Monday, October 31, 2011

Making the Ask

If you're in sales or fundraising, you already know how important it is to ultimately "make the ask."  But what I'm about to suggest has little to do with closing a sales call or raising money for that new school building your university is breaking ground for.

Every day, entrepreneurs (and people, in general) find themselves in need of something.  Maybe it's office space...or perhaps it's a place to crash while you're in town at a conference.  It sounds so simple, but if you don't ask somebody for that thing...whatever it may're only doing yourself a disservice.  Instead, you end up taking the easy way out -- which, depending on the situation, could lead to less productivity and more cash coming out of your wallet.

Here's a great example:

Very recently, my partner and I were in Chicago for a conference.  As we usually do, we flew in early on the day we were to arrive...and set our return flight to be late in the evening on the day we were finished.  We do this to stay open in case an important meeting pops up.  In this case, we were set to fly back at 8pm on Wednesday...but our slate of meetings was completed by 8am that morning.

Ugh.  Where are we going to work for the next eight hours?

We could do the Starbucks-to-Panera marathon.  But seriously, how many nonfat chai tea lattes and frozen caramels am I supposed to drink?

Instead, early that AM, I emailed two people who I knew would be very well connected to the Chicago entrepreneurial community:  the head of an entrepreneurship program at a local university -- and the CEO of a very well known startup in Chicago.  15 minutes later, I had already received an email back from the professor connecting me to TechNexus, the largest incubator downtown.  After another 15 minutes, the head of that incubator responded, inviting us to come in and work from their space for the day.  We were welcomed and treated with desks, electricity, wifi, and all-you-can-drink coffee.

Now, some people may tell us "we got lucky."  But, what's my point?  We would have had a much less productive day hopping from cafe to cafe if I didn't simply "make the ask."

By the way, by noon I had received an email reply from the CEO of that well-known startup suggesting DeskTime App, which is a tool that helps find co-working space in Chicago.  It looks pretty useful, and I'll be sure to check it out next time we're in town.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Generate Your Own Luck

Well, I hadn't expected the lag from my past post to this one to be 30+ days.  I guess I've been pretty know...starting up my business.  Nevertheless, I'm back...

Often times, the startups that "make it" usually can point to a few major events in the course of their startup life that others would call the product of good luck. Whether it's the random VC that took a liking to their business -- or a customer relationship that just fell into place -- people from the outside looking in are all too quick to chalk success up to luck.  When the entrepreneur hears that, I'm sure that they usually smile or laugh it off -- but believe me when I tell you that on the inside, they're screaming in your face.

Here's why:

There's a saying that goes, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."  

I love that saying, because it rightfully suggests that completely random luck is more rare than generated luck. Entrepreneurs need to do everything that they can to generate their own luck rather than count on completely random luck (i.e. find a winning lottery ticket on the ground).

The biggest way to generate your own luck is keep building your personal and professional networks.  Mark Suster has a great blog post on one way to do this:  Take 50 coffee meetings.  You're busy?  I know, I know.  But guess what:  If you're not out there making connections, your (future) competitors probably are.  Believe me when I say that these connections will come in handy when you're hiring, looking for consultants, securing funding...and on and on.

The next way you can generate your own luck is by doing people favors.  I'm not talking about taking your Aunt to the airport when she's on her way to her next vacation (although that would be a nice thing to do).  I'm talking about taking meetings when other people are trying to grab a coffee with you.  I'm talking about helping a peer or former colleague solve a business challenge pro-bono.  And then...once you do these things...expect nothing in return from them.  When your reputation paints you as being helpful, people will only want to help you when you're the one asking the favor.

You might think this sounds overly simple.  You might think this might be too time-consuming.  But know this:  If you make an active effort to generate your own luck -- success will find it's way to you. It just will.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Usually, the term "Don't Quit Your Day Job" is used to let somebody know that they're not particularly talented at something.  Since you'll never make money doing X, you should keep doing Y.  While it might be true that some people should just stick to their day jobs "just because" -- I'd argue that it is especially true that those with true talents and great ideas for the next great product/service/app should really keep their day jobs.

Before you get all bent out of shape, let me be clear:  I'm not suggesting that these people discontinue their pursuits for startup glory.  Just the opposite.  In fact, keeping your day job for as long as you can will ultimately put you in the best position to succeed.  Here's why:

1.  It buys you time.

Idea validation is probably the most overlooked aspect of starting a business.  If you think you have a great idea and you're ready to jump right in full-time, consider these questions:  Do you know the market inside and out?  Do you know your potential competitors inside and out?  Have you spoken to potential customers?  The time you have while working a "day job" should be used to find these answers.

I know, I know.  You're busy.  And I don't care.  If you normally begin work at 8am -- start at 6am.  If you normally work until 6pm -- work until 10pm.  Or midnight.  Find the time...and use it to validate your idea.

2.  It buys you food and shelter.

You gotta pay the bills -- and a day job lets you do that.  Don't underestimate this fact.  Without taking care of your basic needs/responsibilities, you won't have the sanity to even try to think about your idea for the next greatest thing.  Even when you take this leap, you have to make sure these needs are covered somehow.  Hopefully, it will be through the revenue you're generating from customers.

3.  It sharpens your focus.

The busier you are, the more productive you are.  It's just true.  Getting used to a schedule that forces you to wake up at 5am, please your boss from 9-5, and then go back to the grind will mentally prepare you for what life will be like as a true entrepreneur.  Believe me when I say, things don't get any less busy when you do ultimately quit your day job.

Now, all of that said -- there are definitely a couple of "Don'ts" to keep in mind:

  • Don't work on your idea while at work.  You want to ultimately leave on your own terms.  Getting canned for not doing what you're being paid to do will hurt you in the short and long term.
  • Don't use company equipment.  You don't want to give your company any reason to claim that awesome IP that's floating around in that brain of yours.  Using your company laptop could give them legal grounds to do just that.
  • Don't overlook those pesky legal documents you signed.  If you have a non-compete with your company and your potential startup is in the same field, it could get dicey.  You probably want to consult with your attorney to make sure you're in the clear.
  • Don't stay too long.  That steady paycheck is nice -- I get it.  But ultimately, the goal is to get to a point where you're ready to take that leap.

But let's not go there just yet.  Because the reality is -- you're probably STILL not ready.  You need to do your homework, first.  We'll be talking about what that means in my next post.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking the Leap

In the midst of sleepless nights before investor-filled presentations, meeting after meeting with potential customers, and working on building a sustainable company, I was offered an opportunity to be the "opening act" at the inaugural 6ixth City Tech Fest.  It wasn't easy to be the first speaker of the day, preceding successful entrepreneurs like Kendall Wouters and Doug Hardman-- but I tried.

My speech was on "Taking the Leap" -- i.e., what it means to quit your day job and become a full-time entrepreneur.  If this sounds like it's a sexy proposition and images from The Social Network are popping into your mind, please get that smug mug of Jesse Eisenberg-as-Mark Zuckerberg out of your head.

Believe me when I say that taking that leap is anything but sexy:

It's stressful.  It causes you to question your talents and abilities.  It keeps you up at night.  It causes strain on personal relationships.

On the other hand, it takes you on emotional highs (and lows).  It's exciting.  It can be rewarding...maybe even (someday) lucrative...if you're lucky.

Being in the process of taking that very leap, though, let me caution you up front and let you know that it's not for everybody.  The speech I gave at 6ixth City outlined important topics that everybody should keep in mind when they are considering taking that leap.  In my next post, I'll cover the first of those topics.  You might want to wait on taking that leap until you hear what I have to say...

Next Post:  "Don't Quit Your Day Job."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is your business idea ready to be launched?

This post was originally published in the Lakewood Observer.

Often times, it is easy to come up with a great business idea. The hard part is actually coming up with a plan to turn the idea into a viable business and executing the plan strategically.
But how do you know when it is the right time to take your idea to the next level? After all, creating a viable business is no quick and easy task. It makes sense to ensure that your idea is indeed viable before making the leap to starting a business.
Validating a business idea is an essential, and yet overlooked, component to the entrepreneurial process. While many established companies spend millions of dollars and countless months validating concepts, the following suggestions are simple and inexpensive, yet effective, ways that you can validate your business idea:
Talk to your future customers: Understanding the real pain point of the customers you wish to serve is critical. Even more importantly, find out how real this pain is and how badly your future customers wish to solve this pain. Ask yourself if you can develop a solution that is better than how they currently solve this problem.
Get Data: Become an expert in as many facets as you can in the subject matter your potential business relates to. Read trade journals. Find research reports. If this sounds expensive, remember that many of these materials can be found online or through your local public library for free.
Use Tools: There are a myriad of cheap, and even free, tools available to help entrepreneurs validate business ideas:
  • allows you to quickly create professional online surveys.
  • allows you to specify demographics and survey questions and will quickly find respondents.
  • allows you create a custom-branded splash page so you can collect data on whether consumers are interested in your idea.
  • ReferenceUSA allows you to learn more about the industry you are targeting. You can access certain data sets for free by using your library card at most public libraries.

Learn more about validating your business at the next Startup U event, presented by Startup Lakewood. Joe Haddad and Nick Dadas, Co-Founders of University Tee’s, will be on hand to discuss other strategies that entrepreneurs can use to validate business ideas. This event will take place on Tuesday, July 26 at 6:30 pm at the Lakewood Public Library Main Auditorium and is free and open to the public.
More information on this event and Startup Lakewood can be found at

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prototype Day

Earlier today, my partner, Bryan, and I had the opportunity to present a prototype of the product we've begun developing to a crowd of about 45 10x Xelerator mentors, entrepreneurs, investors, and the like.  The feedback was great.  While everybody was certainly positive about the business we're building, one thing was apparent.

We have a lot of work to do.

I don't mean that as a dig on us.  I actually think we positioned ourselves quite well.  Even still, it was apparent that all of the 10x teams have a lot of work to do if we all plan on building and growing sustainable businesses.  It's just the reality of a startup.  It's not about writing 10,000 lines of code.  It's not just about finding a couple of bizdev deals to close.  It's not about choosing a couple of buzzwordy marketing methods to toy with.

It's about the whole package.  Putting it all together.  Taking a great idea that solves a real problem, wrapping a sound business model around it, getting feedback from customers, and just flipping doing it.  Good ol' fashioned execution.

Time to roll the sleeves up...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Web 2.0 Entrepreneurs Toolbox

As a new tech entrepreneur in the year 2011, I feel lucky to have so many tools at my disposal in building/launching my business that it almost feels unfair compared to those trying to do the same 10 years ago.  Back then, it likely cost at least 10x more to launch the same type of business than it does today.  Here are a few tools that I've found myself using over the past two weeks.  Some of these are free, some of these are paid-for.  Regardless, I can say with certainty that each of these tools has allowed me to accelerate on the cheap:

  • Survey Monkey:  Simple to-use, widely recognized survey tool, with a free version available, to-boot.

  • SurveyGizmo:  Not as widely recognized as Survey Monkey, but it works just as well as a survey tool (if not more user-friendly).

  • Ask Your Target Market:  You have to pay for this, but it's so worth it.  You can specify your exact target market, survey that group, and get responses in a matter of hours.  You pay-per-response, and certain features (i.e. open ended answers, qualifying questions) are extra.  After you add it up, it's not difficult for the per-response rate to be $3 or $4 (or more), but time is money and AYTM is a time-saver.  Plus, the site itself is dripping with ease-of-use.  Their chat-enabled customer support people rock, too.  They even gave me copy suggestions for the questions I was asking.

  •  Very simple CRM.  When I used to work for a bigger organization, we used NetSuite -- which was expensive and mostly difficult to use.  Insightly has a lot of features that not only work well, but are pretty nifty (such as a dedicated email address that, when copied, automatically files the email you're sending into the appropriate folder.  Oh's free.

  • Google Apps:  This is how we got turned onto  It's a monthly subscription per-user, but it's what gave us access to and other tools
I'll post another installment of awesome web 2.0 tools that I use, but these all rock and are worth looking into ASAP.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is being a perfectionist a bad thing?

I often hear people tell me that they're perfectionists.  They say it in a sort-of self-deprecating kind of way, but most people on the other end always find it a bit endearing.  After all, what's not to like about somebody that loves to give it their all and create something that's perfect?  But yesterday, I heard a quote from Jeff Lamb, CTO and self-proclaimed nerd from Q-Start Labs, that challenges this notion.

"Good is the enemy of perfect."

Actually, it was Voltaire that originated this quote, but it's definitely one that made me think.  After all, shouldn't we execute everything we set out to do perfectly?

Nope.  Not as a startup.

The notion isn't that we should settle for something that's sub-par.  Instead, at this critical stage of building a company, we should be putting a very basic product in front of customers, iterating, pivoting (if necessary), and repeating steps 1 - 3.  You can't do this if you spend months behind closed doors creating a perfect product.  The reality is, you have no idea if what you're creating is "perfect" until you put it in front of the very people that can actually tell you:  your customers.

From here on out, I'll think twice before proclaiming myself to be a perfectionist.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Meeting your Customers

It's week two of eleven for all of the teams participating in the 10x Xelerator program in Columbus, Ohio.  There's a very common question / piece of advice I've been getting from some of the amazing mentors participating in the program.  Each asks the question in a different way, but essentially they want to know...

"How many customers are you meeting with?"

It's such a simple question, yet so, so critical to businesses like ours at this stage in the startup process.  It doesn't matter at all how great of an idea Bryan and I have.  I know that.  Our success is dependent on our ability to say "Yes!" to the following three questions:

  1. Does our product/service actually solve a real problem for our customers?
  2. Is the problem that we solve significant enough where customers are willing to pay for it?
  3. Can we execute and see our solution through?
So in week #2, it's absolutely critical we talk to customers and answer those first two questions.  I better stop blogging and get to work.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Creating an Inferno

During our first day of the 10x program, Mark Kvamme -- a partner at Sequoia Capital -- made a point to all of us that we should be attempting to "create an inferno."  He went on to describe how Funny or Die did this initially with their Landlord video.  If you haven't seen that video, it's definitely worth watching (especially if you're a Will Ferrell fan).  But it's the Sasquatch Dancing Man video that really illustrates this fact.  This video is a real-life example of the life of an internet meme.

Take a look:

There's irony there, because the video itself ended up becoming an internet meme.  One odd, gyrating dancing man at a music festival goes on to create an inferno-like dance party.  What I would give to be that dancing man this summer and beyond...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Day One

Well, it's officially real.  Bryan and I arrived to our office space at One Marconi Place a hair before 8:30am and were surprised to find ourselves as the first team in the office.  The space is pretty small for 10 teams with 2-3 people on each team -- but it's very nice.  Think light hardwood and exposed brick walls.

Honestly, they could put us in a supply closet and we'd still be pumped at the opportunity to build a successful business this summer with assistance from the program.

  • The actual programming is fairly light, which allows us to do the work we need to do to build our business. 
  • The mentors are amazing.  Our direct mentors, Christopher Celeste and Blake Squires, were already our close friends and advisors.  But we met others last night from Central Ohio's (and beyond) entrepreneurial and investment communities that I'm hopeful we can build a real relationship with.
  • The teams seem to be pretty solid.
We know exactly what we need to do -- and now it's time to roll up our sleeves and, as Mark Suster says, JFDI.  

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Farewell to my Findaway friends...

After over six years, it's hard to believe I'm about to type this next line:

I've resigned from Findaway World to start my own company.

Okay, for those of you that know me very well -- you're probably not shocked at the fact that I'm starting something new.  You knew that I took pride in creating the first Corporate Sponsorship program for a 100+ year old university athletics program back when I was still an MBA student at Case Western Reserve University.  You knew that I tinkered with inventing a product over the past 2 years (which even got kudos from David Pogue in the New York Times).

"But you loved your role at Findaway," you exclaim.  "You're really leaving?!"

Believe me, that wasn't an easy decision.  I came into Findaway World a pretty green 23 year old who was excited to help three entrepreneurs take a crazy idea and turn it into something cool.  Those very entrepreneurs took me under their wing, mentored me, guided me, and essentially helped me to be come a confident, enthusiastic entrepreneur who truly believes that I can and will change an industry that hasn't significantly changed in the past 100 years.

I'll miss the people I work with and have become good friends with.  I'll miss the passionate librarians I've had the privilege of working with so closely.  I'll miss Findawayerfest.  I won't miss being a Findawayer.  I'll always be a Findawayer.

Yet, there's a beginning with every ending.  Next week, my friend and Co-Founder, Bryan, and I will head to Columbus as one of just 10 startup teams chosen by the State of Ohio to participate in 10x -- an initiative to attract the brightest young tech entrepreneurs to our home State of Ohio.  We'll be working this summer to build our business, launch it, and ultimately, grow it into a successful tech startup -- one not unlike Findaway World has become over the past several years.

If you keep reading this blog from time to time, I'll be happy to share our story.  Until then...