Why Entrepreneurs Love Endurance Sports

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If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.
– Christopher McDougall (Born To Run)

As I prepared for my first marathon last year, people kept asking me why I was running the race. What compelled me to spend all my free time running (and at the time fundraising for CCFA). While there were personal reasons for this specific race, what was apparent is that a ton of my fellow entrepreneurs had done or were preparing to do some endurance activity themselves. From mountaineering to marathons to triathlons – it was clear that the entrepreneurially inclined also have a higher than normal participation rate in endurance sports.

What is it about pushing yourself to physical limits that appeals to us? Some say it’s the same drive and motivation to succeed that lead them to entrepreneurship in the first place. Honestly that’s just not it. Certainly the skills and character needed for professional success helps someone complete their chosen activity – but it’s not the “why”. After 6 months of reflection and a few more races, it’s become apparent that the thing I seek is myself. The voice in my head that becomes even more introspective, even more truthful. It’s a place to reconcile the decisions of my past and their results and think through the decisions I currently face in a physical and emotional place that has been stripped bare of its armor.

The startup environment is so emotionally and physically demanding that we develop protection, both from the outside world and from ourselves. There is something about bumping up against your physical limits that breaks down even the strongest armor.

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Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.
–Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist)

Last week I read a couple posts about hiring MBAs into startups by Ed Zimmerman and Phin Barnes. They took a thoughtful look at hiring and funding MBAs, with both largely ending up on the “it ultimately depends – but I’m usually extra cautious about it” answer. My view is a little more nuanced view, in that I think that most MBAs should ignore the startup hype and go after the big roles at corporates that they dream about. Much like a Rabbi telling the wannabe convert to get stuffed 3 times before welcoming  them into the fold, founders should push the limits of potential MBA candidates.

If they don’t do the startup thing, it’s totally ok! Other people do not need to define success, or their life, the way that a startup founder does. It makes me extremely upset when I see startups poopooing other people’s career goals as not valiant. It is perfectly acceptable, and more logical, to make a conscious effort to de-risk career choices. Hell, in the depths of the dark days there isn’t a single startup founder who makes it past the “just messing around stage” that doesn’t rethink their own huge risk taking. Over the past year I’ve had more than my share of dark days, many of which had me thinking how to seriously de-risk.

When an MBA decides to take on the extra risk, they can be a huge asset. Many MBAs have an element of unrestrained ambition that makes them a force when deployed in the right way. They will give up all other aspects of their life for professional success, throw personal relationships out the door and maybe even sacrifice their own health. They also usually have the intelligence and attitude to be a key contributor to the team. The problem, as both Phin and Ed point out, is that they are usually wired to take safe bets and seek out status, security and prestige. As a founder, you question their motives for wanting to be involved, worse you fear that they’ll jump ship when something shinier comes along.  If you can find one that truly wants to be involved, they usually have something to prove and that kind of fire translates into an employee that will be very hard to stop.

So when an MBA comes looking for startup opportunities as their modern “safety school” equivalent, they get shown the door.  If you put up every roadblock and they knock them down one by one and are relentless because either your idea or your team is something they need to be a part of, then open up and use their fire to your benefit.

Not Everyone Needs To Take The Same Risks

Have The Guts To Say No

If you love me
tell me you love me
don’t stab me man
– 50 Cent (High All The Time)

For some reason, many people seem to have been conditioned over time to choose tact over honesty. In both personal and business life this manifests itself as white lies, dropped e-mail threads, and ultimately, resentment. Why can’t we as a society be upfront with our thoughts and feelings? What is there lose?

Last week, I got an email from a friend talking about another entrepreneur: “[xyz knowledgeable entrepreneur] is totally unresponsive. To a point where I’ve written him off….all his friends believe the drop off is due to ego, he’s too good for people now”. Ugh, can you think of a worse insult for an entrepreneur (or for anyone)?

Like many of you I get a good amount of unsolicited requests, resumes and other small-asks. It’s annoying, sure, but I don’t ignore them, and usually send a polite “Sorry, but I can’t do this” response. No need to go through the rig-a-ma-roll of explaining the reasoning for your decision, just be direct and up-front. As adults, we should be accustomed to rejection (hell, entrepreneurs even more so) but I know for myself, and nearly everyone I know, hearing directly “no” is 100X better than being ignored, or worse, being lied to.

There are a million and one reasons why you may not want, or be able, to help someone. Have the decency and guts to close the loop and say what you think. We’ll be more productive, happy and successful for it.

Have The Guts To Say No

Moving To NYC

Case I wake up in the morning and it’s all gone
Best believe I’ma get it right back
Thats the hustler in me I know you like that

– Young Jeezy (Leave You Alone)

With 4th of July upon us, I felt it was time to be a little more public about my next moves. As many of you know, I’m in the process of moving to NYC to launch a new company. There is a deep love in my heart for Colorado, and Boulder in particular. In many ways, my closest friends and family have found it hard to believe that I’d leave a place that I love so dearly. At the end of the day there are 3 reasons that I’m going: 3D printing, a new startup opportunity, and family/friends.

For many years, I’ve had a fascination with the intersection of the physical and digital worlds. How do things we create digitally get manifested in the real world. Card Gnome was my first experiment. Over the last couple years, and more intensely over the last few months, 3D printing has become an obsession. NYC is the epicenter of this new technology. Not just for the US, but for the world. Makerbot, Shapeways and 3D Systems are 3 of the largest players in the space and all have headquarters in the NYC metro area. Stratasys, the other behemoth from Israel, recently acquired Makerbot to be it’s consumer brand and they aren’t moving from NYC. Makerbot and Shapeways even have their manufacturing facilities within the city limits. 3D printing changes the manufacturing cost calculus, allowing producers to optimize for geography rather than labor costs. What better location than metro NYC to show the world that labor cost optimization is dead.

About 1 month ago I was doing due diligence on a company that I was interested in and met Kegan Schouwenberg. She is an amazing entrepreneur and the former head of US operations for Shapeways, a true thought leader in 3D printing. She had this crazy idea that she could use 3D scanning and printing to create custom orthotics that aren’t just functionally better, but are better looking and easier to buy. She’s an industrial designer by trade and was looking for a business partner to handle distribution and business operations. I was really intrigued and after about a month of thought have decided to join full time as a founder and COO for the new business we’re calling Sols.

Lastly, my family and many of my friends still live in the tri-state area (Philly, NJ, NYC) and I’ve been neglecting those relationships for many years. I can’t remember a time when I was close enough to home for casual visits since I left for college and I’m looking forward to being closer. My heart is stil in the outdoors and NYC and its environs just cannot fulfill that need (although I’m still going to try). My hope is that in the future I’ll be able to move back to Colorado (or California) where I’ll have easier access to the backcountry adventures that I love.

At the end of the day, I’m not “leaving Colorado”, I’m just living in New York for a little bit. If you are around Boulder next week on the 11th I’ll be doing happy hour drinks at the West End Tavern starting at 4pm. Come say hi.

Moving To NYC

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

This is a guest post by Patrick Stinus, a co-founder of Seventh Element , a management consulting firm that provides “Fortune 100 tools to small businesses” to help them grow and increase profitability.

I was recently on the phone catching up with Joel and it dawned on me that while we’re both entrepreneurs, we operate in completely different worlds. If you were to ask, 99.9% of people they would see very little differences in our stories. We both worked in the GE “fast track” program which promised us lives of success and the “the American Dream”. We both left it behind to start our own businesses, take a shot at changing the world and do work that makes us truly happy. The difference is that I’m not trying to launch a startup, I’m starting an agency.

Start”ups”, especially ones that focus on technology, are what most people envision when they think about when you quit your job to “follow your dreams.” They’re typified by years of living on Ramen noodles, working 70 hour weeks, bootstrapping and sometimes pimping yourself to private money. They are designed to cheaply and quickly create a completely new (or incredibly better) product or service. It takes time without revenue to develop new products.

Agencies are businesses whose core value proposition is the skill set of its employees. I co-founded Seventh Element to bring the business management tools we perfected at GE to small businesses. We skipped the long, costly, and iterative product development phase and went straight to clocking billable hours to our clients. We can leverage our corporate pedigree to potential clients and make money within the first month of existence.

If you graph the profits of successful startups, they follow an exponential curve, where they bumble along for a long time making very little money and then get traction and “pop.” Since these businesses have such high-profit margins, which aren’t tied to hours available to bill, they have the potential to create hugely scaleable businesses which can be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The agency model theoretically starts with respectable profits on day one and grows in a modest, linear, path as it bill more hours and hires more talent that can be billed. An agency is far less risky, but is much less scaleable.

I am not trying to oversimplify the challenges our agency has faced, or imply that leaving a steady job for an agency is more (or less) respectable than a startup. The fact is that agencies have a good chance of making reasonable money, and startups have a low chance of making stupid money. If you do the rough math, the upside is similar. Owning a business is a personal decision, and the money is just one piece of the puzzle. Their isn’t a right or wrong way to do things, but keep this comparison in mind if you are deciding on starting your own business.

I’m an Entrepreneur (just don’t call me a startup)

5 lessons before launching your startup

“Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive… I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot”

-Jay-Z

Last week I had a discussion with someone considering leaving their job to launch a startup.  They wanted some honest feedback on their business model. It occurred to me that objectively evaluating a startup idea is a skill that can only be learned through experience and that I finally felt marginally comfortable giving advice on the topic. After 8 months of making mistakes, listening to great mentors and thinking through many ideas it felt great to give back. For those of you I haven’t spoken with, I wanted to jot down some of the key lessons I’ve picked up along the way.

1 – Understand your goals – You need to be honest with yourself about whether you want a massive business or a lifestyle supporting income source.  All your thoughts about the startup must flow through the answer to this question.

2 – Passion – If you are creating the next big thing, realize you’ll need to have the passion to devote 70+ hours a week for 3-5 years to make it a success. Is this an industry and product you will stay excited about? Note that I’m not saying the product has to be sexy, plenty of people make huge profits on products others didn’t even consider working on.

3 – Test instead of talk – Try to test your idea without spending money and time on development. If your core-product is a consumer website, there are ways to test your prototype extremely cheaply. Once its built, give it to customers and ask them if they are willing to pay for it. Try to avoid the echo chamber of your friends and family. Their support will carry you through the tough times, but they are terrible judges of what constitutes a great business idea.

4 – Financial resources – You need to eat, you need a roof and you need to provide for your family. If you can’t do this while devoting the time and effort for a startup, then its not for you. Getting funding is a long and arduous process and will likely require that you’ve already gotten traction with your product.

5 –  Product-Resource Fit (Viability) – What resources do you need to make your company successful? Do you have, or can you acquire, the skills, money and other resources needed to implement your idea? Be optimistic but honest. In order to make your dream a reality you will need to fully believe you can do it.

A lot of you are founders of companies, use that comment box to talk about your own lessons or expand on mine.

5 lessons before launching your startup

What kind of company culture are we building?

Over the past few weeks Chad and I have been recruiting engineers to join our Card Gnome team. It has forced us to be introspective and verbalize our company culture to prospects. It has been illuminating to look at how our personal belief systems have manifested themselves into an operating entity. It comes down to 4 core tenants:

Passion/Motivation: Life is short so we believe it should be spent doing things we are passionate about. We truly believe that intrinsic motivation produces the best long term value and we foster that in ourselves and others. Money by itself is not a motivator, only an indicator that your business has added value. We are trying to build an amazing organization of passionate individuals, therefore acceptance of mediocrity is unacceptable.

Independent Debate: Chad and I are both fiercely independent thinkers with nearly opposite personalities and core skillsets. Our debates are epic but always respectful. We put all the details on the table and force each other to justify our thinking. It has given us a deep appreciation for how the other person thinks, which only serves to make the debates more honest. At the end of each debate though we come to a conclusion and agree on a path forward. I cannot, at this moment, think of a situation in which we were not in complete agreement on the correct decision. There is very little grey area, we both agree that a decision is the correct course or we keep talking. Compromise has its place, but it generally doesn’t build a compelling product.

Experimentation: We  are wiling to implement our ideas purely to learn what will happen. In fact, adding printed cards was originally one of these ideas. A few people had asked whether we could print our eCards for them and so we decided to give it a try. A week later, after receiving amazing feedback from consumers and artists, we decided to change our core business. Other trials have been failures, but the freedom to try something new is what makes us entrepreneurs, and heck its fun.

Respect for others: Our company is not just about profits, its also about meaningfully improving the lives of our customers, employees, partners and ourselves. When we make decisions we think deeply about how the decision will effect our stakeholders.  Making them happy and treating them fairly is the only way to build a great company.

We haven’t written a formal values statement yet, and there are certainly things I’ve left out, but this post is a good start. Use the comments below to let us know what you think about it.

What kind of company culture are we building?

Is a character flaw an enabler or disabler

I have my fair share of flaws and all of you reading this do to.  The greatest professional gift that I was ever given was from my previous job where I was under the microscope each and every day and was “reviewed” by my peers and direct managers multiple times a month.  It gave me a distinct understanding of my own shortcomings, helped me improve, and ultimately gave me a thick skin.  Most of my biggest issues flow directly from a condition known as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) that I’ve had since I was a young child.  As I’ve learned about myself, I’ve also learned to control many of the negative effects and have come to view my condition as an enabler of my success and not a disabler as most people do.  If you follow a strategy that plays to your strengths and pair with people that have the exact opposite strengths it produces a powerful combination.  Let me explain.

Since I was a young child I was the kid with too much energy and too little patience and focus.  Unlike many of you, my thoughts are not linear.  My mind jumps extremely quickly from one thing to another which makes doing things that require attention to detail very difficult.  The jumping is not illogical, its just takes a different path than most people think along.  For instance, if we are talking about a business concept I’ll likely be thinking about your company and a few others that have related underlying concepts.  Clearly I miss some of the details and thats a distinct weakness.  On the flip side, it makes me really good at brainstorming, comparative analysis and creative problem solving.  I don’t need a lot of explanation to get the point, in fact I usually get it far before its made and so I’ll sometimes be an interrupter.  Waiting around for a point I already understand doesn’t work for me.  Is that presumptuous to assume I understand what people are talking about? Probably, but after 27 years of experience I’d say I usually have the point correctly.

The hyperactivity part of the disorder gives me a distinct preference for trying things versus thinking them through.  I do things twice as fast as most people but also screw up twice as often. At the end of the day its usually the exact same outcome and time as someone using a more step-by-step approach.  Most people say that my approach is wrong, that I should correct it.  My old managers always brought up mistakes I made with details.  What I’ve found is that when I pair my impulsive doing tendencies with someone like Chad who is a deliberate thinker we tend to get things done super quickly and without major mistakes.  A great example of this is when Chad and I put together a ceiling fan.  He immediately started reading the directions while I had already started putting in the screws.  As I made mistakes he would point them out and we’d move on.  It worked pretty damn well, and that fan went up super quickly.  So is this flaw a disabler? I’d argue no if you understand it and correct by pairing with someone who is a thinker.

Its obvious that in many environments my flaws would be crippling and probably inhibit professional and personal advancement. In my previous job, I was acutely hiding certain character traits and not acting myself in order to advance.  One of the unspoken reasons of moving to Boulder and getting into the startup world was my belief that this environment and profession plays to (and values) my specific strengths.  At the end of the day, everyone has different issues to to contend with and how we choose to face them and leverage them has a direct impact on our happiness and success.  Do any of you have “flaws” you consider to be enablers in some sense?

Is a character flaw an enabler or disabler

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

This is a guest post by Zack Shapiro, a student at the University of Colorado. He also runs an iPhone
development company called 59thirty and is currently working on a stealth
startup.

Want the short version? I want to be an entrepreneur because I can’t sit still. I work on projects and help others out all while day dreaming about my own goals, my ideas that I can’t seem to shake from the front of my mind.

I’ve had business ideas since I was 12 or 13. That’s as far back as I can remember throwing away small amounts of money on short-lived ideas. I created and developed blogs and then dumped them for a new one. I outsourced web design and small coding projects only to realize I didn’t know what to do next.

I didn’t know this was entrepreneurship. I just thought I was antsy.

In high school I ran my most successful website, a comedy blog. This lead to a podcast that culminated with former Tech TV personality Martin Sargent appearing on our second-to-last episode and his sidekick, Joey the Intern appearing on our final one. That was my first “exit.” I couldn’t top myself there, so I went out on a high note.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college: the iPhone is taking over the planet. I take a computer science class and develop what would become my first app. With the encouragement of my newly found mentor Dave Taylor I finish it and release it as an experiment. 8 months later 1200 copies have been sold.

I’m in.

A friend once told me that he knew most of what he learned in college prior to going, he just didn’t know the associated terms. I guess I’ve always known this was what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have a name for it.

So now I’m two years through undergrad, sure of what I want to do, and tapping my foot impatiently to do it full-time. Classes like astronomy are a waste of my time, so I’m auditing an MBA class on venture capital. I’m hungry for knowledge and dying to apply it.

Once I walk across that stage I’ll put in an order for business cards that screams with a full ethos, “I’m an entrepreneur.”

Why @ZackShapiro wants to be an entrepreneur

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?

Guest blog post by Joel Gratz, founder of the ColoradoPowderForecast and DontGetZapped

There is absolutely no substitute for being passionate about something and acting on that passion. This isn’t a cliché. It’s just the only way to really be happy.

When it’s going to snow, I have the energy of someone who just took a few too many shots of “5 Hour Energy”. This was true as a 6 year old wanting to play in the snow, as a 12 year old wanting a day off of school, and as a 25 year old looking for a midweek powder day at Vail.

Weather, particularly snow, is my passion. I went to school for meteorology. I’ll talk your ear off about the clouds. This is what gets me jazzed up.

How do you turn a life-long passion into a sustainable business?  With lots of energy, luck, and a bit of technology.

In 2006, I finished my joint Masters in Meteorology and MBA.  I started working for ICAT Managers, a hurricane and earthquake insurance company in Boulder. The location, pay and hours were great.  The people were kind too, in short, it was a good job. There was just one problem: I spent 95% of my time on data and analysis and only 5% of meteorology.  I thought that my passion could wait, as my life otherwise was perfectly fine and comfortable. Snow, skiing, and weather could still be my hobby even if it wasn’t my job.

But in late 2007, the perfect storm began to take shape. A few of my skiing friends asked me for forecasts so they could plan their snowy adventures for the week. At first I responded to these requests individually, but realized this was time consuming and inefficient. So I started an email list and began a weekly email to ~50 of my friends to let them know where and when to find the best snow. I wrote my emails with a touch of quirky humor and included a few graphics. The word spread.

During the 2008-2009 ski season, the email list grew to 500 people, which pathetically enough, was still just a group of contacts in Gmail.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 ski season, I broke into the 21st century and set up a blog to replace the email list and ColoradoPowderForecast was born. By late December, tens of thousands of people were visiting the site, and I finally opened my eyes to the perfect storm swirling around me:

  • Energy: I love working hard to forecast snow and help people enjoy it.
  • Luck: A few well-connected people found my site and passed it on to many more.
  • Technology: $0 spent on marketing and $3/month in web hosting was all it took to get 30,000 people to follow my forecasts.

With some good press in the books by new years, I knew that I had stumbled upon a way to make a living by following my passion. On January 21st, 2010, I left my full-time job to spend time meeting people in the ski industry and to begin transitioning my hobby into a real business.

Things are still in transition, but there’s not a day that goes by that I question my decision to follow the one thing that really gets me fired up: Snow. Luckily for me, there are about 12 million people in the U.S. that are also passionate about snow as skiers and snowboarders.  No, this isn’t a massive market. But by following my passion and helping these 12 million people to follow theirs, I should be able to make this business work out. And all it took to get started was $3/month, a bunch of snow flakes, some luck, and a bit of technology.

Now let’s go La Nina – bring on the powder!

The Perfect Storm: Why start a weather business?