Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Third Board Meeting

Short, sweet and to the point.

That pretty much sums up our meeting this month. Interestingly, most of the board wasn't there in person. Brad and Jerry were on the east coast, David was, I think, in Cali somewhere and only Niel and I were in the room with the speaker phone.

Interestingly, it was one of our more collaborative interactions as a group.

Maybe it's just me getting a little better at prep and pre-meeting meetings. More than likely, though, it's my board being supportive and guiding me in the right direction. I may be old by startup standards, but it turns out I can still learn.

Jerry and I, for instance, are doing weekly coaching sessions. This is one of those added bonus type things you get when you have a great board of directors. Didn't know Jerry Colonna is an executive coach? Either did I, but he is, and a damn good one. He coaches several people, including the CEO's of other startups. Once a week for about an hour we talk about what it means to lead in a start up; what turns your crank, your fears, your weaknesses and what you can do about improving them, how your folks are doing, where to focus, what personal things might be going on that effect life and work, a broad range of things, all useful. And he does it in a way that's supportive but firm. He asks tough questions that make you pause and really think through issues. Fun? Not the word that pops immediately to mind, but when we're done it feels like I've really learned something, and most of it was in there already. Jerry just helped find it and bring it out.

Yea yea.. I know.. sounds all touchy feely. To a degree it is, but only a little. The results are real. Having an experienced, resourceful, intuitive, honest and damn smart guy to talk things over with who's got a very objective point of view is incredibly helpful in figuring out how to do what you need to do.

We scheduled the board meeting for our usual 3 hours. I distributed the pre meeting materials a couple of days beforehand as easy to print PDF's for everyone and set a simple 4 point agenda. 3 'handling board business' type things and one major item: Products and Markets.

We put spent about 10 minutes on the first three points and the rest of the meeting on an overview presentation of the business, products, product mixes, potential markets and associated (est.) revenues from each market. With Brad, Jerry and David on the phone and Niel and I in the room, the conversation flowed very well.

Although the presentation was about 40 pages, we only used about 5 or 6 of them for the entire conversation (with a couple of references to other pages for numbers or target markets). I led them through each of the key slides, we discussed what it meant, bounced back and forth between the concepts a few times, expressed opinions, disagreed, debated, found agreement and came out with a pretty clear picture of what we should be doing as a business.

Our problem has been the typical startup problem: too many opportunities and potential directions to go in. If you build a really flexible feature rich platform that can do a lot of things and can be used in a broad range of potential markets..what's the business you focus on and go after?

The presentation framed (most) of the best potentials (but substantially more than we could do with the resources on hand). First, we got agreement that this was a good overview to work from (focus…), we looked at the four big areas, decided pretty quickly that the first two were low hanging fruit (addressed reasonably broad markets with self serve tools and could be implemented with reasonably minimal effort) and we should just do them. 2 down, 2 to go. The third was by far the biggest revenue potential, but also the hardest to nail down.. so we skip that for a few minutes and look at the fourth area and quickly determine we like it, but it’s payoff isn’t big enough right now and we’ll back burner it for the time being (ahh.. more focus, take something out of the mix).

Back to the third big potential. Each of the board members likes a slightly different set of 2-3 primary markets. We debate this for awhile but we don’t settle on specifics. So, I asked them to each think about the complete list (about 15 markets) and for each of them to get back to me with their top three markets. This was, essentially, assigning homework. Brad then comments that between the 4 of them, once we nail the markets down, they could likely get several dozen companies to open their doors to us for a pitch. If we included our angel network (and we have something of a dream team of angels), we could potentially make that a couple of hundred leads to work with. Nice.

Jerry suggests I set a due date for each director’s ‘top three’ (let’s make it 4 days from now). We all agree. Wrap up.

Total meeting time? About 90 minutes. Could we have stretched it out another 90 minutes to fill the entire 3 hours scheduled? Probably, but why? It was good to have the time available if needed, but what we really needed was to get one pretty major thing done and we did it efficiently and reasonably quickly. The bonus was an hour and a half of extra time for a bunch of time starved folks. I even got a ‘great board meeting’ text message from Brad after the fact.

Lesson learned? Keep it focused, get your board business wrapped up quickly at the front end and spend your time on what you really need the collective intelligence of the board’s help with. No less, but also, no more.

And if you can, give them some of that time back,. Time’s one of the few things your board members are likely short of. They’ll appreciate it more than you know.

And yes, they all did the homework and via email we narrowed it down to 2 markets (and maybe a 3rd) within 4 days. Great stuff and exactly how I envisioned an active and engaged board of directors really adding value to a startup.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

What Every Startup Needs: A King Arthur and a Merlin

King Arthur or Merlin. Which are you?

I suspect that many if not most successful high tech companies have both as founders. A King Arthur, the front man, the person facing the world and the overall leader, and a Merlin, the magician behind the king who, with Arthur, puts together the magic of the company like products, strategy, teams, vision and council to Arthur.

Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen of YouTube, and of course, Captain Kirk and Spock of Star Trek (OK, that's a stretch, but you get the idea).

Startups that have both of these archetypes in the early stage mix seem to generally do better than those that don't. Of course, you don't have to have these two, you can start with one or the other, but if you want to truly get both great product and market traction, and do it quickly, you'll be better off if you have both.

So ask yourself: Do you have both? If you don't, and you're a Merlin, get yourself an Arthur. If you're the King already, don't try to do it alone.

Blogs and Newspapers

I got an email today from someone at The Denver Post announcing that they were going to do a business oriented blog.
I’m writing to introduce and invite you to a new blog now featured on the Denver Post website.


This blog will feature information and commentary about developments in the rapidly-changing world of technology, but heavily focused on Colorado and surrounding regions.
OK, interesting. Might be worth reading and I'll check it out. But then this:
While this blog – and all of our Denver Post blogs – are not replacements for news, this kind of interaction is designed to supplement and hopefully strengthen the exemplary news coverage you find in our newspaper daily.
This is interesting. They're saying: "This isn't news or meant to compete with news". To a degree, that's true, it's context for news. It's also, often, The News to me. It's all I read, if there isn't a relevant link. Where do newspapers think we get news now? Yes, often, it's an article in the NYT or WSJ if it's national, or the Denver Post or the Boulder Camera if it's local. But, almost always, I read that story now as a link from a blog. Someones blog recommended the story (or referenced it in a context I'm interested in). Either that, or from Google News, Digg or Reddit. I haven't read a paper newspaper in years, and only rarely do I go directly to newspapers websites anymore. I get to them through the context of someones opinion.

If newspapers really wanted to drive the creation and consumption of news on the internet, they should consider using their editorialists as context creators. Encourage and empower those folks writing their editorials (i.e. their blogs.. pretty much the same thing) to talk about things we're interested in, and then reference the stories in their papers (and if they were really smart, other papers and information sources as well). That, assuming I like and or trust the editorial/blogger, is much more valuable to me in finding relevant reading than context free news stories.

An excellent read from an ex-evangelical.

  As you know, I once was an evangelical megachurch pastor and my pastoral career stretched over many years. Eventually, I could no longer t...