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.

 

 


Tribute to Bill Burrows – Local Entrepreneur Philanthropist

  My hometown of Little Falls NY mourns the recent passing of Bill Burrows, Chairman of Burrows Paper Corporation and in a less visible role, a significant philanthropist leaving an enduring mark on our community. In one sense, his business world was a bit different than mine. He was fourth generation in his family to […] Read More »


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.