I used to describe myself as a DOER. I got stuff done. And I liked getting stuff done.

I used to be suspicious of TRY. To me, TRY was what you said when you were being nice but didn’t really intend to make it happen. For all intents and purposes, TRYing was synonymous with LYing!

When a project in my past went off the rails – overtime, over-budget – and the leaders told me quite sincerely that they were going to try again – I lost it.

I ranted. I preached. I talked loudly. I sent emails. I fumed.

I didn’t want those leaders to TRY … I wanted them to DO! Money was on the line. Jobs were on the line. I wanted them to channel Nike and “Just DO It!”

It wasn’t until a long time later when I read an article about Jadav “Molai” Payeng that I began to see my error.

In 1979, there was a barren sandbar created by flooding near his home in Assam, India. The forest department told him that nothing would grow there, except maybe bamboo.

He wanted a forest, so he took on the challenge, and tried. Every morning he would stop and stick a bamboo shoot in the ground, and drop a few red ants that he had gathered from home.

He found the work painful, but he did it. There was nobody to help. Nobody was interested.

Fast forward 30+ years and Payeng has singlehandedly planted a 1,360-acre forest containing variety of flora and fauna, now including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger.

This story showed me that my problem wasn’t the word TRY. After all, Payeng succeeded by TRYing.

It was the attitude. When those leaders in my past said they would TRY, they really meant they would just go through the motions again, ticking boxes, dotting I’s, crossing T’s. But they didn’t really believe.

Anyone with that attitude, regardless of the word, is indeed LYing.

I now believe that it is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result that is LYing (some say this is also the definition of insanity).

On the other hand, trying, and being willing to try harder, and being willing to try differently, and being willing to persevere, is never lying in my book.

I now see myself as a trier because I realize that was an essential part of my past focus. It is only because I tried hard and tried often and tried everything I could think of and everything anyone I could find to ask thought of is the real reason I got stuff done.

As I now see it, DO is canned and bounded. In order to DO, I must already know how. I just need to put my blinders on and drive forward to the end.

On the other hand, TRY is open ended. It is liquid and adaptable. It doesn’t assume anything.

The key to TRYing is to get in the arena and get on with it.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Theodore Roosevelt

The credit belongs to the ones in the ring trying.

This year … I resolve … to TRY!

 

 

LeadershipQuotesSummarized-400x236

A recent post by Lolly Daskal (President and CEO, Lead From Within) was titled 65 Quotes That Will Dare You to Do Great Things

I followed the link and took a look at the list and it WAS inspiring … but then reality came crashing in.  How on earth was I ever going to remember them all? 65 of anything is way too many!

I needed to get to the essence of the list, so I leveraged data analytics and machine learning by pouring the entire list into worldle.net.  The result is the attached word cloud.

The answer is … Leadership requires Risk!

The subtitle of Lolly’s article says it well.  “If we are to do great things, we must always be motivated to take bold risks.”

That I can remember.

A recent post on the New Ventures BC website asked the question, “Is it Courage or Something Else that is Critical for Startup Company Leaders?

The author said courage, and later added, “a fierce desire to learn and to change”.

Someone responded with naiveté.  Someone else said patience.  Another response was Integrity, Intensity, Immediacy.

Still another said  “I think it is wrong to single out one character trait as most important for an entrepreneur. I will support an entrepreneur if he is “the package” … Other traits also important … drive, determination, focus, work ethic, ability to sell, natural desire to sell, resourceful, ability to get help, inspirational, confidence, integrity, likeable, successful in life, energetic, energizing.”

Jimmy Pattison says that the most important characteristics an individual needs for success are: honest, hardworking, intelligent, able to communicate, able to work in a team.

My own personal list includes leadership and entrepreneurship and paranoia and audacity.

  • Leadership (standing up and choosing a direction).
  • Entrepreneurship (acting like an owner).
  • Audacity (the willingness to take (big) risks).
  • Paranoia (the coldly calculated essential foil for audacity … the part that allows you to take the risk but also forces you to do everything possible to avoid ending up in the trees at the end of the runway).

And sometimes the ability to be distracted is equally important.  The story that comes to mind is the learning to fly method described by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  In the end, the ability to fly is directly linked to the ability to fall and miss the ground.  And the only way to do that is to have the ability to be distracted in the moment before impact.

The challenge with definitions like these is that they evolve and are understood differently by different people.  And, as you can see from the lists above, we start with just one word, then one phrase, then several phrases, and then a paragraph, and still none of them feel solidly complete and accurate.

In my view, it is not a case of either this quality or that quality or the single most important quality.  It is really a multidimensional both-and structure.  It is everything in “the package” of the entrepreneur AND their team AND the landscape in which they are operating AND AND AND.  You have to listen and talk and walk around and see what you smell and see what you trip over as you explore the landscape around the Startup Company and its Leader(s).  And then you will hopefully have gained some insight into whether or not they have whatever traits are important for that time and place.  Just remember that it may not apply to later and elsewhere.

 

Are you looking for a Mentor, Coach, or Consultant? No matter what title you choose, make sure they can also function as a Devil’s Advocate. This is important at all stages of company life, but even more critical at the early stages.

Why do I say this? Early stage companies tend to be smaller, and the teams and skill sets are not very diverse. In many cases, these teams are often made up of people just like the founders and that can create problems. Why?

  • The entire team has drunk the Kool-Aid. They all believe the founder’s vision unconditionally.
  • They focus on what they understand (i.e. cool technology) and avoid what they don’t (i.e. finding customers who will pay).
  • They believe that, “if you build it [cool product], they will come [customers]”.
  • They don’t know what they don’t know, and they are too afraid (or proud) to ask for help.

This is often because

  • They want to maintain appearances.
  • They don’t want to look foolish.
  • They do not want to give up control.

Chunka Mui talks about the need for an explicit Devil’s Advocate in his blog at Forbes. His blog addresses innovation projects at large companies, but I think his points can also be applied to early stage companies. The whole article is worth a read, but the principle can be summarized as follows:

“An effective devil’s advocate frames the most important questions that need to be answered before a disruptive innovation is attempted at scale. The advocate also guides the process, making sure that the right amount of uncertainty is reduced at each step. It would obviously be unfair to demand great precision and certainty about an idea at the earliest stage. After all, if an innovation effort might yield a true killer app, it is necessarily moving into new territory—where certainty doesn’t yet exist. But, at each new step, greater precision should be demanded, and, by launch stage, you want confidence before you commit a bunch of money and put your reputation on the line.”

Steve Blank and Eric Ries express similar ideas in their writing about startups – specifically the need to get out of the building and talk to customers. A company that engages wholeheartedly in “getting out of the building” will avoid many of the pitfalls pointed out by Chunka Mui because the customer is asked to fill the role of Devil’s Advocate.

In the end, it is critical to frame the role of devil’s advocacy correctly. It can’t just be about killing projects or even identifying flaws. Otherwise, the process becomes a game of gotcha. Instead, it needs to be about reducing uncertainty, about learning — even if information that is unearthed discredits the idea. It has to be about building the best team, project, and company possible.

For more on Chunka Mui, you can see his bio at The Devil’s Advocate Group or read his blog at Forbes.

I remember a project from some years ago that did not going well. It was a new direction for the company and it started with excitement and enthusiasm. We staffed up, bought equipment, hired contractors, and launched into the work. After some time had passed, the work grew harder and things started to go sideways, and then backwards (or so it seemed). However, despite all the challenges and delays, the project leaders decided to just keep trying.

To be honest, I found that approach a bit weak. I wanted the team to DO and not just TRY!! I wanted things to be DONE!! I was convinced that Trying was Lying!!

In the end, after multiple pivots in focus, market, requirements, and team we were able to bring a product to market that was a first for the company and went on to become an essential part of ongoing revenue.

Even so, I have continued to wrestle with the connection between Trying and Lying. Is Trying ALWAYS Lying, or does it depend? If it depends, then what does it depend on?

A recent article in Reader’s Digest about Jadav “Molai” Payeng (more info – Wikipedia) helped shed some light for me.

Payeng started in 1979 with a barren sandbar created by flooding near his home in Assam, India. The forest department told him that nothing would grow there, except maybe bamboo. He wanted a forest, so he took on the challenge. He found the work painful, but he did it. There was nobody to help. Nobody was interested. Fast forward 30+ years and Payeng has singlehandedly planted a 1,360-acre forest containing variety of flora and fauna, now including endangered animals like the one-horned rhino and Royal Bengal tiger.

This story has convinced me that Trying is NOT always Lying. After all, Payeng succeeded by Trying.

I now believe that Trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results is Lying (some say this is also the definition of insanity).

On the other hand … Trying, and being willing to Try harder, and being willing to Try differently, and being willing to persevere, is never Lying in my book.

I have seen a lot of press lately on the Maker movement. In order to try to get a pulse on what is happening, I have been attending the Hardware Startups Vancouver Meetup for the last number of months.

There is so much activity, and so much to learn. Here is a tiny taste of what is on my radar these days …

Upverter – Create hardware better faster. Web-based EDA suite to design schematic and PCB layout, select parts, review your BOM, and order a prototype with a single click.

Tempo Automation – Rapidly prototype electronic designs on your desk using a desktop pick and place robot

Optomec – 3D printing merging with printed electronics.

Cartesian Co. – A desktop printer that makes circuit boards in minutes. Check out the 4x oversubscribed Kickstarter video.

Place Droid (more info) – Place Droid Corp’s mission is to empower Makers by giving them the tools and services they need to realize and create their own projects and dreams. With years of experience building and using electronics without expensive tools and equipment, Place Droid has a key understanding of the pain Makers face with their high tech projects.

More to come … (in the Maker movement, there is ALWAYS more to come!)

I attended a lecture last week on the subject of surveillance (Surveillance after Snowden: Decoding the Snooping Scandal). The speaker was David Lyon, a professor at Queens and the Director of the Surveillance Study Center at Queen’s University.

When I hear the word surveillance, my mind immediately starts thinking about spy novels and John Le Carre, CSEC and Snowden and the NSA. I think about the law and the legality of tapping phone calls and tracking or spying on individuals. It seems to me that there is a real sense of right and wrong in these stories, there are clearly good guys and bad guys, and the tools used in these activities are right out of James Bond and the tech provided by Q.

While those aspects may be true, what Professor Lyon pointed out is that Surveillance is so much more than James Bond type spying. He commented that the collection of personal data has become the focus of much of the economy in order better target the selling of goods to consumers. He also commented that many commercial forms of surveillance are actively used under the banner of marketing.

This was not a connection I had consciously made before – the connection between marketing and surveillance. But, I do not have to look very far to see that he is telling the truth. I only have to look at Google who tracks my search activity to show me better ads, or Apple who tracks my iPhone through iBeacon to better understand what I am looking at RIGHT NOW.

I thought it was very appropriate when Professor Lyon commented that surveillance is not intrinsically good or bad, but it is never neutral either.

It really comes down to intent.

During my networking over the last few years, I have collected a number of pithy sayings that speak to the challenges of building a business. These statements are worth taking some time to think about.

Customers want to “hire” a product to do a job, or, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

– legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt – quoted in HBR

Many companies flail around trying to find a need. They don’t talk to customers.

It has to start with customers – choose a familiar sector and ask people what their problems are.

Only build solutions for problems that are urgent, pervasive, and that people are willing to pay for.

Does your product represent vitamins or medicine? – Vitamins are nice to have, but medicine is essential!!

Customers can want you to death – what do they really need?

Are we climbing the right mountain?

Are we executing the right plan?

Don’t go chasing pretty butterflies!

Dr. Surinder Kumar, Chairman and Founder of Vecima Networks Inc.

Many smaller companies are run by inventors. They have not figured out markets and value (needs). They have good technical sense, but no head for business.

Too much gov’t money (sr&ed, irap, etc.) means startups don’t have to learn how to survive. They just have to learn how to get the next infusion. The ecosystem is broken as a result.

Your opinions, while interesting, are irrelevant. Leave the building and listen to the market, rather than sit around and just dream up stuff.

Pragmatic Marketing

Markets don’t buy, customers do!

Your brand promise guarantee has got to be painful for you to deliver on, but it should make it easy to sell with!!

Many of the Pithy Sayings I listed in an earlier post mentioned the critical needs to both understand the target market and then to find a customer. So how do you go about doing this?

I have found that two of the best ways to research these topics are Trade Shows and Public Company data.

As far as Trade Shows go, here are a few pointers:

  • If you want to find out the key players in a market, just walk around.
  • If you want to learn more about a product, just ask any of the sales people staffing the booths. Sales people are always happy to talk to everyone (often without qualifying them as a prospect or competitor first).
  • If you want training or more detailed information on a particular subject, there are often seminars or training sessions provided.
  • If you are not able to attend in person, you can still review the exhibitor list from the show website afterwards.
  • You can sometimes even find copies of the presentations from the training sessions or copies of submitted research papers at the same place.

On the subject of Public Company data, what makes them so great for research?

It is because they have to publically keep their investors up to date on their activities. They do this by creating investor presentations, press releases, and various filing documents that provide a good picture of their markets, competitive landscape, and key customers.

In addition to all the market related data, they also have to report financial information, which includes revenues, margins, cost models, and more. These can be used to validate business case assumptions for profitability and ROI.

The best part is that many of these documents are available for free on the company website and can be used for market intelligence.

Happy Hunting!

How important is alignment within an organization?

If a car’s wheels are not aligned, it will cause a lot of vibration in the frame. If a machine’s drive shaft is not aligned, it could cause the machine to self-destruct from the vibration.

I believe this same principle also applies in business. If the key stakeholders are not all pulling together, the resulting vibration can destroy the company.

I have to admit that I did not really appreciate the importance of alignment for much of my early career. I simply came in every day and worked hard side by side with my colleagues to build products that would satisfy the needs of our current and future customers.

However, as my career progressed and I had opportunity to expand my horizons outside of engineering, I became aware of all the stakeholders that exist in a business beyond just management, employees, and customers, and I also realized the strength of opinion that can be expressed by each group.

There are founders, shareholders, investors and board members. These groups are generally not involved in the day to day operation of the company, but they expect the company to deliver a return to them – whether it is fast or slow, hockey stick growth or steady progress, or something else altogether.

There are also the other stakeholders within the company, each with potentially strong and different points of view. Engineering departments strive to build elegant perfect products. Operations departments want high quality repeatability and tend to be conservative. Financial departments want the numbers to add up and come in or under the cost projections. Sales departments want the new product delivered yesterday – the date they promised it to the customer.

In recent years, I have seen many examples of company misalignment.

If the Founders just want to build cool stuff, but investors want revenue growth …

If the Sales team continually makes promises that engineering can’t keep …

If the Board focuses the company on a totally new direction solely based on a massive market projection but without considering the true costs and likelihood of success …

On the other hand, there are also examples of great success when everyone is appropriately aligned.

I now know that as a Leader, I need to account for all of the different stakeholders in my decision making in order to ensure the business does not self-destruct from the resulting mis-alignment. I do not always need to agree, and I do not always need to take the stakeholder’s advice, but I DO always need to account for and respect those differing points of view.

How important is alignment within an organization? It is INCREDIBLY important!!