Lean Startup: Why Accountants Don’t Run Startups

Watch this great keynote from Steve Blank on what a startup really means, the transition to a large company and the power of teaching lean startup methods.

The embed code from Justin.tv is broken, so go here

How to Inject a Little Vegas Into Your Business: the Jordan’s Furniture Story

My experience with Jordan’s Furniture began when I visited the Framingham, MA, store a while back to find a sofa for my house. I thought I was headed into a typical furniture store, but instead, it was like stepping into a crazy alternate universe where there were big screen TVs and recliners at every turn. Jordan’s doesn’t feel quite like a store, but it doesn’t feel quite like a casino—it’s somewhere in between. Or perhaps it’s both (storsino?). To make the experience even more fantastically bizarre, the interior is made to look like the French Quarter in New Orleans; there’s even a sharply dressed mannequin moving to and fro in a rocking chair on one of the faux balconies (if my memory serves me correctly, he’s even got a pipe). Haunting, yet strangely appealing. Throw in a Massachusetts staple like Kelly’s Roast Beef for a post-shopping food fix, a few gumball machines for the kids, and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind retail experience designed to appeal to most people.

Shopping at Jordan’s is truly a multi-sensory experience. So who thought shopping for furniture should feel more like visiting an amusement park? Eliot Tatelman and his brother, the entrepreneurs behind the chain that was purchased by Berkshire Hathaway in 1999. It was Eliot’s idea to make shopping for furniture more fun. Curiously, it wasn’t how he started out. Many years back, Eliot and his brother had taken over their grandfather’s furniture store in Waltham, Massachusetts. Back then, there were no pipe-smoking mannequins in the entry or big screen TV’s to captivate customers. However, there was great service, and knowledge of the furniture business. But Eliot wanted to make Jordan’s stand out from the competition. So what did Eliot do? He looked outside of his industry for inspiration, and his gaze fell squarely on Las Vegas.

What does Las Vegas have to do with furniture? Nothing. But that was the whole point. Eliot wasn’t trying to create the next Las Vegas; he was trying to use the same tactics to grow a chain called Jordan’s by bringing people in the door for more than just furniture shopping. He wanted to make Jordan’s a destination.

With everything from an amusement ride to huge IMAX theaters, each Jordan’s location has an attraction, and it never has anything to do with furniture. It’s all about the entertainment and experience. They purposely place the attractions in the middle so you have to walk through half of the store to go see the movie in 3D. Then when you leave, and walk through the other half, there are no signs telling you where to go. You get disoriented like you do in a Las Vegas casino and end up, well, shopping. It’s brilliant.

The parallels with Vegas continue. Eliot followed the same business model Vegas did: once entertainment was not enough, he added food to the list of offerings at each location. Going one step further, one store now has a trapeze school.

Eliot’s message at the EO event was simple: stop paying attention to your industry and competition and see what those outside of it doing to be successful. When competition gets fierce, don’t lock your gaze inside of your own realm of experience—look outside of it to get inspired and make your business stand out.

How to give the most amazing TED talk

If you know anything about me, you know my dream is to give a TED talk at some point in my life. So when I saw the tedPAD, and this video, it was love at first sight. With all the data available on TED talks, the statistics show everything from topics, to what color to use for creating the best presentation. They even help you figure out what to wear, so it looks like I may need to get some thick-rimmed eyeglasses and grow my hair long.

3 things to determine if a technical co-founder is “good”

Like all of the other answers to life’s “big questions,” there is no simple response to the question, “How do I know if my technical co-founder is any good?” There certainly isn’t a test technical co-founders can take, and by no means is a rich professional history an indicator of how good a technical co-founder will be in a start-up situation. To make matters more complicated, every business has a unique set of requirements that will appeal to some technical co-founders and not to others. What can you do if you’re trying to find the right technical co-founder? Whittle down the pool of potential candidates by answering these three questions about your potential technical co-founder:

  1. What applications have they built?
    This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s really just the starting point. When you ask your technical co-founder what they’ve built, you have to then take your questions to the next level—respectfully—by asking very specific questions about the process. You need to find out whether they were involved in a small aspect of building the app, or were they responsible for multiple components? Go through the application and ask how things were done, why and who handled what. You really want to see applications or side projects the person has built on their own, even if they failed, since this shows both entrepreneurial spirit and their ability to build from start to launch.
  2. Are they involved in their professional community and do they have the respect of their peers?
    You need to know if your technical co-founder has the respect of his or her professional community. Find out if they’ve spoken at conferences (it doesn’t matter how big or how small—you’re looking for involvement, not that they’re master of the universe), if they have a blog, or even a following on Twitter. Do they have to have 10,000 followers? Of course not. But they do have to appear to be engaging with other people in your industry in a meaningful way. That’s what counts. If you’re in the Rails community, there is a great resource called (appropriately) “Working with Rails,” which provides a rating for individuals.
  3. How do they interact with other technical co-founders?
    If you have a mentor or know another successful technical co-founder, ask them to talk to your possible co-founder. This should not be an interview but, instead, an interactive conversation with someone that has the experience (and is technical) and may be able to give you some insight into your potential technical co-founder.

Remember, these questions should only be asked once a candidate meets the minimum requirement of embracing the same core values as you do. That’s the first step. Then, whittle down your pool of potential candidates using a methodology that includes these three questions.

Software patents are killing innovation and music

The U.S. Constitution said that American inventors could protect their unique inventions with something called a ‘patent’. In 1953, the Patent Act was introduced and it stipulated that we also needed to protect unique “processes” leading to the creation of a specific product. At the time, the Patent Act was referencing industrial or mechanical processes—physical actions leading to the production of a unique item, points out an expert in the video below. What they weren’t considering part of the concept were basic software processes or mathematical algorithms, since we obviously didn’t have those in 1953. However, since the Patent Act is still the same as it was at its inception, and the courts have been structured in a certain way, patent trolls have been running rampant requesting (and receiving) patents on basic mathematical and software processes that are a part of their businesses. What does this mean? It means the death of innovation and progress.

To hear Ben Klemens, author of Math You Can’t Use, tell it, we’re taking mathematics, slicing up basic principles, and letting companies patent those basic principles as if they came up with the concepts themselves simply because their company applied meaningful variables to those open-ended principles. Allowing patents to be granted on certain laws of mathematics means that if anyone ever improves upon them again to, perhaps, offer a better product or service, the company with the patent can rightfully take aim at that company and sue them.

Having a unique invention is one thing, but patenting basic software or mathematical processes and calling them your own is quite another. It doesn’t just hurt the individual or entity that improves upon a specific software process or has an idea for something better, it commodifies the basic laws of our system of knowledge and makes them legally resistant to change or improvement. People should be given free rein to innovate using the same set of (mathematical or otherwise) tools—without fear of being sued by a company who was first in line to receive a patent on something that the entire world understands to be a basic part of math.

Although the video is long, I encourage you to watch it, and learn more about what’s happening within the world of U.S. patents.

Video: Patent Absurdity - Dokumentarfilm (28:54)

Are tech startups like rock bands?

I just love this infographic produced by Shane Snow showing how a tech startup is like a rock band. While I do not agree with steps five and seven it is an interesting comparison.

How to find a technical co-founder

"How do I find a technical co-founder?" I get this question all the time, and quite frankly, there isn’t an easy answer. However, it goes without saying that a technical co-founder is critical to the success of web startup. I went to Babson College, where everyone majors in business, but this environment is very similar to the real world in that many there was a separation between "business" people and "technical" people. While I was very lucky to be very technical and had done programming in high school, this is not common. So, as a marketing and business person with other business building skills, how do you find a technical co-founder?

  1. Find a local Ruby on Rails community and be social
    Part of finding a technical co-founder means putting yourself out there; find the meetups, events, groups and gatherings that are targeted to technical people and go. Do not worry about understanding the technical stuff— use the opportunity to meet people that are technical and active in the community. While I picked Ruby on Rails (RoR) for a specific reason, you could do this same sort of networking and outreach in many different technical communities. The reason I picked Ruby on Rails is because it is the community with the most entrepreneurial developers, who understand lean startup, testing, and just get that style of starting a business. Not everyone totally understands this, but the concentration is much higher in the RoR community.
  2. Get involved at colleges with very technical people
    Depending on where you live, there are great opportunities to get involved with colleges and universities that have super bright technical people. Boston is teaming with colleges and universities, but many schools in other parts of the country have technical people and organizations, and are looking for the other half of the startup equation. Inquire with schools about events to get people talking and interacting.
  3. Founder “dating”
    This is a new trend and has started to appear in communities that have a lot of startups. The concept is really simple and pretty self-explanatory, bring people together that are all looking to start companies, already believe in the co-founder concept, and want to find the right person. Then let them “date” or interact in a number of settings in order to determine if they’re the right fit. What’s great about this is that everyone understands why they’re doing it—to find a co-founder of any sort—and that makes everyone’s expectations more or less realistic.

Just like networking to meet customers, or finding and hiring the best employees, you need to be creative and look for the places that bring together the type of person you are looking for, then get out there and talk.

How did you find your co-founder or what are some creative methods you’ve implemented in order to find that technical co-founder?

(Totally Manageable) Risks and Dangers of Having a Co-founder

Having a co-founder comes with amazing benefits, as I outlined in the first post in this series. However, having a co-founder is not without some inherent risks. The good news is that when these risks are well managed, the relationship can be beneficial for everyone involved, and can drive your company towards success. As any project manager would tell you, the best way to mitigate risk is by identifying potential problems, and then creating a shared plan to address them. The following are the biggest risks that I have observed as an entrepreneur:

  • Confusion about leadership
    Starting a company means making big decisions, and big decisions can sometimes be stressful. When there are two or more people in control, there’s sometimes confusion about who the leader is in any given situation. People (employees) want to know who to turn to for answers, which quickly leads to the “mom and dad game” where people try to play the leaders off of each other. This can easily be solved by dividing up responsibilities, making this clear to everyone on the team, and always being on the same page with your co-founders by communicating the chain of command with regard to each task.
  • Lack of alignment
    If co-founders have different long term goals that are not aligned, this will quickly cause problems. Decisions will become an area of stress because you’ll continually have to address the fact that you’re not headed in the same direction. How does this play out in real life? Imagine if one founder wanted to build a great company and the other wanted to build a company for quick sale—the decisions made with those divergent goals are vastly different. This is not to say that there will always be agreement about the future of your start-up, but if the long term goals are aligned, things roll along more smoothly. Be clear about your goals from the beginning so that you’re all on the same page, and frequently “check-in” with each other to make sure you’re in sync. Everything should be aboveboard.
  • Questions about ownership
    This is a no-brainer: When you have co-founders, you will own less of the company than if you started it on your own. However, the benefits of having a co-founder far outweigh the fact that you’ll own less of your company. Why? Because successful partnerships come from the shared mindset that owning a smaller amount of something bigger is better than owning a bigger amount of something small. Simple as that.
  • Unclear expectations and rewards
    When a co-founder relationship is unbalanced, it’s more likely to fail in the long term as these imbalances grow larger. This is not only about percentage of ownership, but more about the expectations for individual contribution, fair compensation and building an environment that rewards everyone.
  • Your best friend is your co-founder
    Opinion is divided around starting a business with a friend, but my belief is that it should be avoided. When you go into business with someone, it’s different than a friendship. You have to ask yourself if you’re ok altering a friendship over your business. You have to ask yourself if you’re ok getting into heated discussions and passionate debates with someone you normally have a beer with on the weekend, someone who knows you better than anyone else, can push your buttons and confuse emotional issues with matters of business. For many, it’s a sticky situation, and for that reason, I don’t recommend going into business with your friends. On the other hand, many people find a lot of positive aspects to going into business with friends; for example, some say that trust with friends is greater, so you know you’re all in it through thick and thin. My feeling is you should 100% trust anyone you go into business with, and you don’t have to find that person in your circle of friends. This doesn’t mean you can’t know the person ahead of time, or have worked with the person in the past, but I would not suggest starting a business with your best friend.

All of these risks can be managed, so there’s no reason not to have a co-founder. From the start, building a better relationship with anyone which will lead to more success and more authenticity. So start the conversations with your co-founder(s) early, be open and honest, and make sure everyone can be successful.

What are some of the other risks you have seen as an entrepreneur, and how did you manage past them? Share your story below.

Ride the Entrepreneur Rollercoaster

Life is full of ups and downs. If you’re an entrepreneur, there are a whole lot more of them. The ride many entrepreneurs take is so bumpy that many have dubbed it “the entrepreneur rollercoaster.” As you struggle to launch and grow your business, you’ll experience those highs and lows over and over again, sometimes with the same venture, and most definitely with each new business you launch. To give you just an idea of what an entrepreneur goes through, I brought together some resources to create this animated video, “The Entrepreneur Rollercoaster." It provides a brief snapshot into what life is like for an entrepreneur, and how cyclical the process is. Enjoy the ride.

Why you should have a co-founder

Welcome to a series of posts on the subject of co-founders: why to have one, finding one, dangers or risks associated with co-founders, and then, finally, how to work with them. I am a firm believer in the value of having a co-founder, both from personal experience as well as talking to other entrepreneurs, many of whom had co-founders when growing their businesses, and some that did not. Even those who did not have co-founders later realized the value of having a partner with whom you could share the stress and success of running a business.

There are very few examples of super successful companies that have a single founder. Think about it… Microsoft (Bill Gates) comes to mind immediately, but then, not too many more. Yes, if you combed the annals of entrepreneur history, you’d likely come up with a few. Even Venture Hacks calls Mark Zuckerberg Facebook’s only founder (under “The power of two” section, second paragraph), even though he arguably had quite a bit of help (remember that nasty lawsuit by three other Harvard students?).

Having a co-founder may be a crucial factor in the success of a company. But beyond that, as an entrepreneur, are there clear benefits to having a co-founder by your side? Yes. Here are a few:

A co-founder can:

  • Fill in the skills gap
    You may have a well-rounded education and ample professional experience, but one person can’t be an expert in everything. Everyone is missing important expertise, experience, and most importantly, management skills. What’s more, as entrepreneurs, although we’re willing to do any job to make our company successful, we do have interests and enjoy certain activities more than others. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own. Even if you think you can cover everything, why should you if you have a co-founder to lean on who can do it better than you? If they enjoy fulfilling a certain role more than you do, let them take responsibility over it. Something perhaps even more important than the skills gap is the difference in management style. If you’ve started and grown your own business before, you know that as time progresses, different management styles work better than others. Having a co-founder with a different skill set will likely mean he or she will also have a different management style. It’s just one more weapon on your arsenal.
  • Provide you with a real companion on the start-up journey
    Starting a business means a bumpy road may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle those bumps (and have more fun) with a co-founder. Advisors, boardmembers and mentors are great, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone that is going through the exact same process as you are, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential reward: a successful venture.
  • Serve as a backstop when you have an “off” day
    We all have those days when we are just not feeling it (and “it” can be any number of things with a start-up), and having a co-founder provides a backstop for those days, even for the simplest of matters. Need to go out of the office for a day or two after spending a week-long stretch glued to your computer, but need checks signed? Your co-founder can sign them. Have a big meeting scheduled when another prospect comes your way? If you have a co-founder, your company can be “present” at both meetings. Having someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes what could be a huge worry just a little bit smaller.
  • Balance the extremes
    Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, and they’re always moving forward, but they can also face obstacles. It helps to have someone to balance the extremes we all face along the way.
  • Point out blind spots
    We all have blind spots in how we manage, implement projects, and go through life. Having a co-founder gives you a peer that can point out these blind spots so you can improve. From personnel issues to how to launch a product, a co-founder will open your eyes to things you might not see.

I’m not trying to say having a co-founder is perfect all of the time. There are always bumps in the road, but the benefits outweigh the very, very small drawbacks. Up next: the risks of having a co-founder.