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.

 

 


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.