Tribute to Chris Spagnola

My wife’s Dad passed on May 26th, a few months shy of his 99th birthday.

A long life, well lived. In every respect, Chrisopher Spagnola was the epitome of our “Greatest Generation.”

Like others born into large immigrant families Upstate in the early 1900s, his growing up in the depression era faced hardship that shaped life perspective and was then reset by the enormity and calamity of World War II.

Volunteering to serve in the Army Air Corps, Chris quickly advanced to flight school where he was commissioned an officer and at 23 years old, commanded a nine man crew as he piloted a B-24 bomber in the European theater.

He flew combat missions until Germany’s surrender and his 36 combat missions exceeded the 32 mission requirement making him eligible to return to the U.S. for non combat duty. To put this in context consider that by his volunteering to fly more combat missions, he was aware that within the 8th Air Force Bomb Group he was part of there was about a 25% fatality rate on the bomber missions being flown in that time period.

Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven other medals recognizing his extraordinary valor and combat record, Chris continued his military service in the Air Force Reserves, retiring as Lt. Colonel in 1972.

At the close of WWII he returned to Auburn NY where he married his hometown sweetheart Clementine “Dutch” Boglione for a union lasting 62 years until her passing in 2010.
In 1946 he obtained his commercial pilot’s license but declined an offer to fly for American Airlines to instead begin building the Auburn Foundry company – which he ran as co-owner and President until his retirement in 2006. The business remains one of Upstate’s last independent foundries – a testament to the strong foundation and team he built.

Putting others ahead of self

Given his war record, extended military service and success as a local businessman, accolades from those exploits alone would be a full life for many. But for Chris, life wasn’t about achievement as much as it was making a difference for others in ways that might not garner recognition, but truly had an impact.
He volunteered across a whole range of organizations like Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis, his local golf club and others. Chris successfully led an effort to engage an entire neighborhood of lakeside residents to pool their resources for creating a paved county road and bring in sewer and water to the area – something that would not have happened without a collective citizen coalition such as he put together.

Beyond being active as a leader who got things done, it was Chris’s persona of easy going, rock solid integrity and always sensitive to the feelings and situation of others that endeared him to all he met.

He lived a Christian life doing things that made a difference in the lives of others, including for disadvantaged people on the margins of society. Appreciated by his community, he more than deserved the reputation of being a soft spoken, low-key hero.

Role model for the next generations

Chris was a hero to me and someone I appreciated from the first day we met 40 years ago.

As I matured, I also grew in my understanding of how the role model he was influenced his daughter Krista in ways that both attracted me to her and set the foundation for own marriage.
So as our children were in elementary school in California, and we thought hard about our priorities in their upbringing, uprooting from Silicon Valley in 1999 to come home was very much based in having our kids take advantage of the special grandparents they had.

These last 17 years with him have been more than special. As saddened as we are to no longer have him with us, we’ll forever cherish both the memories of our time together and how lucky we were to have him be such an influence in shaping our lives.

The example he set in living a truly full and impactful life inspires me, our family and the lives of others he touched. His legacy lives on and will never be forgotten.

“Those we love can never be more than a thought apart, for as long as there is memory, they’ll live on in the heart.”


Discovering Self Inside a Super Maximum Security Prison

Pelican Bay Supermax Prison. I’m locking eyes with Gary, separated by a perforated metal screen as zero physical contact is permitted with residents of the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), the prison’s solitary confinement facility.

While I’m aware Gary has been “inside” for more than 15 years, I’ve no inclination to ask about his reasons for being here.

Instead, we’re focused on an exchange guided by Defy Ventures CEO Catherine Hoke as I’m part of a team of 20 volunteers who are all facing individual SHU residents and now engaged in a series of interactions advancing each resident’s ambition to change their life by taking advantage of Defy’s highly refined program featuring guided personal development with many check points for accountability along the way.

The warden tells us it is the first time a group exercise has ever been done at Pelican Bay SHU, as no organization has ever ventured in with a track record to suggest having an impact on this segment of residents who are as isolated from society as you could possibly find.

Defy Ventures is a seven year old non-profit committed to reducing America’s recidivism rate. More than two-thirds of those released from prison, returned to incarceration within 5 years.

This mind blowing rate of returning people to prison is just one of the forces propelling the U.S. to hold 25% of the total prison population of the planet, even though we have less than 5% of the global population.

While other forces like lack of opportunity in disadvantaged areas, broken families, substance abuse, underperforming public education, electoral politics and inherent bias in the criminal justice system all have layers of contributing factors that go beyond the scope of this post, no one would disagree that a primary goal of our prison system should be to rehabilitate the incarcerated so those released can be productive in society and break the cycle of criminal behavior that too often continues into succeeding generations.

Not surprisingly, as employers are reticent to hire released felons, a parolees’ lack of opportunity to progress in society erodes hope and triggers gravitational pull back to the relationships and environment, which too often leads to a subsequent criminal act.

Defy’s approach to addressing this seemingly unsolvable problem is to help both prison inmates and recently paroled join on a committed path as Entrepreneurs-In-Training (EITs) – enabled by a combination of tightly structured self development and hands on help from a cast of highly accomplished volunteers.

The results of this program are nothing short of astounding. Of the 2,000 Defy graduates, 166 businesses have been created, spawning 350 new jobs for people with criminal histories.

Defy has had only 3.2% of their graduates return to prison. When you consider the cost of incarceration in California is $70,202 per year per inmate and an investment in an in-prison Defy EIT is $500, that results in a 294x SROI for California’s taxpayers.

But the win is far more than dollars saved as the real victory is putting individual lives on a productive path, breaking a cycle of returning to criminal behavior and bringing positive effect on lives surrounding the EIT like their family, friends and others seeking to break away from criminal behavior.

Everyone Invited, Only the Committed Advance

Being an entrepreneur is an alluring path for many, especially people with a limited range of options available to them. But only the committed will thrive as the failure rate for small business is often cited at 80% within the first five years.

Defy has evolved their entrepreneur development program so that it combines online and in-person exercises requiring an EIT’s sustained commitment to advance towards graduation.

Parolees access Defy’s online learning modules over the web and because, inside prison this is typically not an option, Defy’s video based learning can be accessed on the prison’s TV network.

At each phase of development, EITs are given assessment exercises that are tracked for completion through Defy’s Learning Management System.

In both “inside” programs and those on parole, EITs form support groups where they are helping each other stay on track, forming relationships with those who share a common ambition of finding success through entrepreneurship and strengthening commitment to avoid returning to a criminal life.

Mutual Respect Begins With Shared Understanding

As EITs progress in their development, they are offered opportunities to participate in high impact personal interactions with a very impressive group of experienced entrepreneurs, executives and investor volunteers.

Through a series of interactive exercises, volunteers and EITs come to know each other and learn about each other’s lives in ways that highlight their differences and similarities. In one exercise, separate lines of volunteers and EITs face each other, then step to a center line acknowledging how environment, family and impact of selected circumstances played out with either fortuitous or unfortunate outcomes now determining their status as an EIT or professional volunteer.

It is the similarities more so than the differences that are striking for me.

Like most volunteers, it is a huge “aha” moment to wrap my head around the realization that, with just a minor twist in my own life circumstances, it could easily have been me standing in the EIT line or see EITs with the clear potential to have ended up on the volunteer line as successful professionals.

That shared understanding of each other’s position begins the process of building mutual respect that in turn powers advancement of both EITs and volunteers in our respective journeys.

For in-prison events, volunteers provide coaching to EITs on topics that include articulating their personal elevator pitch, resume feedback, mentoring on the business idea the EIT is developing and participating in pitch competitions.

Volunteer support for those who are released include those activities as well as supporting and tracking an EIT’s progress and linking EITs to resources that can help their business succeed.

In all situations, EIT contact with volunteers follows a strict protocol managed by Defy in a way that preserves privacy and security considerations.

A Different Kind of Volunteer Impact

Since I was already deeply engaged in helping lots of first time entrepreneurs, the fit for me to check out Defy was pretty easy. While the audience was different than the startup world I am typically engaged in, the activities seemed right within my wheelhouse.

My expectation before volunteering was that my ability to have impact would be based on my knowledge, entrepreneurial experience and relationships I could bring to the program.

But beginning with my first event, the nature of my interactions with EITs were in such sharp contrast with the traditional world of helping startups I began to understand this was less about my professional qualifications than it was an opportunity to grow by being vulnerable and giving without expectation of return.

You see in the traditional startup-coaching scenario we don’t spend much time showing personal vulnerability. We go right to diving in with the help and expertise we think we’re there to give.

And even if we tell ourselves we have a “pay it forward” mindset, we know the startup world has so many interconnected relationships there are paths where our volunteer contributions may come back in some form of unexpected reciprocity – be it new deal flow, a helpful entrepreneur or investor contact, or referral to a highly valued source that can help us.

Defy Interactions Can Be Transformational

The Defy personal interactions are humbling in their effect of acknowledging vulnerability and rethinking about forces that led to how I arrived at the stage of my life where I can qualify as a Defy volunteer.

And when there is zero expectation of reciprocity, it forces the commitment choice on what my real reason for volunteering is – am I sincere enough in my values to walk the talk of pay it forward, or not?

Locking eyes with Gary and continuing our discussion through the perforated metal screen brought home that realization on how any impact I was having wasn’t about my professional experience, but instead my ability to show understanding, compassion and commitment to someone otherwise cut off from society.

I’m thinking that after our exercise concluded, Gary replayed the interaction in his mind as many times as I have. For different reasons, perhaps we both came away feeling we grew as a result.

So my own success measure for Defy volunteer participation is now flipped from where I was at the outset.

These powerful in-person interactions have done much to alter my personal outlook in a transformational way – something that I simply don’t get in the traditional role of mentoring startups headed by people that have already been dealt a pretty good hand.

But that benefit of a transformational outlook comes only as a result of participating with Defy in person.

It’s alluring enough to keep me coming back for more, and is probably the underlying force behind Defy’s high rate of returning volunteers – which is the only kind recidivism you really want to see!


Crossing Boundaries to Build Startup Community

A delegation of a dozen business and professional community leaders from Binghamton took a day out of their already busy schedules to travel to Syracuse. They toured assets in the Syracuse startup community, and interacted with local leaders to learn from their experiences in building startup community.

The delegation included people from Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, City government, Binghamton University and local business leaders. These people are committed leaders with a stake in growing Binghamton’s startup community. They understood the value of getting an inside look at steps a neighboring city went through to build momentum around creating companies and jobs in newer industries. These efforts are now attracting top talent to a revitalized downtown area, and certainly worth paying attention to.

Journeys begin with vision

CenterState CEO’s Rob Simpson welcomed the delegation and provided an overview of some initiatives that started a decade ago. This ingenuity included critical public private partnerships, which set the stage for today’s job creating thrust.

A tour of the Syracuse Technology Garden, undisputed hub of Syracuse’s tech community, featured a recap of programs and entrepreneur supporting activities. Rick Clonan presented, and had John Liddy, Founder and Director of the Syracuse Student Sandbox sharing insights on how the college student accelerator engaged local mentors that were critical to graduating students deciding to put their roots down in Syracuse instead of going elsewhere to start their first company.

The delegation toured the new Syracuse Marriott Downtown (a project CenterState CEO helped lead), and enjoyed a luncheon discussion with Marc Viggiano, a retired business executive who shared his personal experience on how becoming involved with the Seed Capital Fund of CNY, StartFast Venture Accelerator, Genius NY program and Upstate Venture Connect all lead to helping entrepreneurs start companies and create jobs.

Entrepreneurs revitalizing downtown

A tour of Syracuse CoWorks, a nationally prominent co-working/living space, provided an inspiring look at how downtown space can be configured to foster relationships that attracts both millennial entrepreneurs and residents. The “community” also serves as a base for StartFast Code – a coding academy that puts individuals on a career path as professional web developers or helping advance their existing businesses.

Final stop was SpinCar, graduate of StartFast 2013 cohort and now a blossoming company with 40+ employees headquartered in Syracuse. Co-founder Mike Quigley shared the SpinCar story, including how the community helped his team on the path to success. This included connections to key people and resources of which Mike says made all the difference in SpinCar getting to the right customer market, finding investors and talent.

We closed the day with an engaging discussion around elements of a strong startup community. This long-term outlook and willingness to cross geographic and institutional boundaries relies on people working in concert. The result is connecting entrepreneurs to the resources needed to grow companies and create high-paying jobs.

True leaders break new ground

Five or more years ago, we could not have seen a delegation from one of our Upstate cities traveling to another community to learn about building a startup ecosystem like this. Not only would best practices have been harder to identify, but the interest to travel and learn from others just wasn’t getting any traction.

Over the last year, I’ve spent a lot of time in Binghamton and I’m impressed with the seeds of change that have clearly been planted. There is no doubt that this group of leaders, who are crossing boundaries are leading the way in accelerating change. Working together, we’ll have a meaningful impact in growing companies and creating jobs in Binghamton’s future economy.


Road Trip: Spending time with those we love


I just completed a drive home to Little Falls, New York originating from the San Francisco Bay Area.

With a few zigs and zags, it was about 3300 miles over 8 days.

This was my 9th cross country road trip, but the first with my son Jared since 1999 when our entire family relocated from Silicon Valley to my Upstate hometown by way of a 2 week cruise in an RV. He was then 6 years old so memories were a bit sketchy for him about that experience.

Now as a young man with an experienced traveler’s curious eye, Jared’s interest in a road trip evoked a positive reaction as soon as I brought up the idea.

While the ostensible reason was to transport a car we had in California to our home in Little Falls, I didn’t hide my interest in both the road trip experience and our spending some quality time together.

Because of winter weather risk traversing the Rockies this time of year, we took a southern route heading east along Interstate 40 and the old U.S. Route 66.

Desert and high plains from Las Vegas to Santa Fe were particularly scenic, and we veered off for side stops sometimes on a whim – like after seeing roadside billboards for the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

In comparison with cross country trips I did a decade or longer ago, I was struck this time by how much easier it is now with so many enhancements in the richness and ease of accessing information while on the fly.

We began the drive with no more planning than a general idea of the route and then made it up as we went along each day.

Google map features making it easy to pick up interesting attractions and stops along the route added to the process of discovery – so there was no difficulty in figuring out options we wouldn’t be experiencing back home, including dining in memorable settings like The Big Texan in Amarillo.

In picking the route we also stopped by to see a few friends, each of who had something to add to Jared’s experience. Our most memorable being time with my personal hero and mentor Jack Stack as we re-connected with him for the first time in about a decade.

The highlight for me though was the time Jared and I spent being together without distraction of outside influences. Sharing our observations, perspectives and thoughts in a relaxed way without the pressure of the next deadline or meeting.

We know that the convenience and relatively low cost of commercial air travel combine to put a big dent in long distance family road trips.

The wider range of leisure options we can easily find also builds a subtle time pressure to pack as much as we can into any time off period, perhaps sometimes with a feeling of being ready to tell others about where we’ve been over vacation.

Call me old fashioned, but I still like the road trip as a choice on the week or longer vacation menu. There is so much diversity in scenic beauty, attractions and culture right here in the U.S. Sharing with those we love is an experience best savored without tight timelines driven by flight schedule and limited time in a single location.

I’m a lucky guy to have a 23 year old son that shares that interest and still travels with his Dad. We made some memories together that will be with us always – and that’s what leisure time in our family is all about.


Returning From My Foray Into Politics

It’s almost a fist to the head kind of moment to realize I haven’t put a personal blog post up on this site since February last year.

Those that have regular contact with me know the story, but I suspect there are others on my distribution that weren’t aware of how my 2016 evaporated with my entire focus for the year spent pursuing a bid for U.S. Congress in New York’s 22nd District.

Adding to the improbability of the story was my choice to run as a third party candidate – seeking to buck the odds since no one has successfully done that in the last 5,000+ congressional elections since Bernie Sanders in 1990.

But then, entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to pursue the improbable and the entire effort was centered around my message of spurring job creation through the very things I’ve learned in my journey of starting and growing non profit Upstate Venture Connect these last seven years. Our mission there is to build scalable pathways connecting first time entrepreneurs to the resources needed to grow companies in new, fast growth industries. We are pushing Upstate NY’s economy in the direction that not only leverages our assets, but can actually succeed through private sector rather than government driven programs.

While I did not win the election, I’ve absolutely no regret for having run the gauntlet of a difficult, and sometimes vicious campaign fight that was an immersive and total learning experience from beginning to end.

Even though there is a most interesting backstory on how major parties and related special interests rig the system to stymie independents from advancing, I won’t be blogging much with retrospective campaign reflections or commenting on the dismal state of our political affairs.

Those people interested are welcome to browse through the Babinec For Congress site and if suffering insomnia, might watch one or more of our short documentary videos on Running Independent.

But I will share that the big motivator for me to run as an independent was realizing how the quirk in NY State’s election law permitting fusion voting actually gives minor parties a terrific opportunity to influence the political discourse by attracting major party candidates to co-list on the minor party lines.

So my personal quest in advancing the Upstate Jobs Party will continue and I do expect to put some posts up that share some of what I learned from my foray into the political world – including how entrepreneurs and others who care about job creation can make a difference at influencing a broader community without resorting to the quagmire of seeking change through public policy.

And since I’ve now re-engaged in growing Upstate Venture Connect and resumed investing and mentoring more startup entrepreneurs, you can expect to see more posts on these topics as well.

Looking forward to diving back in and hope to see comments and feedback as we re-energize building community.

It’s good to be back.


Overcome Seed Investor Bias

Overcome seed investor exit bias with vision and passion

As an active seed investor with my UpVentures, it’s not unusual for me to be weighing odds of investing in one company with some plausible acquirer targets on the horizon, versus another startup with a more speculative moon shot based on a large, but totally unproven, market opportunity.

This dynamic plays to entrepreneurs too. Wouldn’t a more likely pay day come in a space where others have shown some traction, ahead of being out there on the “bleeding” edge because you’re pioneering something that almost no one else sees yet?

There is no absolute here. Though as a seed stage investor, it is probably a good idea to have a portfolio with a mix of these two opportunity paths.

Investors can under appreciate market timing

Being ahead of the curve in a new and unfamiliar industry raises seed investor uncertainty about where the exit paths will be. This prompts a subtle bias for us to instead focus attention on opportunities that seem to have nearer term possibilities for liquidity.

But as IdeaLab founder Bill Gross recaps in this video reviewing data from 110+ companies he had a hand in, his search for causality in the factors of idea, team, business model, funding and timing (five classic early stage investor criteria) shows evidence that market timing had more to do with startup success than any of the other key criteria we seed investors rely upon.

Even one better is the wisdom of Paul Graham and his insights that come from decades of seed stage investing and running Y Combinator.

Overcome Seed Investor Bias

 

While multiple Paul Graham essays touch on this theme of market timing, one of my favorites is Black Swan Farming – he nails this seed investor bias against new models and markets by sharing logic behind his thinking why he felt Facebook was a lame seed investment opportunity when he first heard of it.

Biggest opportunities powered by multiple macro forces

While startups generally have some kind of societal, market or technological trend underlying their plausibility for being an investable growth business, if you parse through any list of $1B+ exits, you’ll see the big winners enjoyed a confluence of multiple macro trends that drove growth for an extended period.

Overcome Investor Bias | Learn from TriNet Founder Martin BabinecMy appreciation for this factor of multiple trend convergence began as it was probably the biggest reason prompting launch of my own startup journey in founding TriNet in 1988.

While very much a rookie entrepreneur then, I was more than a little passionate about how certain trends were both irreversible and directly related to powering our business model behind outsourced HR services including:

  • Increasing government regulations burdening employers
  • Shift in employment landscape from large companies to small
  • Smaller companies needing benefits to compete for talent (previously the domain only of big companies)
  • Technology adoption driving both speed of business (narrowing core competency that would in turn drive outsourcing) plus add new capabilities to enable efficiency in service delivery across a large number of smaller company customers.

As obvious as these trends might seem today, the late 1980’s was a different world and even venture investors couldn’t warm up to our opportunity since they didn’t then appreciate how our perceived pure service business could be sufficiently technology enabled to scale and leverage these converging trends as fully as TriNet proved to do.

Winning entrepreneurs articulate vision with passion

Vision and passion are important for any startup CEO. But if you’re forging new paths in unchartered models, you’ll be hard pressed to raise seed funding without a founder CEO getting across both these qualities.

Take the time to unpack specifics behind your supporting macro trends. Cite independent sources with data that supports your thesis. Tying multiple trends to defined elements of your business model and execution strategy boosts credibility in your vision.

But even those actions are not enough to sway seed investor interest if there isn’t a clear sense of deep personal passion on why this means so much to you.

Passion comes through when investors become convinced about the entrepreneur’s emotional commitment to the “why me” behind the problem the venture is solving. Our senses pick up the cues for this emotional commitment probably more so by how you articulate, than the logic supporting your argument.

A deep, passionate commitment is essential to overcoming the many obstacles ahead, including attracting the right team members who you’ll be asking to take their own risks in joining a team with an unproven model and/or industry.

Entrepreneurs who get seed investor attention are the ones whose vision and passion are so ingrained in their persona that they clearly differentiate from the crowd of their startup peers.

So don’t fear being “over the top” in getting across your passion and commitment. How you message that emotional commitment, coupled with a clear vision that ties specific trends to your model is what we’re looking for.

Winning investor hearts, along with our minds, is the combination that unlocks wallets to speculate with even greater risk than the semi plausible exit strategy we’re weighing you against as our investment alternative.


Prepping the Pitcher

Tips for pitch event organizers and startup founders from an investor’s perspective

Prepping the Pitcher - Tips for Your Next Pitch EventLast week I attended a local pitch event for the Upstate tech community that included four entrepreneurs pitching their startups. Like many other such events, the audience was a mixed group of entrepreneurs, community supporters and a small handful of investors. 

The pitches unfolded in typical fashion. When I saw the most common pitch errors across each of the four presenters, I did wonder about how the event organizers went about setting expectations and guiding the entrepreneurs doing the pitching. 

Entrepreneurs know these opportunities are important. They definitely spent time preparing, yet missed the chance to deliver a compelling case. Most importantly, none of the presenters specified what help they were seeking. 

What follows in this post are a few suggestions aimed at both event organizers and pitching entrepreneurs who seek to avoid the boring pitch syndrome.

Tip #1: Problem and solution are not enough

Entrepreneurs (particularly those with a technical background) fall too easily into the trap of using precious minutes in a pitch to dumb down the science. They hope to compel the audience by spelling out the technical challenges that were overcome, and the uniqueness of the startups’ product design.

If half or more of the pitch is spent defining the scope of the startup’s technology, it comes across like an academic exercise. The presenter is seen as working too hard to impress with his or her technical mastery – shortchanging the opportunity to secure support beyond defining problem and solution.

Tip #2: Pitch to investors, even in mixed groups

Even in situations where there is a mixed audience with diverse backgrounds and interests, I’m a fan of crafting pitches as if the entire audience were investors. 

Everyone wins by taking this approach in the pitch because: 

  • A standard set of guidelines can be provided to all presenters that directs them to a specific outcome
  • The event can run on a consistent track, making it easier for the audience to compare pitches with a lens that helps everyone think about how investors look at who to fund
  • The entrepreneur gets an opportunity to further hone the investor pitch, addressing things like business model, channels of distribution, margins and other critical business issues

Tip #3: Close with telling people what you want

I believe it’s essential to end a pitch with a specific appeal for help. Often times someone in the audience can assist the entrepreneur. They just need to ask!

Requests for help shouldn’t be limited to financing. Telling people what else your startup needs right now gets everyone thinking about how and who they know that can assist.

Whether it’s introductions to a specific type of customer or channel partner, or finding new team members, mentors and service providers, pitching is an opportunity to make a personal appeal. Someone in the audience may know the right resource for your company, but only if you tell them what you need.

Tip #4: Event organizers call the shots

With so many startups clamoring for the opportunity to get more exposure, event organizers have the leverage to set high standards for who they choose to present.

Instead of filling slots with whoever raises their hand first, consider inviting entrepreneurs to apply for the opportunity.

Even better, give them a short set of pitch guidelines on what you would like to see included in the pitch, and ask them to send a sample deck for you to evaluate.

It’s ok to tell applicants that their submission is just a sample. Ideally you and members of your supporting team can guide development of the final pitch so that it meets your target standard.

UNY50 - Experienced Entrepreneurs & Investors Provide Pitch HelpIf you need pitch mentoring support, resources like Upstate Venture Connect’s UNY50 Network or investors in any of our local seed funds can help. These same groups can also help recommend qualified startups to pitch.

Setting a high standard for your pitch events, and helping startup founders deliver compelling pitches will not only satisfy your audience, but reflect well on you as a sponsoring organization.


CatskillsConf: Fun mashup helps build startup community

Just came off a very fun and worthwhile weekend at the inaugural CatskillsConf – a three day affair that brought together an eclectic mix of creatives, tech people, foodies and startup community supporters.

Was cool not only because the organizers were able to successfully pull off marketing to assemble 120+ people that touched on all those themes, but the diversity included an audience nearly evenly split between Upstate and NY metro.

This was the first ever such gathering in the Hudson Valley/Catskills area. It came about after founders of the Hudson Valley Tech Meetup (Dan Stone, Daniel and Sabrina Shutzsmith and Kale Kaposhilin) met Aaron Quint, (web entrepreneur and former Paperless Post CTO/Chief Scientist) who recently transplanted from NYC to the Hudson Valley.

Pooling their combined organizational talents, passion for bringing people together and lists of contacts is what catalyzed CatskillsConf and their joint marketing outreach filled the room.

Leveraging Local Assets

Whether it was musical talent, farm to table culinary, wood crafts and natural settings of the Ashokan Center, this was a thoughtful mashup that brought diverse elements together with common themes that spoke to the millennial target.

On the learning side, my personal favorites were Dennis Crowley’s “put it all out there” story reflecting struggles at different stages in the startup journey, and also an amazing education segment featuring live birds of prey doing their thing.

birds of prey

When you’ve got a group together for more than a day, it gives opportunity to go beyond a large group learning setting to do some things that can be hands on, fun and social – all adding to the potential of building on strong relationships among participants.

The Catskills flavor for small group activities included options like foraging, blacksmithing, cider making, bookbinding, and drone piloting to name just a few.

Institutional ownership not a requirement for success

More than just a well run event, what’s unusual here is that the outcome wasn’t oriented towards benefiting a particular organization – but rather to just grow the relationship networks for participants, while having a fun time and creating many memories.

My boomer generation just isn’t used to seeing grass roots organizing like this without institutional ownership and resources.

New relationships will yield downstream benefit

As I browsed around, a frequent comment from local tech people sounded like “I used to think I was the only person around here like me. As a result of the groups forming and events bringing like minded people together, I’ve now got a growing network of supporters to help me.”

As I try to calculate the number of “creative collisions” that occurred and what happens when like minded people stumble into each other for the first time, there is little doubt that startup formation and growth will include some life changing outcomes sparked by what seemed like chance encounters.

Good things happen when a few people step up to lead

Kudos to the organizers as they took financial risk and put in a ton of hours along with a full supporting team of volunteers.

They set an inspiring standard for others to follow and their leadership adds further fuel to my optimism about why it is the millennials who are making the difference in powering Upstate towards a big jump in the number of new industry companies and jobs that will rise here from humble beginnings as people meeting at an event that then lead to collaborating on a startup.

We pledge our resources at Upstate Venture Connect to support their efforts and look forward to doing the same for all others ready to lead the charge in their own local market.


Recognizing Startup Community Builders

With a twist on the traditional “Entrepreneur of the Year” awards celebration, Upstate Venture Connect has partnered with Upstate Venture Association of NY to do our first ever celebration to recognize people who are making a difference in building our burgeoning startup ecosystem across the Upstate region.

Entrepreneur leaders make things happen by powering the launch and growth of activities and initiatives ranging from Startup Weekends, angel investor funds, accelerator programs, tech meetups and hackathons to name just a few from the diverse range we already see here in Upstate NY.

Who comes to mind in your community that is out front and leading with their actions to help startup entrepreneurs launch and grow companies?

You can nominate them here for one or more categories in our Venture Ecosystem Awards.

All too often, startup community leaders are people motivated by no more than wanting to leverage their time and talent to make things happen. Our goals include putting the spotlight on those making a difference as well as sharing examples that will motivate others to step up and lead.

Don’t delay as nominations close Monday August 31. The nomination format is easy – if you know someone making a difference they will be in good company.

Sign up yourself to attend our October 9th celebration luncheon at Turningstone Resort in Vernon. We anticipate a turnout of 2-300 people who are leaders and supporters from throughout the Upstate startup ecosystem.

Join us in the fun and show support for those that are building Upstate’s startup economy.

See you there!


Embracing Public Company Readiness in Scaling a Private Company

TriNet’s IPO was the culmination of contributions from a ton of people over a very long time period.

Few outsiders were aware that our management team adopted a philosophy of being “public company ready” way back in 1994.

Over the two decades from then till going public last March, our leadership team had several themes related to readiness that served as key filters for decision making in both setting expectations and allocating resources.

Being accountable to a budget

Paramount on the list of readiness factors is defining a realistic growth budget and then delivering on the results.

While all CEOs espouse the importance of this basic principle, now that I’m an active early stage investor with an inside look into a large number of fast growth private companies, it seems only a small minority of those I see come even close to that deep commitment of learning how to deliver on budget expectations as they are scaling up revenue.

All companies going through a rapid growth phase encounter uncertainty around market adoption as well as unexpected bumps from the external environment – be it competition, market forces, technology changes and government regulation to name just a few.

And the faster the growth, the harder it is for the team to adapt as they have to evolve internal processes that affect consistency in how the company attracts, prices and services customers at higher volume – all of which ultimately drives the forecasted results.

But the public company principle is that as leader, I was never in doubt that my tenure as CEO was directly related to my ability to accurately predict the future in terms of where our revenues and profitability would be up to a year or further out from where we were at any point in time.

So developing competency in how to do that wasn’t something that I could learn in a single year or delegate to someone else, but instead had to work towards instilling commitment to setting and delivering forecasted results throughout the entire company every single quarter.

Institutionalizing Accountability Begins With CEO Direct Reports

Even if the CEO is “all in” on the importance of setting realistic targets and delivering on that, no single person can make that happen on his or her own.

If I was being measured by how accurately I could predict future quarters, it wasn’t a big stretch to say that should be the same approach in how I looked at my direct reports.

That put my focus on making sure I was getting that intense commitment from my direct reports to both setting expectations within their respective department, and that those commitments were direct linkages to support achievement of the overall budget – especially on how everyone in each department was contributing to growing revenue.

It was up to me to define the process by which we would define and track progress of goal achievement and set the example of holding my direct reports accountable by showing consequences to the reporting executive if goals were not achieved.

Consistency in doing so, as well as supporting systems to report and track goal progress both helped push this approach company wide.

Transparency with Investors and Team Members

Predictability in delivering forecasted results is closely linked to having enough detail in the assumptions driving the budget to be understood by key stakeholders.

Initially, this is the Board and management team, but we found it very high impact to expand the knowledge and transparency through the entire company.

We boiled down a set of business drivers appropriate for full team consumption internally and then constantly reported on our progress so everyone knew where we stood against a full range of operating metrics and budget assumptions.

Another aspect of transparency was our internal mantra of “no related party transactions” as we knew any hint of executives or shareholders having anything less than an arms length arrangement would be a red flag that blows management credibility with sophisticated investors.

Having a “Big 4” audit firm is a huge boost for transparency. We took that on 20 years before going public and never looked back, notwithstanding the extra layer of fees we paid even through the lean years just we could hold to that standard.

Earlier start builds competency

In TriNet’s case, our public company readiness philosophy got a big boost after taking on a large public company as our controlling shareholder in 1995.

Even though we were a small entity rolling up into a big corporation, the public company principles were very top of mind to us as we planned and executed corporate governance over the next 10 years.

Our public company readiness ended up being a significant factor in TriNet’s successful transition from the corporate controlling shareholder to General Atlantic, our financial partner and controlling shareholder since 2005.

I can look back now and see how critical these steps were to laying the foundation for managing through challenges of an evolving institutional shareholder base – the most important undertaking any CEO who wants to be around for the long haul can take on.

And while few high growth companies will find their shareholder exit in the form of an IPO, those same public company principles will insure a stronger company on every dimension that is important to success for both internal and external stakeholders.


Confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive

As I meet entrepreneurs seeking to launch their first startup, I’ve begun noticing behavioral traits I wasn’t paying much attention to before.

Signals I’m picking up more frequently are from entrepreneurs coming across as super confident (even aggressive), perhaps in an effort to show they are hard driving and ambitious.

While confidence in one’s beliefs is indeed a critical asset for a startup entrepreneur, my BS detector begins kicking in when I see a total absence of humility. The tells are things like:

– working their accomplishments into the conversation
– no hint of what they don’t yet know or are seeking to learn
– expressing no curiosity about whom they’re interacting with
– interactions appear motivated only by potential self interest – no evidence of “pay it forward”
– how they interact with others who serve or bump into them seems different than their style of interacting with those in a professional context

Because I’m an investor who looks hard at leadership qualities of the CEOs I want to work with, my mind gravitates towards thinking: “If this is what I’m noticing now, I wonder how it translates to future interactions this entrepreneur has with others they seek to recruit and lead?”

Humility as a leadership trait

If you’re looking for thoughtful insights backing up the quality of humility in leaders, check out Jim Collins’ Good To Great and his work profiling Level V leaders. His research supports the thesis that CEOs embodying the unusual combination of fierce resolve and personal humility ended up being a critical leadership trait for top performing companies in the study.

My own view was shaped most by my Dad and my wife Krista, but also the good fortune of having close contact with a bunch of exceptionally strong leaders who personify humility in how they lead and interact with whomever they meet.

Jack Stack, Founder/CEO of SRC and visionary behind the Great Game of Business would certainly top my list in exemplifying resolute commitment and personal humility. SRC is not only a phenomenally successful company that has transformed thousands of lives, but beyond Jack’s Southern gentleman’s humble style, his open sourcing of the GGOB and open book management practices empower a generation of entrepreneurs like me to embrace principles around getting everyone in a company to think and act like owners – the ultimate management humility as it means running an organization with the power bubbling from the bottom up.

Back in 1995, Anthony Martin, now retired Chairman/CEO of global staffing giant Select (and subsequently Vedior) picked TriNet to invest as one of the 40+ companies in his portfolio. Much to my benefit, he traveled “across the pond” for 10+ years to sit on TriNet’s Board of Directors. Soft spoken with never a wasted word, his gracious, gentle, almost patrician manner helped set the tone for our board meetings with wisdom that came through penetrating observations and questions that were so much more effective than the contrasting style of boards featuring competition to demonstrate who is the smartest guy in the room.

In the emerging tech world, anyone that knows or interacts with uber VC Brad Feld (@bfeld) will attest he gives so much of himself to so many causes (building entrepreneurial ecosystems, women in tech, computer science education and entrepreneurship globally to name just a few) and notwithstanding an incredibly packed and productive schedule and contact list, still shows an uncommon curiosity and willingness to pay it forward with each new person he bumps into.

Humble, super successful people stand out

So I take notice when I encounter a super successful person who isn’t showing the expected trait of being the center of attention in a dialogue among a small group.

My respect grows as they instead show curiosity in others and demonstrate care and concern for people they don’t know, as well as how they contribute talent towards things not driven by self interest.

Encounters like these also reinforce my not losing sight of humility in what I say and do.

Paying it forward is going to be a theme I hope to keep shining more light on. Not only to help keep me centered, but also my belief that raising awareness of success beyond financial measures is the real story behind entrepreneurs with the most impact.


Ecosystem investment helps propel new startup creation

Yesterday morning I had several unsolicited requests for funding from Mohawk Valley entrepreneurs. It seemed odd, since a bunch came in at the same time from the local area.

Then someone pointed out an article in the Utica OD profiling my donor advisory fund at the Herkimer and Oneida County Community Foundation.

While the article wasn’t inaccurate, I can see now that when people think of entrepreneurs helping startups and the word funding is included, than conclusions gravitate towards this being about investment dollars going directly into startups.

It’s true that I’m one of Upstate’s most active startup investors. I’ve touched more than 70 companies through both direct investments and LP relationships in seed and private equity funds. My portfolio and investing interests are profiled on my UpVentures.com site.

But the High Growth Entrepreneur fund at HOC Community Foundation is different. That fund is not about my investing directly in companies, but instead towards supporting infrastructure that helps build our local and regional startup ecosystem.

Startup Ecosystem Infrastructure

For me, startup ecosystem infrastructure includes things like programs, activities, events, online assets and other resources that help bring the right parties together.

Building such infrastructure is my full time volunteer role as I created and help run Upstate Venture Connect, a 501c3 non profit now in our fifth year of operations. (Visit UVC.org to see some of our program initiatives and resources that bring entrepreneurs into contact with others who can help.)

Among the initiatives brewing locally is the thINCubator – a college student startup accelerator program housed at Baggs Square, the Commercialization Academy at AFRL’s Rome Labs and accelerated curation of a startup ecosystem map and events calendar that will bring more visibility to our local startup resources and activities.

Also being worked on is launch of a Mohawk Valley seed capital fund comprised of high net worth individuals qualifying as accredited investors who work together to invest as a group, as well as help mentor and support the startups they come into contact with.

With the Community Foundation donor advisory fund I’m interested in supporting leaders with similar ecosystem building aims – likely to include some new ideas on what could bring the right people together such as experienced entrepreneurs, technical talent, investors, service providers even academics and community leaders. The common denominator is a personal passion for being committed to help startups.

Who knows? Maybe a Startup Weekend, Tech Meetup group, Hackathon, 1 Million Cups chapter or something else not even on our current menu will percolate up.

I’m looking forward to seeing proposals and helping support leaders who are ready to put themselves out there to get something going that helps entrepreneurs and startups.

Whether you’re a startup seeking investment or you see an opportunity to help contribute to building the ecosystem, you can message me through the Babinec.com web site. And consider commenting right on this post below and/or sharing the link with others you know who might have interest.

This is a fun journey with big time impact in helping our best and brightest talent – join us!


Reap Serendipity From Creative Collisions

Since what we accomplish is often linked to who we meet, first time entrepreneurs are particularly motivated to extend their network for new relationships leading to partners, customers, team members and capital sources to name just a few.

But even with a wish list of possible relationship needs, it’s not practical to jump into every group or event we see or blindly flail about without a plan increasing odds of success in locating and interacting with those we are looking to meet.

That probably begins with figuring out where the richest environments might be – not only with the densest population of our targets, but also connectors that might lead to the high impact sources we’re seeking.

As an example, since most VC’s depend on referrals from trusted sources as their primary source of new deal flow, it’s worth thinking about who supporters are in the ecosystem like the right service providers, angel investors and other referring sources who can be more easily accessed through networks and group events.

High value in meeting new people face to face

A surprising number of millennials I meet seem hesitant to put much time and effort into building their network by regularly pursuing higher volume of face to face interactions with people or groups they don’t yet know.

The comfort of working the keyboard to troll through social networks and existing connections seems more time efficient – to which I respond “Keep doing whatever is working for you – but if you’re not yet finding the people you want help from, maybe it’s time to mix in some traditional methods of how most new relationships get started.”

We know that when we first meet someone face to face, we’re likely to follow social norms with a courteous dialogue that subtly has each person checking the other out. Both parties arrive at their respective conclusions with a lot of intuition and non verbal clues that simply can’t come across in email or an online profile.

With even a brief interaction, we’ll generally know whether we’ve been able to generate the needed spark of interest with whom we’re talking to – thus guiding us towards which of the people we just met will get some follow up attention.

And since some of the strangers we meet turn out to be givers who want to help, the human dynamic of meeting them in person stimulates curiosity and dialogue that may result in offers that would have been very hard to stimulate from a direct “cold call” or digital approach to that same person.

You give before you get

People who haven’t done business in Silicon Valley are generally surprised to hear the ethos of “pay it forward” is what truly powers startups there. The ease at which first time entrepreneurs are able to both find and access so many of the right givers is the essential glue that makes it the most entrepreneur supportive environment on the planet.

And giving is not limited to just those who are already advanced in their professional journey or accomplishment. If you’re the person seeking help, you have a chance to show your stuff and surprise someone by figuring out some small give to a person you just met and don’t know well yet.

Even if it’s just a small nugget of info that is on target with that person, being proactive in giving sets you up for being memorable and perhaps starting a new relationship instead of a forgotten interaction of no value to either party.

Can’t predict what comes downstream

When I peel back the history of some of my most life changing relationships, a surprising number can be traced back to origins from unanticipated creative collisions.

A majority of the initial interactions were with people who in turn introduced me to the high impact investor, partner, customer or team member not present at the event where I met the connector.

Other people on a young team might have roles less dependent on securing high impact external relationships. But for the founder/CEO in an emerging company, expanding the relationship network is a sufficiently high impact activity to justify being an ongoing part of the schedule.

Even though some events and groups won’t pan out as productive exercises, the ones that do will yield results to make all the difference in the journey.

Related post: Building Relationship Capital


Numbers not the only measure of entrepreneurial success

While most of my inbound startup inquiries come from first time entrepreneurs, this one was different. Even though he was still pre-launch, the aspiring entrepreneur is on the founding executive team of a company that went from startup to a successful IPO in six years.

Now with a year of public company executive team experience on top of managing through multi-year hyper growth, his view of the challenges and decision making to build a true enterprise were things I could relate to right away.

He was getting ready to leave the public company and venture off to start a venture where he would be a first time CEO. Plus he was in the enviable position of choosing to self fund or take his pick of investors at the door with Series A checks in hand before he even showed a pitch deck much less form a company.

What was surprisingly refreshing in our conversation were the entrepreneur’s thoughtful questions, and even a degree of humility that I almost never see from someone with that success pedigree.

After discussing the topic that prompted his call, he shifted into asking me about insights I might offer for the chapter 2 journey he was about to embark on. This was kind of fun for me, since sharing with someone who had been through what he had could be done with a lot of shared context so we breezed through some heavy topics quickly.

Imagining if I were in his shoes, three quick highlights came to mind:

1. Take some time off between gigs. Even though his vision for the new startup was a burning ambition, he is coming off six years of continuously running full tilt. Taking the helm to build a startup from scratch is an all consuming endeavor. The opportunity to recharge now, especially with family, might not be coming again for potentially several years or longer. No matter how quick the market might seem to be moving, there is no doubt that opportunity would still be there for him even if he took 6-12 months off now – time that could never be recaptured again.

2. Finish Big means a lot more than liquidity. When you’re in the trenches going through all that’s involved in building a high growth company, it is way too easy to fall into the trap of thinking how great life will be if you exit someday with a big payoff. However, in my own experience of speaking with quite a few other exited entrepreneurs, I’ve found many more of them unsettled with their lot than those who were leading fulfilling lives. Bo Burlingham’s recently published Finish Big – How great entrepreneurs exit their companies on top, covers this phenomenon with such great insight that I am now giving it to every startup I work with as they approach Series A financing. That’s right, putting the lens on what makes a successful exit (beyond financial measures) can guide decision making on influencing the kind of company culture to build and how to set expectations with those around you that you will want to deliver on.

3. The reward is the journey. In the 20 years of my serving as TriNet’s CEO, this became a mantra incorporated into my closing remarks at our quarterly all hands meetings. The thought is often attributed to Steve Jobs and to me embodies belief that reward isn’t measured so much by the imagined big exit, but instead by the little successes experienced by team members at every step we took along the way. No matter how hard we worked in constantly adapting to change, we sought out ways to reap reward from things like crazy ways to make meetings fun, hiring people we enjoyed spending our time with and friendly competitions to do things we could see made a difference for our customers and their employees. Memories of those shared interactions and successes will last a lifetime for me and many others who found intrinsic reward from being part the TriNet journey.

I’ll be watching with interest on how this new startup entrepreneur’s journey unfolds from here. He has the maturity that points to the right stuff. Those getting on his team are likely to benefit in ways they’ve not yet imagined.

Prior post with related themesStartup to IPO: An Entrepreneur’s Reflections


Building Relationship Capital

With a big chunk of my time devoted to accelerating Upstate NY’s startup ecosystem, I think a lot about how starting new relationships is critical to making a successful startup community.

The ease in which strangers can drop into a place like Silicon Valley and meet the right people is a dynamic that outsiders aspire to, but don’t seem to put much energy towards figuring out in second and third tier markets like ours.

So among other initiatives, I’ve been playing up the importance of building relationship capital when I’m interacting with first time entrepreneurs who are usually pretty light when it comes to the relationship network they need to build a company.

Relationship impact may not be obvious at initial interaction

Any entrepreneur who has built a serious company will have their own stories about key people they met along the way who ended up having a significant impact on their success, yet their initial interaction seemed fortuitous.

In contrast, I’m seeing a lot of first time entrepreneurs focus maniacally on pursuing relationships they perceive will lead to capital, but with too narrow a focus that puts them at risk of overlooking others who might be possible mentors, advisors and referral sources. These are the relationships that eventually lead to capital providers, customers, channel partners or other highly prized relationships vital for a startup’s success.

A person I just met might open one door, many or none but I won’t know what will unfold until a relationship deepens over time. That means planting lots of seeds, nurturing the right first time interactions into relationships – especially with people having a mix of capability and interest in advancing a dialogue.

Relationship Capital Fueled By Being Proactive & Crossing Boundaries

Figuring out who to meet has never been easier. In this transparent world with such readily accessible information about people in business, how hard is it to come with a top 10 list of people that would be good to know, or the intel on who their friends are or where they hang out?

Supplementing a targeted list of people would be organizations/groups and events populated by people likely to include the profile of those having some things in common with your interests.

Again, a bit of research is needed – just don’t fall into the common trap of thinking that the only relevant groups are those somewhere within immediate view such as your university, local area or industry.

Developing high impact relationships are well worth the time to invest in targeting, crossing boundaries to new organizations and even traveling as needed to interact with a group of like minded others to tap into new networks and forge new relationships.

You give before you get

The principle of reciprocity captures the essence of what it takes to turn a chance encounter into the first stages of what could become a productive relationship.

Think about the casual interactions you might have at a reception event. In these settings, the most successful people I know are naturally curious and usually not the ones opening up unless questioned by others. Instead they query you about your interests, often times subtly honing in on the areas where they might possibly be able to help you.

Can you uncover something in your dialogue to offer up (even if at a later time) to that successful person asking you these questions?

Once you know more about the other person, your give might be a relevant article or post you came across, a recommended place or event or best of all – an introduction to someone else or a resource that you’ve figured out would be helpful to who you’re talking with.

Being Systematic

Planting lots of seeds and nurturing a whole bunch of recent contacts into productive relationships takes work that most people won’t do. Those who are truly connectors are organized with disciplined contact management and calendaring of follow ups.

In the TriNet world of referral generated sales, we learned to get highly systematic in building processes around keeping our reps constantly identifying and nurturing their top relationships – a foundational element of our building a referral based culture and company.

More recently, that systematic approach to relationship building is incorporated into IntroNet – an app which helps people connect others and track what happens with the introductions they make.

Any one of these relationship development tactics would produce some results in helping meet and come to know more people who could help you.

Put them together and you’ll be on your way towards achieving that next big thing, no matter what that might be.


Startup Optimism Grows in Mohawk Valley

No one is likely to mistake my hometown area of Upstate’s beautiful Mohawk Valley with the dynamism of Silicon Valley. But those who know me are also aware of my deep commitment to help foster an Upstate wide startup ecosystem – so seeing some meaningful progress close to home is especially motivating for me.

Before I explain this new source of optimism, let me give some Upstate NY geography context. I reside in the Utica/Rome SMSA of about 300,000 persons. An area once heavily industrialized, but now struggling with the gut wrenching changes arising from the region’s inability to adapt from loss of high paying manufacturing jobs and closure of what was once a huge Air Force base in Rome.

Air Force Research Laboratory

Last year I attended a briefing at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to hear about plans to commercialize defense research by engaging Upstate college students to help drive the initial commercialization phase.

My expectations coming in were pretty low. After all, the whole model seemed to be grounded as a government led play – something that runs counter to my principles of how to build a startup community. In fact, were not for the urging of my Upstate Venture Connect Board Member John Zogby, I would not have gone to that briefing at all.

My first surprise was that the head of AFRL, Georg Duchak – a former Air Force general, presented a compelling vision that touched on key elements from Brad Feld’s book Startup Communities. A book he not only read, but incorporated themes from as he envisioned how this initiative would unfold.

Ok. That was impressive and it got my attention. But I could still foresee the many roadblocks yet to overcome, not the least of which was to find an entrepreneur capable of leading this charge amidst an alphabet soup of government bureaucracy and to stitch together an outreach to get some of the best and brightest students from around our Upstate region to come and participate.

It’s about the entrepreneur, stupid

The brilliance of George’s choice in successfully recruiting and relocating Mike McCoy as the entrepreneur to lead the effort was so clearly shown this past weekend when the Commercialization Academy’s first graduating cohort of 9 student teams pitched to an auditorium of excited investors, business professionals and startup community supporters.

Since I helped start and run the StartFast Venture Accelerator, I’m a guy who can appreciate all that was involved to recruit and season talented startup teams for this inaugural Commercialization Academy program.

This was a very professional output that I would rank up there with what we typically see in mature accelerator programs of the big startup hubs like NYC and Boston. All the more amazing when you consider it was comprised of student teams that came from 13 different colleges.

While not all of the student teams finished with a viable product opportunity, there was little doubt that this program just created a whole new crop of highly charged entrepreneurs and startup candidates who will soon populate Upstate’s startup scene.

Live interactions spur other outcomes

There was also a true “wow” effect from the perspective of the nearly 200 Mohawk Valley residents fortunate enough to be in the audience to take part in the Commercialization Academy demo day.

You won’t hear any of those attendees grousing about lack of potential for growth opportunity here Upstate. They saw our future in front of them and suddenly realized we have the assets to start creating real companies that someday generate a lot more jobs than the big box efforts we still hear about from our political leaders.

Another near term outcome from this event is that it has likely been the tipping point for us now to start building a Mohawk Valley seed capital fund so that our successful local entrepreneurs and professionals can join forces by pooling funds that will help get some of these startups into motion.

As UVC has done this already in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, we have the pattern recognition to know what it will take. It’s exciting to see the Mohawk Valley now arrive to this level of startup ecosystem development.

Community effort begins with individuals willing to step up

Kudos to George Duchak and Mike McCoy for their prescient vision and more importantly, disciplined execution staying true to key Startup Communities principles like being led by entrepreneurs and crossing boundaries to engage others way outside the scope of their own organization.

I am totally jazzed about the fabulous success of this first true hometown effort and am looking forward to doing all I can to help propel the program forward as they become a leader nationwide in defense research commercialization.

For more info on these and other efforts in the Mohawk Valley and Upstate register on the Upstate Venture Connect website at www.UVC.org and/or follow my blog or twitter feed.


Leading Sales as a Startup CEO

As I mentor startup CEOs, one of the most common struggles I see is figuring out the path to develop the right systems, process and talent to drive new sales.

Depending on the nature of the startup’s business, driving new customer acquisition might be online transaction oriented which can be more about inbound marketing and UI/UX. But many others, particularly those with B2B offerings and a higher ticket price, have to rely on sales people to make and close deals.

Creating a sales force from scratch is never a slam dunk. Doing so when your product may be carving out a new market niche adds to the challenge.

CEO WHO DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO SELL

Back in my earliest days of TriNet, I struggled mightily to get our first customers. As nothing was happening, I made the rookie mistake of thinking that since I had no sales experience the solution would be to find someone with a solid sales background to bring on as VP to figure this out.

Big mistake.

I wasn’t equipped then to know what qualities were needed for our situation plus the initial TriNet product was so unusual in the market at that time, that I can now say in retrospect the experienced sales guy I ended up hiring was set up for failure the day he arrived.

Being severely undercapitalized, his inability to generate new sales meant I couldn’t keep experimenting and he was cut loose after a few months.

Instead of bringing on a replacement, I invested in getting professional sales training that included hiring a coach who could mentor me on an ongoing basis. One of my luckiest breaks was finding Don France as that coach. He taught me the Sandler Sales methodology and mentored me through all kinds of sales transactions and challenges over the next year.

At the time, fees for that arrangement seemed high. However, it proved to be the best investment I ever made. I embarked on what was to become a transformational journey from being an “HR guy” to a “sales driven CEO” and have never looked back.

FOUNDER/CEOs HAVE A POWERFUL ADVANTAGE IN SELLING

The next five years saw me as the only sales rep for the company. Yet we grew to about 25 other people on the team who were all supported from the volume of new business I was able to bring on from my own selling efforts.

Now I’m not suggesting that in today’s faster moving world that same stretch would make sense for a new tech startup. But I am a passionate believer that if you’re selling a big ticket item the founder has a lot to gain by being out in front of that initial selling effort.

No one is better equipped than the Founder/CEO to relate to prospects with passion and can also come back and direct the service team to make necessary adjustments to the platform or offering so that it lines up with what the market feedback is saying.

LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR SALES SYSTEMS & PROCESS

Since high ticket sales don’t close by themselves, I was under time pressure to have a tight system and process in order to maximize the number of selling hours I could get with my direct prospect contact.

The professional training and mentoring Don gave me also put me on path to develop structure around organizing that sales system and process. By the time we got to hiring reps 2, 3 and 4 we had a clearly defined system and process that that made a big difference in getting new people up to speed in selling within a reasonable period of time – even if they had no prior experience in our industry.

From those early days, TriNet’s sales systems have continuously evolved with increasing sophistication. My successor CEO Burton Goldfield and team have taken it now to levels we believe are best in class yet still consistent with several aspects of our original approach to sales process.

FIND A COACH – LEARN A SALES SYSTEM

I’ve looked for Don France but been unable to locate him – I would love to thank him for all that he did to help put me on the right track.

These days the guy who I point my startup CEOs to is Jack Daly (www.JackDaly.net). He has a pretty extensive online library but his full day sessions are worth traveling to as he packs a ton of professional sales insight to include both foundational elements of sales systems/process and selecting/managing sales talent.

I’m sure there are many others out there too. Ask a bunch of people  you know who have deep sales management experience and find out who they recommend for both sales systems/process and mentoring. Someone local can be an advantage if they’re the right fit.

Readers of this post please respond with comments if you have resources you recommend.


Visionaries That Changed My Entrepreneurial Path

Seems that almost every work day I’m speaking with other entrepreneurs – whether it’s people I’m collaborating with to build Upstate NY’s startup ecosystem or earlier stage entrepreneurs who I might be mentoring to help in decisions they’re making.

These interactions are very fulfilling for me so I’m always looking to add as much value as I can by helping others understand perspectives that shaped my journey in building TriNet.

As part of a keynote address for a large entrepreneur conference, I was asked to touch on what shaped some of the key decisions along the way. That got me thinking about the top 3 or 4 influencers that truly nudged me towards thinking differently.

Since I’m frequently recommending these same resources to others, I’m hoping this post will make it easier to spread the value even further.

Streetcorner Strategy for Winning Local MarketsRobert E. Hall

Tag Line: Right Sales, Right Service, Right Customers, Right Cost

Impact for Me: With TriNet’s business model very much tied to amassing scale as quickly as possible, the idea of honing in on a narrow vertical market was a counter intuitive strategy at the startup stage. (In fact, for the first five years or so at our industry conferences it was totally baffling to my peers). However, those familiar with the TriNet story are aware that over our first decade we evolved to become best in class serving the very narrow niche of private equity backed emerging tech companies. Robert Hall’s presentation and book helped me figure out why that specific target was the right one for us to focus in on and then how to look at sales, service, customers and cost as integrated decisions instead of separate silos that more typically happens as a company grows.

Built to Last – Jim Collins

Tag Line: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

Impact for Me: While this best seller certainly has influenced lots of leaders, the biggest takeaway that I put into action was developing the structure and process discipline around driving core values through the entire company. Even as TriNet grew far beyond the stage of me and my direct reports doing all the key people decisions (like hiring, firing and rewarding) our institutionalizing processes around driving core values through these decisions has influenced the fabric of the company long after I stepped down as CEO.

Great Game of Business – Jack Stack & Bo Burlingham

Tag Line: The Only Sensible Way to Run a Company

Impact for Me: The Great Game of Business (aka The Game) is more than just an inspiring story with clear principles around things like open book management and incentive rewards that build accountability- it is a philosophy of how to run a business so the entire workforce becomes engaged to both think and act as owners. Getting to know Jack Stack and executing these principles has unquestionably been the single most impactful path on the entire TriNet journey.

No Excuses Management – T. J. Rogers

Tag Line: Proven Systems for Starting Fast, Growing Quickly and Surviving Hard Times

Impact for Me: Like most founder/CEO’s, my biggest personal challenge was evolving my own management style to fit the changing needs of the company. The faster the company grows, the bigger the challenge for the CEO to do things differently – what worked when you had 3 or 4 direct reports and 30 or so employees doesn’t necessarily work when you’re double or triple that size and again is totally different after 10x growth. T. J. Rogers approach to having systems and processes to build accountability was a terrific complement to what we had already started in the Great Game of Business. Some would say that since this was written before the internet age that his descriptions of systems and processes are now dated. While it’s true that today’s cloud based tools and integrated work flow are great enablers in themselves, I still highly recommend this book as a guide for CEOs going through their own development so they can wrap their head around the importance of leading the accountability journey themselves.

 

 


Paying it Forward with High Impact Mentoring

Our Syracuse based StartFast venture accelerator just completed our third cohort – graduating six teams at our August 14 Demo Day that featured 250 enthusiastic attendees.

For the third year in a row, ours was the largest gathering of accredited startup investors ever assembled in Upstate NY.

While startup teams and investors are in the Demo Day spotlight, watching the event unfold made me think about the real back story involving hard work and dedicated commitment of both the StartFast staff and our network of mentors who gave so much to propel these teams forward over the 3 months of the StartFast program.

StartFast mentors are volunteers. While some may advance to become an investor in a participating startup, the majority are taking time away from their own businesses and activities to help our fledgling teams without getting any compensation beyond their own satisfaction of making a difference.

This is pay it forward in the spirit of Silicon Valley and something we’re working hard to spread throughout the Upstate region.

Mentoring Comes In Different Flavors

Mentors have varying degrees of involvement, typically driven by finding the right match between the startup’s needs and mentor’s interests.

Some mentors will drop in for a site visit, interview each team and offer insights, possibly capping a visit by making a presentation to the overall cohort.

Others are tapped by Nasir Ali and Chuck Stormon (StartFast Managing Directors) to help fill an identified need for a particular team that is in line the mentor’s background and/or relationship network.

Whether it’s strategy, tactical options to fix a problem or opening up doors to a critical resource – these spot engagement can be very helpful to the startup and not require a big time commitment on the part of the mentor.

An even bigger contribution comes when a mentor evolves into an ongoing advisor role, staying involved in guiding the startup through multiple stages of the program and potentially beyond.

High Impact Mentor

The highest level contribution comes when a mentor believes so passionately in what a startup is doing that they dig in and find ways to help craft and execute some aspect of what the team is trying to achieve that it puts the startup on a different trajectory than the one they were planning at the time they entered StartFast.

Our case study for this involves StartFast alum SwipeToSpin (STS) – an intuitive interface making 3D imaging of objects easy for users to navigate as they examine a product from any angle of their choice while inside a browser.

Entering StartFast, the STS value proposition was aimed for high ticket luxury goods and content oriented web properties where 3D images would have some user appeal.

As with most startups, STS experimented with several product market categories, seeking to find the right segment where the STS solution solved a user problem that customers were ready to pay for.

Soon after some testing started in the automotive sector, STS began interacting much more with StartFast mentor John Max Miller, a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits in the auto sector – a guy knowledgeable about issues from the customer perspective, and also someone with a deep set of industry relationships.

John helped STS understand the need in the market and was active in shaping the STS product for this new target sector. He even personally called upon his dealer relationships and helped close initial sales.

In just a few months, STS’s growth in the auto dealer sector gained faster traction than any of the other verticals the company was marketing to. With further market analysis and the proven speed at which new sales were now closing, it was blindingly obvious that this segment was worth pivoting significant company strategy towards.

That growth spurt in turn raised investor confidence and following Demo Day, STS closed an equity round led by StartFast that included institutional investors.

The company continues its trajectory and is on plan for key milestones. John remains involved as he introduces the company to major partners and other vendors in the space, as well as supporting management in both strategy and execution.

STS is shaping up to be a company with lots of upside potential, creating opportunity for investors, the team and our Upstate startup ecosystem.

All of this made possible because one mentor tuned in, and then didn’t give up in his quest to help. In character of the persistent entrepreneur that he is, John steadily engaged with the STS team helping them navigate through a vertical previously unfamiliar to the team. Not just with strategic input, but the tactical execution of the tasks necessary to get there. All of this required his time and mindshare commitment without expectation of a financial return.

We salute John, STS and all the mentors who helped StartFast become an accelerator program built in the spirit of TechStars by engaging experienced entrepreneurs who give of themselves to help their earlier stage brethren. Interactions like these are the lifeblood of building a true startup ecosystem and it is gratifying to seem them take root and set the example for many others to follow.