standard, morbid diagnosis of a limp-along company.
At the time, the stock languished in the low twos. Today, it's trading at $6.60. The company is relevant; people care. In this case (of a public company), results = relevance. If only I cared enough to buy the stock.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Downhill

I do not remember the first time I rode a bike, nor my first coast on a skateboard. My memory of my first downhill ski experience – outside the wedge of my dad -- is vivid. Squaw Valley on a Saturday, tips pointed (snow-plowed) downhill, the exhilaration of mass*velocity, tears streaming and wind howling. It was cool.

Though I have not been skiing for a few years, I rekindled my first two-board experience yesterday during a meeting with an over-excited entrepreneur. The meeting/entrepreneur was not great, but not too bad. The not-too-bad: Zealous research, hyperactive intensity, ferociously competitive spirit. The not great: Unrealistic expectations, defensive attitude, incredible lack of focus (Emerson: Concentration is the secret of strength), loathe of VCs, his ferocious (to a fault) spirit, and a failure to commit. The analysis was superb, the paralysis paralyzing.

Today I met with a retired biotech exec who flipped the coin. He was so committed to his last company – in biotech, the more time you spend in the office, the less you get done – that he quit. Quality of life trumped weeks of biz dev on the road. He got out there, into the field, and made it happen, taking his company public and enriching its market cap.

The reddest of cardinal entrepreneur flags is commitment. Not in an emotional sense – most all entrepreneurs are passionate, curiously crazy and on-the-surface committed – but in a get out there and do it manner. Ilka Chase: The only people who fail are those who never try.

To be an entrepreneur, you must take risks; writing a plan, theorizing a model, raising money, and moonlighting a venture are stall tactics to doing it. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you’ll only find out once you get in the game. Your model will change, your strategy will shift, and your assumptions will waver.

Whether riding a bike, skating a skateboard, skiing downhill, or running a business, it’s much easier to change directions when you’re moving. Until you move, you’re practicing mental masturbation to the benefit of no others.