silicon alley

Brother Mouzone on Respect & the Value of Your Word

(click on this link to play video)

This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.

As Chris Dixon has aptly pointed out in a recent post, start-up culture is very much built upon people's reputation and their word as opposed to the transactional/legalistic constructs of corporate culture.  Once the word is out on someone being unreliable, mendacious, mercenary or worse, his/her career in the local ecosystem is pretty much over. Angel, VC, Entrepreneur, Lawyer- it doesn't matter. No one will fund them or want to be funded by them again and they will have difficulty finding people to work with or for them. So whereas this kind of behavior is often ignored or tolerated in corporate environments, the self-regulating "street-justice" of the start-up community is often much swifter.

So if you're just stepping into the entrepreneurial scene, have a listen to the video above (by clicking on the photo) in which Brother Mouzone lets Avon Barksdale understand exactly what's at stake in no uncertain terms. You could tell Avon knew the deal the minute Mouzone stepped into that barber shop. 

As they say in The Wire, "the game is the game".

An Entrepreneur's Commandment: Do What Thou Lovest

“I would rather have played for Wales at Cardiff Arms Park than Hamlet at Old Vic”
Richard Burton

This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.

When I learned that the great Richard Burton had uttered these words I felt I understood him a bit better. After all, here was perhaps the world's greatest actor admitting that he had always treasured the thought of playing rugby for his native Wales above all else- even above the craft for which he was known throughout the world. In Burton's case this was no idle thought as he had been by all accounts a fantastic rugby player in his youth. He was also known to often express great discomfort and ambivalence towards the art of acting with all its inherent 'artificiality' as he put it.

Much like some very talented entrepreneurs I come across from time to time, Burton strikes me as a person who suffered from what I call "the problem of abundance". He was simply supremely gifted at too many things for his own good!

This is actually a real problem certain would-be entrepreneurs face. A combination of enormous enthusiasm, massive intellectual curiosity and wide-ranging interests can make it incredibly difficult for a multi-talented person to choose the right entrepreneurial path for themselves. Some simply sense that one singular venture might too confining, too limiting for them.  Further, the knowledge that driving a company to success requires an absolutely relentless focus can be extremely daunting for someone who suffers from this 'problem of abundance'.

Another type of problem certain would-be entrepreneurs face is simply choosing a business for which they are not well-suited. (I actually doubt Richard Burton had this particular problem though his relationship with acting may well have been one of the love-hate variety). I have encountered many people who get into business by happenstance, or by 'falling into it' by some chance meeting, or worse. This too can be a recipe for disappointment and can lead to years of toil in a field that bears no interest and enthusiasm for them. Burn-out is an inevitable result.

It strikes me that the solution here is to first take the time to understand what drives you and why. Thereafter, you can pursue an entrepreneurial calling that you care deeply about, in which you know can roll up your sleeves and really try to make a meaningful difference.

The late, great John Wooden, (he of 10 NCAA Championships), may have said it best:

"Be true to yourself, help others, make every day your masterpiece....."
Cardiff Arms Park, Wales

Cardiff Arms Park, Wales

Startups Aren't A Fashion Show

This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.

A good friend of mine who played in the NFL once told me that the biggest difference between the college game and the pros is the ferocious speed and the sheer density of the players. This stunning contrast was most often encapsulated for him during the course of the many outrageously violent collisions in which he participated. He has remarked on several occasions that the dramatic impression established in those first few days in the pros has never left him. Simply put, the NFL is a reality-check and a wake-up call to anyone and everyone associated with it. You absolutely need to put it all on the line and there is no place to hide. Just looking the part isn't enough, or, to borrow an oft-repeated football phrase, players who are "built like Tarzan and play like Jane" simply don't last very long.

I would hazard that the world of startups and entrepreneurship is very similar. If you want to build a successful company there are simply no excuses or shortcuts. It simply has to be an "all-in" approach that's all about commitment. Putting together a nice powerpoint presentation, executive summary, market analysis and making a nice pitch doesn't mean very much. So don't get lulled into the little self-congratulatory bubbles out there where it's all about "presenting to VC's" and 'honing your elevator pitch' and doing the business plan competition circuit.

Remember, startups are not a fashion-show or beauty contest- it's all about executing in the marketplace.

For better or for worse, the same applies to getting funded these days. Many first-time entrepreneurs have a deep misunderstanding about the investment climate out there and not only waste a lot of time seeking capital before they are ready, but also hurt their company's reputation in the process. More than ever, angel investors and VC's want to see a product that you have launched in the marketplace before they will even consider funding a startup. There are legions of people running around with beautiful and well rehearsed powerpoint presentations that describe pre-product and pre-revenue businesses with essentially the same pitch: "If only you would give me $___, I could build this."  On very rare, outlier-type occasions an investor will back you anyway because he or she thinks you have amazing potential- but remember, this is incredibly rare!

Imagine now how different your pitch would be if you could show investors your product, your customers, your adoption, etc. That first impression would be so dramatically different! Think about it- you have struggled, boot-strapped, put your own sweat and sometimes money into making this real. Most investors will immediately respect you for this, whether they like the business or not.  It distinguishes you immensely- especially in these tough times.

Below are a couple of quotes I will end with from some of the 'pro-level' guys out there. I insert them here both as a reality check, a challenge and perhaps to fire you up. I like these guys because they don't put a veneer out there and let you know exactly what they are looking for or what they think.

"If you’ve made an amazing product that I should consider for one of my ten yearly investments please send the URL of this product to------------ and cc me -------------- to get the ball rolling. No business plans, models or decks–I won’t open them. I only invest in real products built by killers. I don’t invest in powerpoint decks or bullshit business models–show me the product!"
Jason Calacanis
"The startup is a magical place. It's a place where expenses are someone else's problem..... It's a place where you can spend other people's money until you figure out a way to make your own..... The problem with this magical place is it's a fairy tale....
.... So don't use the idea of a startup as a crutch. Instead, start an actual business. Actual businesses have to deal with actual things like bills and payroll. Actual businesses worry about profit from day one. Actual businesses don't mask problems by saying, 'It's OK, we're a startup." Act like an actual business and you'll have a much better shot at succeeding."
Fried & Heinemeier-Hansson in Rework

Entrepreneur Alert: Don't Choose the Wrong Song!

This is part of my Series on Entrepreneurial Culture.

Sometimes, when Simon Cowell tells American Idol contestants that "you chose the wrong song" or "that was a bit indulgent", it makes me think of entrepreneurs I've seen jumping into the wrong business without enough thinking and preparation. Often, the Idol contestants will sheepishly nod in agreement or mutter some sort of wistful explanation such as "well, the song really spoke to me", or "I saw it and just started playing it in rehearsal". Simon, more so than the other judges then will often remind the contestants that they are actually participating in a competition.

It's of course great to be enthusiastic, but one thing I've learned over the years is that one has to save that enthusiasm and energy for the right opportunities! Starting a new business is such a massive commitment that simply being "enamored with the idea" does not suffice. Too many entrepreneurs looking for their next business look at opportunities through the prism of their eagerness to get cracking right away and don't ask the hard questions about the market, customer adoption, the competitive landscape, etc. Inevitably this leads to a lot of wasted time, money and enormous disappointment. So if you are between start-ups and by nature an incredibly enthusiastic person, here are some things to consider:

  • For once in your life, just take your time- do your diligence and don't rush into a new venture
  • Put out a lot of feelers and meet with lots of people who see a lot of deal flow in your community
  • Surround yourself with a few sober, experienced advisors who can help you assess things
  • If you have no domain expertise in the proposed venture no matter how cool it sounds, it's probably a bad idea- so be really careful
  • Approach this in-between phase professionally and impose a disciplined approach on yourself
  • As candidate opportunities arise talk to potential customers, investors, domain experts and develop a keen understanding of the addressable market, the competition, barriers to entry, capital requirements, etc.

I hope this helps. Let me know your thoughts.