Motivation – The Startup Advantage

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

If you work with people, at some point you’re going to need to motivate them to do something you want. We’re not talking anything malicious, just getting stuff done. For most things, that’s always been the carrot and stick approach – if you do what I ask well, I’ll give you a carrot. If not, I’ll whack you with my stick. In essence – if you reward something, you’ll get more of what you want. If you punish something, you’ll get less.

And the bigger the carrot and stick, clearly, it would seem to make sense that the better the motivation derived from them. Because this system is ingrained in us, we see this everywhere.

 

To escape the status quo, everyone who works with or manages individuals should watch the below video, capturing the highlights of Dan Pink’s book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. (Not only is it extremely interesting, it’s also a really great lesson in using whiteboards to make engaging videos :) ) Pink also gave a TED talk last summer.

Hopefully, you took a moment to watch it. For those of you that are reading on, here’s a quick summary:

When tasks call for cognitive skill over mechanical skill, larger rewards result in poorer performance. Pay people enough to take money off the table. And, emphasize the three key factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction:

1) Autonomy – self-directed
2) Mastery – getting better at their craft
3) Purpose – making a contribution

I found the video extremely interesting. While the carrot and stick approach is so intuitive to us, when you really stop to think about the tasks that we’re motivated to work on, Pink’s points hit home.

When you’re toiling away, in the bowels of some huge project, working on some small part that isn’t going to significantly make or break the big picture, are you really driven to do your best work? Compared with, if you are the “CEO of your job”, making a clear contribution.

This is one key reason why most corporations are at such a huge disadvantage to most startups when it comes to innovation. Having huge amounts of money and resources are fantastic, until you’re trying to get top talent to apply it to new problems. The main corporate driver is to maximize profit, and you work on small chunks of something larger that the end customer really doesn’t care about. Startups facilitate their people in maximizing purpose, making contributions. And if they don’t, they should be – startups aren’t just vehicles to accomplish the founders’ purpose. Startups are an opportunity for everyone on the team to work towards achieving something, a collective victory.

Also, since startups are one of the few places that have the capability to go against the status quo, to implement processes that would make corporate managers shiver in their cubicles, they’re also well setup to allow individuals the other two key factors – autonomy, to decide how best to achieve the task at hand, and mastery, to provide an opportunity to get better at their craft.

The Mark Pincus “Be the CEO of your job” example is a good illustration of this. So is the example that Pink uses in the video about Atlassian and their “FedEx Days”. Who knew how productive one day could be if you just gave your employees free reign to decide how best to make a contribution?

Jeff Atwood has a great post on how he’s applying these principles at Stack Overflow. Are you maximizing purpose and leaving your carrots and sticks outside? Or is your motivation based purely on dollars and thus is an ineffective sham? What’s working for you?


Thoughts on Current State of Entrepreneurship at Penn State

Posted: June 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments »

Recently, an alum interested in supporting entrepreneurship at Penn State asked me for my thoughts on the current state of support for student entrepreneurs. Given my involvement with the Lion Launch Pad, an accelerator for students at Penn State that I co-founded, this is a topic that I have a strong interest in.

I have a much longer post on ideas to help support student entrepreneurs that I’m working on, but for today, I’m just going to stick to the current state.

I wrote a summary of the various groups, individuals, and programs at Penn State that I was aware of, which are involved in supporting student entrepreneurship in various ways. That document is embedded below.

If you’re an entrepreneur at Penn State, or even just someone interested in entrepreneurship, I would be very interested in your feedback and thoughts on the programs listed, along with my thoughts.

From the document:

Key Strengths:

  • There are a number of programs on and around Penn State’s campus that are dedicated to helping students explore and succeed in entrepreneurship. These include both academic and business resources. If students know where to look, there is generally something that can help get them moving in the right direction.
  • Penn State has both a history of entrepreneurial success and some recent entrepreneurship success stories. This is in addition to a fantastic resource in its alumni base, spread out across all areas of business.
  • The past several years have seen huge growth in programs for supporting early- stage entrepreneurs. No longer is there a gaping void between idea and venture capital funding. Entrepreneurs have a number of programs beyond Penn State to turn to and benefit from.

Key Opportunities:

  • Despite the large number of available programs, unfortunately, the entrepreneurship landscape is heavily fragmented and resources are not integrated. Consequently, students interested in entrepreneurship use their time looking for the necessary resources rather than taking advantage of them.
  • There is an issue of general awareness. Without high profile recent wins, there is a limited number of students who consider entrepreneurship as a viable career path or application of their ideas/creativity. Furthermore, students are seldom aware of academic entrepreneurship programs beyond their college/major.
  • The third section of this document provides a highlights of the recent growth in external programs for early-stage entrepreneurs – there is a large opportunity to align with these programs and incorporate their best practices.
  • Penn State’s alumni base is a tremendous resource, yet, unfortunately, it is difficult to access and leverage. There is an opportunity to structure this resource more effectively, thus benefiting all Penn State entrepreneurs.

Existing Programs

For details about the existing programs, along with some thoughts as far as how to improve upon the current state, please read the full document and leave your thoughts and reactions in the comments!

You can download the document in PDF format.


The Startup Accelerator List Grows – from 93 to 102

Posted: June 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

The list of startup accelerators has been getting a lot of attention as of late. It was exciting to see the list recently featured on Change.org’s Social Entrepreneurship blog. This activity follows the continuing interest and growth in seed-stage startup accelerators. Below are some updates and additions to the list.

Updates from the startup accelerator world:

  • TechCrunch featured a nice write-up on Stanford’s recently launched SSE Labs program. Written by Larry Chiang, one of the advisors to the new Stanford Student Startup Lab, the post touches on some of the political hurdles that the SSE Labs program ran into at Stanford in the process of launching. It is interesting (and disappointing) to read of the difficulties students had in launching an entrepreneurship support program at Stanford, typically referred to as one of the gold standards for academic institutional support of entrepreneurship. Still, it is an academic institution and many of the struggles the students ran into sound similar to roadblocks we’ve hit at Penn State and that I’ve heard about at other institutions. I’m glad to see the students are forging ahead undaunted.
  • Lots of activity internationally. The next few updates all concern accelerators abroad. One new program was mentioned in the comments on the accelerator list: The first accelerator for China just opened and will be based in Dalian: China Accelerator
  • XING’s founder, Lars Hinrichs, is launching HackFwd in Europe. It has some interesting twists over the conventional model. Funding will be up to €191,000, depending on the size of the team, and companies will participate in the program for up to a year. This results in HackFwd taking a more substantial equity chunk, though:

    HackFwd will take 27% of a company it invests in ““ that’s a sizeable chunk. In the US, Ycombinator takes around 6% but can do anywhere from 2%-10% while TechStars take around 6-10%, whereas the London-based Seedcamp takes 8-10%. However, those latter programmes only last months, while HackFwd”s backing will be designed to last a year.

    Startups will get funding for one year, with the aim of roughly matching the founder’s current yearly salary. Founders keep 70% equity, with 3% going to advisors and 27% to HackFwd. However, that said, they then take care of ‘legal and admin stuff”¦ so you can focus on your product.’

  • I came across some interesting comments from Kai Fu Lee on China’s Innovation Works accelerator program. It’s an interesting model and certainly unconventional.

    “To remedy the problem [of not having any early-stage funding for young entrepreneurs in China], he founded Innovation Works, a startup incubator with a twist. Instead of just doling out a million dollars here and there to promising projects, the company recruits top engineering graduates throughout the country and enlists them to help its portfolio companies get off the ground, while simultaneously grooming them to found startups of their own in 12 to 18 months.”

    “‘Y Combinator would have a very hard time making it in China,’ Lee says. ‘It would have a hard time finding the startups and qualified people to fund. It could interview hundreds and find only two.’ The American incubator model only works in China if you turn it on its head, starting first with the people before generating the concept. Right now, Innovation Works is funding two external startups and working on five projects that came from the inside team.”

  • TechCrunch announced the launch of accelerator programs in Singapore and Japan: Neoteny Labs and Open Network Lab. The post points out a couple of interesting details:

    “Another difference to the [Y Combinator] model: If the startup chooses a designated mentor, it will have to give away another 2% of stock options. ONL”s mentor line-up, assembled via the Neoteny Labs connection (both labs are partnering), is pretty impressive though, including big names such as Reid Hoffman, Napster founder Shawn Fanning, or Tim O”Reilly.”

  • Continuing the international updates, King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD) in Jordan is announcing that it will launch a seed fund in August which will operate on an accelerator model. The program is called Oasis 500. From the ArabCrunch.com article:

    Oasis 500 aims to push 500 startups in Jordan in 5 years and will offer several programs starting with training courses for entrepreneurs with ideas.

    [T]he training program will start around August of this year and will take a quota of around 100 entrepreneurs for several rounds every year ( any one with a tech idea according to Usama.) At the end of each program Oasis 500 will choose 10 ideas to invest in with an average of 10,000 Jordanian Dinars per idea and provide incubation (offices) for a period of 2 months. If the startup is qualified there will be additional investment of an average of 50,000 USD.

  • It’s trendy to have an accelerator — PayPal launched an accelerator program, PayPal Startup Accelerator a couple of months back.

 

Programs being added to the list:

Startup Accelerators

University-Affiliated

 

Check out the full, newly updated list of startup accelerators!

Along with updating the main list, I have also updated the Twitter list of startup accelerators – 51 of the programs are included. If there’s a Twitter account that I missed, please let me know!


10 Things I’ve Learned About Blogging This Year

Posted: June 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , | 2 Comments »

BloggingI started blogging again this January. So far, so good. I’m enjoying where my blog is going and, based on traffic and subscriber metrics, you readers out there seem to be enjoying the material and coming back.

I’m certainly not an expert on blogging and have a lot of learning (through testing and trying things) to do. But someone recently asked me for my thoughts on what I’ve learned about blogging so far. As someone who has tried blogging a couple of times in the past, I thought maybe my thoughts on what I’ve learned from my recent attempt might be interesting.

So, here are 10 things I’ve learned about blogging so far in my exploration. How does this align with what works for you?

  1. Don’t worry about making posts perfect. Just write something. A little trick I like is to go back in the archives of any blog on the web. Go back to the very start and take a look at the posts when that blogger started out. You’ll find a vast difference between the post quality then vs now. Its a process, a journey – everyone figures out what works for them somewhere along the way. You will, too, with time.
  2. You’ll have times / days when you’re really into the blogging thing and others when you’re too busy/etc. Use those periods of motivation to write a bunch of posts and schedule them out into the future to keep a consistent schedule. Break up long posts into series / multi-day posts. You can get a lot of mileage out of large encompassing topics and multi-part discussions.
  3. Let your audience guide you. Some people use Twitter to “trial balloon” topics, by seeing how people react to specific thoughts they’re considering writing posts about. Whether you do something that formal or not, pay attention to what posts really engage your audience. Write more of them.
  4. Pay attention to what you enjoy writing about. After all, if you don’t enjoy it, it will become a chore and you’ll either stop all together or stop being authentic.
  5. Throw out the rules. Your blog should be an exploration of different topics that interest you. Don’t let it get too dry or predictable – try out new things and mix it up a bit. Again, you don’t want it to become a chore – you want it to remain fresh and interesting to you personally.
  6. Lists work really well. Make a list of things and expand on it. My list of startup accelerator programs is my most popular, most discussed post.
  7. Find yourself giving similar advice to folks? Did a friend ask a particularly insightful question? These kinds of conversations prove extremely fruitful for posts, I think. Start to notice what you’re talking about, and let that become part of your bogging discourse. Jot down a list of ideas for topics. Add to this as you have ideas. I use EverNote to collect links, data, etc for future posts.
  8. Tweet your posts when people are awake to read them. There have been some interesting posts about when the optimal time to tweet your posts is. Late morning / early afternoon Pacific time seems to be the most common response. Regardless, it makes sense to let people know you’ve written something when they’re awake to see it. Restrain yourself and queue up the tweet to go out later. (By the way, this is implied, but it’s worth mentioning: Use Twitter to promote your posts and get thoughts. Most of my traffic comes from Twitter now vs. RSS feedreaders.)
  9. Start by taking an article/other post and link to it and give your reaction. Good way to get into a post. And take a point of view. Middle of the road, generic posts don’t draw any interest or comments. The blog should be your side of a conversation that you care about.
  10. Have fun. Trite, but true – if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t post. :)

Anyway, those are some things that have worked for me. What works for you?


The Bullshitting CTO – advice for non-technical founders

Posted: June 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was chatting with another startup founder recently who was talking a conversation he had with his CTO and what the CTO had told him about a recent issue with their site. Some data had been lost from the site and the CTO apparently immediately started putting blame on some unknown “user error” as the cause of the unknown glitch. This is despite the fact that there didn’t seem to be any relevant connection between any of the functionality on the admin backend and the data loss that had occurred. Fortunately, there were backups and the data was able to be restored, so no real harm done (aside from frustration and lost time). However, what was more interesting was that the situation was apparently only one instance of many similar conversation – strange technology issues occur and the CTO has no clear explanation for what happened.

Startup founders, especially those with no technology background, if this happens to you – stop. Stop letting your CTO get away with providing vague explanations for what happened. Stop letting the CTO off the hook. Everyone who uses a computer knows that technology doesn’t always work right. Startups are, more often than not, dealing with a combination of bleeding edge platforms, compressed time schedules, and lack of sleep – a cocktail that can be exciting, but results in a higher than average percentage of software bugs.

The issue is not the bugs. They are expected. Any founder who expects a system to be bug free is dreaming. The issue is a CTO who can’t explain the issues that occurred, or, more likely, doesn’t want to take responsibility for the issues. And even more importantly, the implications that this has for the technology side of your business.

Founders with no technical experience are in a difficult position in startup world. So much of a startup’s life is centered around the technology. As the company moves from customer development to product development, for someone who doesn’t understand the tech, the startup world becomes a wild roller-coaster ride with the CTO in the drivers’ seat. Make no mistake – you are more or less at the mercy of your tech co-founder if you don’t understand the tech, so you had better pick a good one.

A good way to look at this is what if your CTO walks away – do you know how to access the code, how the architecture is setup, how to get into the various administration tools, how to access the backups? Ideally, the question is yes to all of the above, but startup world is chaotic. New systems are being added, servers are reconfigured – change is ever present. Are you up to speed on stuff?

So, what’s the point? The point is – if your CTO can’t take responsibility for a tech issue that occurs, if she won’t walk you through what caused the issue, if he doesn’t do a root cause assessment and explain the results – then you are living on the edge. If your CTO can’t own up to one issue, how much other stuff is going on that you have no idea about?

Let’s be very clear – if you are in this situation, then you have a relationship with your CTO where the balance of power is skewed and the wellbeing of your company is at risk. You need to get clarity into what’s going on over on the tech side and restore the balance of power, and more importantly, rebalance your relationship where you’re getting truthful explanations from your CTO. Or find a new one. Heed the warning signs and protect the company.


Why I Left IBM

Posted: May 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

I was recently having a conversation with an aspiring entrepreneur and the topic of why I left IBM came up. It’s been just over a year since I left the consulting world and joined Three Screen Games full-time to lead the product team – I left May 1, 2009 – so I have a bit of perspective on the decision now.

Why did I leave IBM?

First, let me say why I didn’t leave: I didn’t leave because I hated the company, the work, or the people. Almost without exception, I loved the people that I worked with. If you want to get to know your co-workers really well, go into a high-travel consulting job where you spend each and every week with your co-workers in a strange city. Where you eat more meals with them than you eat with your family. Where you sleep in a hotel room down the hall from them. You get to know them better than pretty much anyone else. I really enjoyed the people that I was working alongside – hugely talented, driven to do the right thing. I have a great respect for IBM in its ability to amass a formidable talent pool. As for the work and the lifestyle, I loved the consulting life – seeing different companies, each with its own culture and unique challenges.

So, why did I leave? In short, I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to be involved with a startup. After doing independent consulting during high school and college, I knew that I had the entrepreneurial bug. I initially went to IBM to see how the “big guys” solved all of the consulting issues that I ran into when I was working with clients independently. Finding that many of the issues were the same, just multiplied by millions of dollars, gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities.

While the people were great and I enjoyed the lifestyle, I was frightened of becoming complacent. I was afraid of getting to the point where I became used to the salary and the lifestyle. Flying around in first class, working on high profile projects, earning a nice salary, stock options, etc. – it’s all really easy to get used to. I knew that once I became used to it all, I would reach the point where I wasn’t able to take the 100% paycut to join an early stage startup. And so, I was afraid of somehow missing the ability to pursue one of my goals – helping to create a company from the ground up.

James Kwak does a really great job of describing what I was afraid of in his recent post Why Do Harvard Kids Head to Wall Street?: “…[O]nce you’re in the door, the seduction begins….Your expenses grow to match your income. As the decades pass and you realize that no, you’re not going to save the world, the money becomes a more and more important part of the justification. And when you have kids, you’re stuck; it’s much easier to deprive yourself of money (and what it buys) than to deprive your children of money.”

I think often we know what we should do, but it’s hard to actually go and do it. It certainly doesn’t get any easier with time, and in many cases, things just get harder. It wasn’t exactly an easy decision to make, to decide to leave my position last spring, with the economy still uncertain, and still getting a lot of experience and having a lot of mileage left in my career at IBM. But I knew that it was one of the few opportunities I’d ever have to take the leap, and I’m very happy that I did.

Part of this is the self-awareness that I believe is needed to be effective as an entrepreneur and wrote about earlier. In this context, do you know what you need to feel confident enough to make that kind of a jump? Is it a strong team, some validation of your concept, an early customer? Figuring that out will help you recognize when you’ve made enough progress to make the move. For me, some of that was having a business partner and a team that I was confident could hold up their end of the bargain, and having a top notch group of advisers through DreamIt Ventures. (Having people in my life that supported the decision and encouraged me was a big part of it, as well.)

Who knows where things will take me next, but I consider myself fortunate to have had the courage to take advantage of an opportunity and accomplish one of my goals for myself.

….

Back to the anecdote that inspired this post – the aspiring entrepreneur that I was talking with was unhappy with the ‘big company’ internship that he had for the summer. It wasn’t going to give him the experience that he was hoping for and would be essentially worthless busy work day after day. He had pretty much already made up his mind before talking to me, but perhaps some of these thoughts helped him feel less crazy for walking away from a “perfectly good job”. In my mind, as I discussed with him, if you’re not getting the experience you want, especially when you’re young, there are few reasons why you should stick it out and so many reasons why you should take the leap to follow your dreams. After all, you may not get another chance.

I have a quote from Steve Jobs on my personal home page that I think speaks really well to this point:

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is.”

This is your life. Make sure you’re getting what you want out of it.