Tripping Over Our Blind Spots

(A guest post by Jill Chiappe, in my opinion, the best executive coach in the business.)

The most common question I get as an executive coach is, “Can you fix him?” (or her), usually pointing to some other executive. It’s an interesting question, as it tells me immediately that the person believes that something “over there” is causing his or her problem. Interestingly, the problem never is “over there.” 

Photo-1414604582943-2fd913b3cb17A perfect example:  A CEO of a mid-sized SaaS company hired me to review his executive team and give an assessment of strengths and weaknesses of each person and the whole team. He was interested in growing the company by 25% in the upcoming year to prepare it for sale and wanted to make sure he had the right team in place. I asked if he would also be getting a review himself and he looked surprised. I explained that any direction-setting or leadership initiatives would begin with him. He agreed. I asked him if he felt he had any blind spots in achieving his goals. He answered, wisely, ‘If I knew about them, they wouldn’t be blind spots.’ Exactly. He ended up getting a review, and he also sold the company a year and a half later for his expected price.

That’s the problem with blind spots—by definition we can’t see them. And in leadership, they can be fatal. At times, it is just those things we don’t want to see that we stumble over later. It’s why executive coaching and external reviews have become so popular over the years. (According to the Center for Creative Leadership, the number of companies using executive coaches has grown by 2000% since 1996.) Sometimes you need an outside look to uncover the most important issues, obstacles or opportunities. It used to be that coaching was viewed as a way to improve “problem” people. Today, coaching is a perk for senior executives. 94% of Fortune 500 companies provide some kind of executive coaching at their highest levels*.

But what about that “problem person” on the executive team? Can coaching “fix” him or her? In about 80% of cases, the answer is yes. In the other 20%, the person is simply not coachable. That is a determination that a good executive coach can give you. I have had to deliver the news of an “uncoachable” executive more than a few times. But it’s better to know up front rather than wonder and wander. For a longer answer about whether someone is coachable, I’ve devoted an entire chapter (Chapter 4) to it in my book Be Coachable which is available here.

In short, about the best advice I can give any executive is to first get a good assessment of himself and his team. I recommend a 360° assessment as the best way to uncover blind spots. Read more about that here.  A good assessment will so accurately target blind spots that the road to improvement becomes plain as day. That’s the beauty of uncovering a blind spot—no more tripping over the things you can’t see.


The Sales Learning Curve

Still one of the best overviews of the startup sales curve is Mark Leslie’s piece in the Harvard Business Review. Leslie founded Veritas and so he’s got the chops to prove his points.

When a company launches a new product, the temptation is to immediately ramp up sales force capacity to acquire customers as quickly as possible. Yet in our 25 years of experience with start-ups and new-product introductions, we’ve found that hiring a full sales force too fast just leads the company to burn through cash and fail to meet revenue expectations. Before it can sell the product efficiently, the entire organization needs to learn how customers will acquire and use it, a process we call the sales learning curve.

Worth a read, here.

Inside the John Ive bubble

Apple_logo_black.svgInteresting article in the New Yorker about this fascinating (and genius) designer.

Jobs visited the design studio and, as Ive recalled it, said, “Fuck, you’ve not been very effective, have you?” This was a partial compliment. Jobs could see that the studio’s work had value, even if Ive could be faulted for not communicating its worth to the company. During the visit, Ive said, Jobs “became more and more confident, and got really excited about our ability to work together.” That day, according to Ive, they started collaborating on what became the iMac. Soon afterward, Apple launched its “Think Different” campaign, and Ive took it as a reminder of the importance of “not being apologetic, not defining a way of being in response to what Dell just did.” He went on, “My intuition’s good, but my ability to articulate what I feel was not very good—and remains not very good, frustratingly. And that’s what’s hard, with Steve not being here now.” (At Jobs’s memorial, Ive called him “my closest and my most loyal friend.”)

Worth a read, here.

Better be careful what you write to your politician

UntitledJeb Bush, in an effort to be transparent, has released all of his emails from his governership of Florida.

Really, all of his emails. That includes detailed information, including the sender’s email address. 

I remember a few times emailing him, and getting a personal response. Impressive (I’m sure I’m in there somewhere in this huge warehouse of data, but I’m still trying to download all of it).

And it’s clear now that putting “Confidentiality notice” on your email won’t do much, at least when you’re emailing a politician…

I swear, this is true. No. Really.

On that harrowing night, on the eve of St. Crispin’s day, I was in a helicopter caught in RPG and AK-47 fire. We crashed, fled the scene, bullets flying and death amongst us. Then I gathered the trusty souls that I had fought so gallantly with, and and turned, crying Havoc! and we proceeded to smite the Dreaded Infidel with our trusty swords, beseeching the name of Our Maker as we spilled their blood, scattering it in a fine atomized dust on the ever-drifting sands of the Land of the Saracen.

So, what do you think, do I have what it takes to be a news anchor?

Starting your startup. The pitch deck. And what it all means.

photo-1422479516648-9b1f0b6e8da8Entrepreneurs constantly ask me how to pitch VCs. Most of the time, I push them to a different route.

To have a great business does not mean you have to have outside venture capital. I have run businesses backed by VCs, and those without. These days, you don’t actually need a tremendous capital base to get started. You can start a company for very, very little.

It’s worth reading The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Starting and Running Your Business. There’s also a great list of free things on the web to help you bootstrap your business.

However, inevitably, most entrepreneurs want to try to pitch their business to someone. The pitch may only be to family and friends (always the best place to start), or to a big Sand Hill VC. And they also want to know how to write a business plan (the two are not the same).

Pitch decks are those spiffy, slick and often meaningless presentations that are supposed to get you the millions your company deserves.

The problem is, like everything in the Valley these days, it’s all the same. Going to this site [or this one] will dazzle you with the sexiest pitch decks (dare I say the “bubble in the making” here?). However, it’s an orgy of homogeneity, a grand sameness that’s a testament to a startup culture that’s trying to be different, by being the same.

Where’s the risk in putting together a presentation that looks the same as everyone else’s? Not much. What’s riskier is not having a great idea and a great team.And therein lies the essential question: What do investors really care about?

Just two things stand out: a big idea and a great team.

A big idea has the following characteristics:

– It addresses a big, big market. Like – billions and billions being spent. Going after a $20 million market,meh. Going after a $300 billion market,hmmm…

– There’s a big, fat opportunity. There’s something missing in the market, or something that’s going to be happening, that opens the door to your product or service being a massive success. Your technology needs to be different, disruptive and interesting. And if you can’t reasonably forecast your company getting to several hundred million in revenue, then rethink the VC route.

– It’s different. Being the 10th also-ran player in a market is not interesting. That doesn’t, however, mean you have to be obsessed with being different. It’s just you need something that sets you apart from all the rest. (A good start is to read the 3 most powerful words every brand needs.)

But let’s dig a little further. Venture investors (as opposed to private equity investors) aren’t investing in startups just to get 2-3x return on their money. The venture model is fairly simple: each investment has to have the potential to generate outsized returns –10x return – a “ten bagger”.

So, you need an idea that will generate outsized returns.The classic pitch deck, as outlined by a colleague (Mark Wright at BCVC) has the following elements:

1. Investment highlights

2. Platform/Business Description

3. What compelling problem does it solve

4. Target Customers

5. Competitive dynamics/ current customers – if any

6. Barriers to entry

7. Management team

8. Holes in team

9. Financial model

10. Amount being raised/Use of proceeds

11. Operational and financial milestones/How is our performance to be judged

12. Three year quarterly projections that includes the quarterly can burn rate

13. Client references

14. Repeat investment highlights.

Good. That’s a start, and a good checklist to keep in mind.

Basic rules for the pitch itself are to accept questions and interruptions during the pitch. Give it 45 minutes max. Do not send out the pitch in advance. And don’t ask a VC to sign an NDA. Most won’t.

Business plans, on the other hand, are largely meaningless for raising capital (I’m excepting, of course, where it’s a prerequisite, such as an SBA loan). A good Powerpoint deck is often enough to get the discussion going from institutional investors.

However, you should write a business plan for your own use. Writing a great business plan means that you write something that will be a living, breathing document that gives an insightful analysis into the business objectives, priorities, plans, and methods of measurement. It is for use, not necessarily for investors. If you’re just going to print one up for investors and then forget about it, it’s a waste of time.

And if you’re looking for a template for a business plan, the reality is that there is no really good template for a business plan. Great business plans are real documents that reflect the mission, objectives, and plans that you expect to actually implement.

In other words, there is no template for common sense.

Google makes it easy to move 

How can you make it simple and easy to move a customer of a competitor over to your product? At my last company, we spent a lot of time working on code to easily migrate customers over to our platform, with huge success.

So, suitable admiration for Google’s simple tutorial on how to move Firefox’s default search engine to Google. Smart, simple ways to move customers from a competitor are always worthy of a hat tip.

Grow fast or die slow

Inevitably, a downturn will hit our economy, the normal business cycle likely to be abnormally exacerbated by the Fed’s aggressive monetary policies.

Whatever. Just be prepared. I’ve had some of my most extraordinary successes while there were big economic downturns.

How will you be prepared to weather the storm? Great companies survive (and often prosper). Mediocre companies succumb. Stay as debt free as possible, keep cash on hand, and continue to grow your topline. Growth is key, as my colleague Mike Rogers outlines in growing fast or dying slow.

Websites these days are so hip… and boring.

Is it just me, or is this hip new style of web pages (all on one page, big banner on top, blocks of graphics going down, numerous little cute graphical stat counters) getting to be more than a little tiring?

It seems that every valley startup has a formula – get this type of hip website, raise a seed round, try to build a product, try to raise an A round, then go bust, then start a new company with exactly the same type of hip website…

What is the new new thing? Certainly not this look… 

Another lesson from the “don’t screw your customers” rulebook

Intuit has suffered brutally from users (and competitors) over a recent change in TurboTax. The company removed support for Schedule D (capital gains) in their latest Deluxe version, forcing users to shell out extra money to buy the Premium version.

User backlash was breathtaking — over 1,500 negative reviews on Amazon alone, not to mention social media. What’s surprising is that this whole backlash started in November of last year. Intuit is only now formally apologizing and issuing refunds. But the apology is one of those “we’re sorry we didn’t do enough to communicate the change”.

There are three parts of this issue that really bother me: a) why did Intuit do this in the first place? Anyone who has any experience in this business knows the danger of downgrading features from an “upgrade”. Then, b) what the heck took them so long? It’s now late January, and user rage started in November. And c) why not do a real apology, not blame it on “not doing a good enough job of communicating”.  It’s like a husband saying “sorry, honey, I am with another woman now, I’m sorry I didn’t do a good enough job of communication that with you.”  Idiotic.

The lessons are obvious. Don’t screw your customers. Instead, create a culture of delivering more than is promised. The next version should have been better and more awesome than the previous, not a downgrade. And, if you screw up, get on it fast, and be completely forthright. Take the blame, apologize, fix it and don’t do it again.

Ironically, some of the best opportunities to shine are when you screw up. It’s how you handle it that counts. Instead, Intuit is mealy-mouthing their way through this debacle.

One party is happy, though: H&R Block. And so there’s final lesson: when your competitor screws up, jump on it hard and fast as a great opportunity to capture fleeing customers. And treat them awesomely!


Runaware — live online software demos

A year ago, I took on the role of executive chairman of Runaware, the leading producer of live online software demos (“test drives”).  This system allows a software company to bypass having to ask users to download a software program; instead, the user simply runs the demo software through a Runaware TestDrive session. Some of Runaware’s customers include Dell, Sage Software, and SAP.

It’s been an exciting year as we’ve revamped the entire technology from top to bottom, and created a truly world-class demonstration environment.

One of the problems software companies have in demoing their software is being able to guide the user through the process of trialing the software.  In short, users don’t always know where to click, and what to focus on.  So, we developed “Walk Through Guides“, tailored environments that walk the user through the various features of the product being demoed.  This has been a huge success.

I’m still working on a number of other board positions, including being on the board of BlueStripe Software, and StopBadware (originally, a joint-effort by Google and Harvard to make the internet safer, now a thriving community on its own).

Problems installing Nito Smart Installer on original Apple TV (silver)

I had a bit of effort to get this to work, so I’ll share my findings.

I installed FireCore atvflash on my original silver Apple TV.  But couldn’t get Nito Smart Installer to work.  I kept getting an error message to the effect that “mhelper has the wrong permissions or owners to work properly”.

I tried the recommended solution, but no help. After some messing around and googling, my solution was to do an installation of Nito TV through SSH, as explained here.

Basically, it’s beyond easy.

Open SSH (I use Putty).
ssh -1 [email protected]
cd “nitoTV Take Three”
chmod 755 installme
sudo ./installme

Reboot the box.  Just type “sudo reboot” from your SSH session.
[If you have trouble getting to your Apple TV box (which should be accessible as AppleTV.local), just use the IP address of the Apple TV box directly.  You can get the IP address by checking your wifi router.  The user name and pwd for the box is always “frontrow”]
Then, go into the Nito TV menu, install Smart Install.  It may fail once.  Just try it again.  It should work fine.

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