Can genius be learned?

UntitledI recently had the pleasure of hanging out with a fellow you’ve probably never heard of: Bob Duggan.

Duggan is quite a character, who is in the proces of netting himself a cool $3.6 billion from the sale of his pharmaceutical company to Abbvie.

It’s not his first fortune. If anyone can claim to have the Midas touch, it’s Duggan, who has had many success in the past. A two-time college drop-out (UCSB and UCLA), he has made his money entirely on his own.

So when he gives advice, people tend to listen.

What fascinated me is that he has implemented a program in his company of training and encouraging “genius characteristics”, discussed here in Investors Business Daily:

“I tell people, ‘You have genius potential’…Some think of genius as innate intelligence, as an inborn characteristic. But the dictionary defines it as an extraordinary intellectual power in creative activity. All of us have that potential.”

…Duggan, 70, believes so deeply in Barrios’ research that he has arranged for employees at Pharmacyclics to take a self-directed program to acquire the 24 genius traits. They might spend about one hour a week learning the characteristics — which include drive, courage and honesty — and complete the course of study over six months.

And that evening, Bob discussed these genius characteristics, based on the work of Alfred Barrios.

These characteristics include:

  • Drive
  • Courage
  • Devotion to goals
  • Knowledge
  • Honesty

…and another 18. You can read them here, in a presentation he made several years ago.

The key argument is that geniuses are made, not born, and that anyone can develop these same characteristics as Einstein or Shakespeare.

It seems to have worked well for Duggan and his now very wealthy team, some of whom have made staggering sums of money with Duggan.


There is no “proper English”

UntitledOliver Kamm, Editor of the Times of London, blasts prescriptive (rules-based) grammar in this delightful essay in the Wall Street Journal.

That’s how scholarly linguists work. Instead of having some rule book of what is “correct” usage, they examine the evidence of how native and fluent nonnative speakers do in fact use the language. Whatever is in general use in a language (not any use, but general use) is for that reason grammatically correct.

The grammatical rules invoked by pedants aren’t real rules of grammar at all. They are, at best, just stylistic conventions: An example would be the use of a double negative (I can’t get no satisfaction). It makes complete grammatical sense, as an intensifier. It’s just a convention that we don’t use double negatives of that form in Standard English.

Link here.

The words I never want to hear: “There’s no budget for that”

Im_having_an_out_of_money_experience_hat-re5694050474b4cafa619600b9039fe02_v9wfy_8byvr_324Over my long and sometimes entertaining career, I’ve had the pleasure of working on many product launches.  Some have been wildly successful. Some, not so much.

There’s one thing I found in common with all launches: Marketing funds didn’t necessarily play a part in the success of the product. I’ve seen products released without a big budget do incredibly well. I’ve seen products launched with a big budget do poorly.

Hence, there’s one statement I’ve heard over the years that personally drives me a bit batty: We don’t have the money to launch the product. 

It is utter nonsense.

Obviously, the ideal is to have a great launch budget! However, don’t get yourself tangled up on the need to have money. You actually don’t need much to market successfully these days. In fact, you didn’t need much 20 years ago, either.

What you really need for a successful launch is some smarts and, most importantly, the intention to have a successful launch.

The “smarts” part of it comes from experience, which can be learned.

As an example, many years ago, I launched a product at a startup which had nearly zero revenue. With very little in launch funds, we built an amazingly successful brand (we didn’t even have to pay our costs up-front, as we negotiated payment terms with most of our suppliers”).

I spent a big portion of my budget on a ton of surveys of potential customers.  This allowed me to get my positioning and messaging right. I spent a lot of time on this part. This allowed me to have the confidence to push hard on the rest of my marketing, because I knew what the customer wanted, and how to get the customer to buy the product. (You don’t even need to spend a lot of money doing surveys. You can do them yourselves at the local mall, or use Google surveys. Or, go to online groups where your typical customers congregate and ask them to do a survey using Surveymonkey.)

The second thing I did was heavily leverage the press to write about the product. These days, press is “dead”, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still use similar communication channels. There are still many writers out there that people read, such as blogs and sites like CNET or ZDNET.

(In order to determine the correct communication channels, one does what I call a “customer work-back”. You define the customer, and then work back where they get their information and where they purchase.  This allows you to a) determine the communication channels and b) the distribution channels. For example, if your customers are system administrators in mid-sized companies, you simply find out where they get their information from and where they typically purchase. And there’s your basic communication and channel strategy.)

The rest of the launch was pretty much block-and-tackling. This product was going into both online and retail, and there is a bit of detail around these two parts that aren’t worth getting into in this blog.

But the broader idea was that we did a lot of homework up-front, got our messaging nailed down, used free communication channels to promote it, launched the product with a lot of confidence, and the rest was history.

So here’s some quick ideas as to how you can marketing very inexpensively these days:

–  Websites are ridiculously cheap, so you don’t need to spend money on expensive designers. You can create a stunning website yourself in a day or two using great WordPress themes like Avada.  Use free graphic services like logomakrTheNounProjectpicmonkey and pixlr. Or, use inexpensive services like 99designs, guru or elance. And don’t bother using ugly stock photos. There are so many incredible free images out there, it will make your head spin. I won’t get into all the tips and tricks. This stuff is pretty straightforward given a will to get something done.

–  Mail, mail, mail. Use a good mailing service like GetResponse or Aweber to really build your fat funnel and do things like using auto-responders. Learn about this stuff. It really works. All of the big email marketing companies have tons of videos. You can also look at classic direct mail, which, believe it or not, still has a place.

There’s a funny thing about mailing; you don’t always see the results directly from the mailing, but you see it elsewhere.  The key thing is to focus constantly on quality communication out.

–  Use leverage wherever possible. The incredible thing about the internet economy is the idea of leverage — one keystroke can get your message to many, many people. QuickSprout has a useful infographic which describes the leverage strategy for low-cost marketing. It focuses on using communities; incentivizing users to share; using affiliate programs; doing blogger and youtuber outreach (as well as guest blogging); using your existing network; getting your friends to share; and getting out there in person.

–  Learn to hustle. Don’t be embarrassed by getting out there and hustling for business. Most people respect a bit of hustle. People who don’t are not the people you should care about.

I remember many years ago going to a tradeshow with a few boxes of product along with me. We were a tiny startup with zero funds. So I entered as a tradeshow attendee, found an empty table and started selling product, right there on the tradeshow floor. No, I didn’t pay for a booth. But darn it, we needed the money, so we sat there and paid for our trip, selling right there on the floor.  Then, after selling all of our product, we spent the rest of the day hustling on the tradeshow. I would also go to user groups and sell directly to user group members — an easy way to generate lots of cash. I even snuck into major industry conferences through the back-door without paying (okay, that’s a bit bad, but we really had no money), and then would hustle business at the conference. Tradeshows are a great place to hustle, especially if you’re selling to other companies (such as an OEM product). Go directly to the booth and ask for the person “in charge of …”, and if they’re not there, get their contact information.

I admit, I have a bit more hustle than most people, and I often wonder why people are too scared to get out there. But I suppose I don’t have a big problem with rejection. If you do, get over it. All businesses have a lot of rejection, but if you don’t get out there and hustle, something terrible will happen: nothing.

–  Barter. Do the $5 marketing plan.

–  Use LinkedIn and send free gifts. The most powerful business networking tool is LinkedIn. Or, use other data services to find potential target customers. Then, send the target a free gift, and ask for a meeting. At one company I work with, this “gift” strategy yielded some of their best leads. Another company I’ve worked with would send an email to a target customer, offering “to buy them lunch” (really, a $20 gift card). The exchange was to do a survey, which ultimately lead to the customer being educated on the product. $20 for a highly qualified lead? That’s not bad.

There are many other ideas. The point is not to get tied up in “we have no budget”. That’s very dangerous (and false) thinking. Some of the most successful tech companies companies today have had no marketing budget (Facebook, DropBox, AirBnB and many others). What they had was a great product or service, a lot of desire and a lot of persistence. And in the end, these three ingredients have no equal when it comes to success.

Tech company valuation for noobs, and how to sound cool when talking about it

I recently had a conversation which seems to repeat itself time and again — an entrepreneur wants to start a business, calls me for some basic advice, and then we get into some of the details.  Invariably, we get around to the subject of valuation.

Since this is a blog where you can feel comfortable asking “stupid” questions, I’ll make it safe for you. So, here’s the reality: Your high-tech business is worth as much as you can get for it.

There’s no formula.  There’s no cash flow model which can justify a startup’s valuation.  There’s just what you can get.

Jim Clark, after successfully starting Silicon Graphics, went on to start his next venture, Netscape.  He arbitrarily set a valuation in the mid-teens (I recall it being around $15 million, but my memory is a bit vague).  Of course, this is a ridiculously large valuation, but he could get it.  He did the same thing again with WebMD.  He got the most he could get from the market.

Others may not be so lucky.

How it all happens is the art of raising capital, and for better or worse, a major job of the entrepreneur.

Pre- and post-money
As you probably know, key terms are pre-money and post-money (often referred to as the “pre” and “post”). Pre-money is the valuation before you raise money. Post-money is the valuation after you raise money.

It’s dead simple: Your dilution (how much of the company you give away) is simply determined by dividing the amount raised by the post-money valuation. Let’s say you value your business at $4 million (the “pre-money”).  You raise $1 million (the “raise”).  You now have a $5 million post-money. Divide $1 million by the post-money ($5 million) and you see that you gave away 20%.

Often, for pre-revenue startups, founders raise angel money first, which then converts at the valuation of the Series A. The Series A is the first real round of funding, and startups hope that it is an institutional round. In my opinion, it is more favorable for the entrepreneur to raise angel money to convert at the Series A valuation. However, angels sometimes would rather go straight into a valuation discussion.

Valuing a tech business that has revenue
After your business is running a while, you will likely want to look for an exit.  If you’re like most entrepreneurs, you’ll tell your investors that you want to go public, but really, most tech companies get bought rather than go through the cumbersome IPO process.

What valuation you get is, again, a subject of some considerable subjectivity.

The acquirer (and the bankers), will typically go with a combination of models that justify the valuation.

There are three primary models used in valuing companies:
–  Discounted-cash flow
–  Comparable public company valuations
–  Precedent transactions

Discounted-cash flow (DCF) — if you don’t know what this is, let the banker worry about it.  In tech company valuations, it’s not a vital model, but it’s heavily used in non-tech industries, where the business is predictable and well-established (or, similarly, in tech companies where there is an established and predictable business). The DCF simply presumes a set of cash flows occurring annually over a future period of time, assigns a terminal (end) value of the business, and then discounts the cash flows to the present (because cash in the future is worth less than cash today).  How it discounts is based on old mathematical models dating back literally 150 years, but is now automated in any spreadsheet program.  Again, it’s not worth worrying about too much.

Comparable public company valuations — A more important metric, this method uses the valuation of public companies in your space to determine how the broad market is valuing the business. In technology, there are a number of multiples that are used, but often, a multiple of revenue is employed.  You can get an idea yourself of comparable public company valuations by assembling a list of public companies in your space, and looking up the multiples on any major finance website (Yahoo has a nice section that shows the key multiples for any company, under “key statistics” on any public company quote page).

What companies you choose for your valuation has an impact, but be careful not to BS too much by only selecting the hot companies in your space, as any reasonably intelligent acquirer knows very well what companies are comparable to yours.

So, for example, if you’re in the security space selling an advanced firewall product, you might choose Symantec, Palo Alto Networks, Fortinet and FireEye (not the best examples, but I’m just giving examples here).   Take the core valuation metrics (multiples of cash flow or EBITDA, multiples of revenue, etc.) and then calculate the average and the median, and apply it to your own numbers.

Key multiples typically used are multiples of revenue and multiples of EBITDA.

EBITDA is a very important metric for some buyers, in particular private equity and growth equity investors. [As a side note, I will add that Cash Flow is not the same thing as EBITDA, and this is important to remember for working through your financials and your strategy. I got caught in a trap years ago between Cash Flow and EBITDA. I was heavily Cash Flow focused (specifically, Cash Flow From Operations — CFFO). For technical reasons not worth getting into here, my EBITDA was poor, but my CFFO was wonderful.  I thought I could explain it away to investors. I couldn’t: they simply cared about the EBITDA.  It was shortsighted on their part, but in the end, it was my fault for not realizing just how important EBITDA was to these institutional buyers. I’ll never make that mistake again.]

Plenty of bankers publish information on financial metrics for prospective clients; Pacific Crest Securities has one of the better models, published every few weeks. I’m sure if you contacted them, they’d be delighted to put you on their mailing list.

Precedent transactions — this is the most important valuation metric, as it is what other companies in your space are being acquired for today.  Any banker has access to services which provide this vital data, but you’ll likely have your own list of companies that have been acquired, what they got acquired for, and what the multiples were.  Again, you’ll apply this to your own numbers. Keep track of deals in your space.

Muddling through
After looking at precedent transactions and comp public multiples, you’ll have an idea of what your company should get valued at. A good banker is very, very useful in this process.

Now, different buyers have different metrics.  Financial buyers typically pay on a multiple of cash flow (perhaps 3–6x cash flow for a highly leverage acquisition, perhaps 7x-10x cash flow for a non-leveraged situation, sometimes more for something that’s important to them).  Strategic buyers (in other words, non-financial buyers) are all over the map.  If they believe it’s strategic, the sky, literally, is the limit.  I’ve seen numbers that are stratospheric.  I’ve also seen numbers that are surprisingly low.

In the end, get what you can get. This is where the art of negotiation really, really matters.

Of course, never lie and fudge your numbers.  You can get in awful trouble post-acquisition, and besides, do you really want to make all that money in a sleazy way?

So good luck and feel free to contact me if you want any advice in this process.

BlueBell’s wonderful brand is at risk. Because they don’t understand PR.

3/15/15 Important update: It has now been determined that Blue Bell was not responsible for these deaths.  WSJ article here.  And, in that article “Mr. Marler said he thought Blue Bell had responded appropriately once it knew its products were linked to illnesses and deaths.”

My criticisms of Blue Bell are not relevant now; it seems they have done a laudable job of turning this around, and the news cycle has moved on to other things.

Still, below is a good overview in general of dealing with crisis PR. The original post, below:

Ah, people don’t read this blog and pay the penalty. If the BlueBell people had read How to Not Get Killed in a Press Interview, or my post on Intuit, they would have understood the dangers of not getting ahead of a potentially vicious news cycle.

BlueBell is dealing with a problem, that if not handled correctly right now, will blow up in their faces.  You see, a few of their “novelty” ice creams have been contaminated with Listeria bacteria, and three people have reportedly died.

Died. As in Dead. RIP. That sort of thing. Now, these were people in a hospital, and were likely older and had compromised immune systems. But they still died.

So here’s BlueBell’s response: a quaint post on their front page:


Followed by some bland talk:

For the first time in 108 years, Blue Bell announces a product recall….One of our machines produced a limited amount of frozen snacks with a potential listeria problem….When this was detected all products produced by this machine were withdrawn.  Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage…This withdrawal in no way includes our half gallons, quarts, pints, cups, three gallon ice cream or the majority of take-home frozen snack novelties…For more information call 979-836-7977, Monday – Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. CST or click here.

The CEO, Paul Kruse, just isn’t handling it right. Look at the tone of some of his remarks to the press:

“They feel that this one production line we use here is what might have caused the problem,” Kruse said. “It’s a complicated piece of machinery, it’s been down for about a month and a half, and what we’re likely going to do with it is throw it out the window, so to speak.”

Mr. Krus, with all due respect, three people have died, apparently because of your company’s mistake.

Where is the “devastated at this loss”, “we have immediately taken action…”, “we have formed a team to directly work on the problem”, etc., etc.

The playbook here is fairly straightforward. The perfection of crisis PR handling was achieved by Johnson & Johnson chairman James Burke, during the Tylenol poisoning tragedy in the 80s.  The case studies are numerous, but the key is:

  • Immediately come clean on everything you know. No obfuscation or corporate speak. No excuses. Plain, simple English. What happened, why it happened. If you don’t know, the answer is “we are aggressively investing this issue”.
  • Apologize and show genuine sorrow over the deaths. Ignore the lawyers, who are telling you not to admit fault. Your brand is at risk.
  • Immediately and actually handle the problem.  Not just “we’re going to throw out this machinary”. Something is wrong in your quality procedures if this machine was even allowed to continue in operation. Bring a reputable quality inspection team to go through a top-to-bottom review of your factory. That kind of thing. And then communicate this aggressively.
  • Detail the steps you are taking to make sure the problem never occurs again
  • Continue an active communication cycle
  • Fill the vacuum with credible information, through the press and through advertising.  “Our state-of-the-art factory”, pictures of people in clean suits working on ice cream, that sort of thing.

I love BlueBell. In fact, on our Sunday evening family dinners at my house, it’s the standard treat we serve. I wish them well.

But PR screwups like these, not handled correctly, can cause more damage than one would imagine.

Mr. Kruse, get your act together. You’re no longer an ice cream maker. You’re a news maker.