Monday, September 16, 2013

Big Yellow Taxi

As of today, the fun part is over. My Founders Institute semester graduates tonight. No more Monday evening get togethers in SOMA. No more trials by fire. No more arduous but prescient assignments. No more epic presentations from people who have truly lived the dream and who have come back to share how not dreamlike it all is but who still content that it is worth it. 

And no more terrible pitches. :)

I will miss the fear. I will miss the uncertainty. I will miss the raw knowledge. But mostly I will miss the people.

There is something very special about regularly getting together with a bunch of like-minded individuals all with similar goals and hurdles. There is camaraderie and an empowerment that comes with such a collection.

I experienced it in college - working at the student newspaper - and I have experienced it since in some early-stage startups in the Bay Area. It is an electricity of ideas and endless possibilities but it is fleeting and it is rare.

Over the past three months I have been involved with such a group. The Founders Institute was the premise – a three month entrepreneurial bootcamp that encompasses everything from pitching practice to cap structures.

The program itself was a tremendous wealth of advice and action all geared to help the budding CEO realize what they are in for and how to deal with it.  And it truly is a remarkable program when you consider both its breadth (FI runs programs in 40 cities across 5 continents) and depth (idea to fully-formed company in just a few months.)

But the people are what make the cost and effort an easy sacrifice.

I will miss the mentors. These weekly “speakers” deliver every bit an interesting canned presentation of insight and information but give you so much more in their feedback to your own pitch. And it doesn’t stop there. I expected the former but more than often the mentors were the last to leave the after-class bar sessions, happily wasting their time discussing in greater depth and detail the ins and outs of a particular idea. I cannot say enough good things about the mentors feedback and true willingness to help.

I will miss Adeo.  His presence, though initially daunting, always makes whatever it is you are doing more interesting and more intense and more worthwhile. His legendarily blunt feedback equally valuable and entertaining.

I will miss Russ. He is the embodiment of the perfect mentor and we got him all to ourselves each week. His leadership of the semester was understated and incredibly effective. I want to be Russ someday.  

I will miss my classmates. Extremely smart people doing extremely cool things.

But most, I will miss my original working group. Group Brown. The early part of the semester was heavily steeped in workload, fear and uncertainty and I would not have made it through without them. I think the rest of the group would agree as we were the only group not to have anyone drop before the first mentor review.

And that is probably the most important lesson from all this. Your team is what will decide whether you succeed or fail. Your team is the reason you keep going when you want to stop. Your team is what makes the whole thing enjoyable and worth doing in the first place.

Thank you FI. We will meet again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pain-Driven Product Solutions

I recently spent the day on the second floor of the SF Ferry Terminal looking for pain. Not in some masochistic way but because I wanted to verify a problem and to do that I first needed to feel the pain it caused. 

Pain both defines a problem by its presence and validates the solution in its absence.  If you can base a product on true pain then you will know exactly where to start and what to do every step along the way. You just follow the pain, but first you need to find it.

I had assumed there was pain in how much content the investment community had to read on a daily basis. More than that, people within that community told me pain existed. They could describe it in great detail - and very convincingly - but I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. And I certainly had never felt the pain of that problem myself.

Just getting someone to describe their pain doesn’t make it real or give me any idea how to fix it. It’s why mechanics need to hear the “clunking” sound for themselves before they take apart an engine. It’s why doctors diagnose by examination and not by taking a patient’s word for it.

So I attached myself to the hip of an Investment analyst to see if I could experience pain by proxy. 
I’d never noticed the second floor of the Ferry Terminal – it’s hard to look past the myriad of artisanal cheese stands - so it took me awhile to find my way up. Once there and in the right office, I took a seat opposite my guide and asked the most important question. 

“Can I sit behind you and look over your shoulder?”

I got the ok to lug my chair around to make sure I was sharing the same view. I couldn’t just be told about the pain, I needed to see it. This small act of where I sat not only enabled that view but also gave me the right perspective. Instead of leading by my questions I could now be led to questions by my subject’s actions.

“Tell me about why you set up your desk like this.”

We started with a walkthrough of the desk and the reason behind each item. No detail was unimportant. This wasn’t my world but for the next few hours it needed to be. A seat cushion might mean that too much time is spent sitting in one position trying to keep up with a demand or just a very uncomfortable chair. An overly obvious clock might mean time is measured very carefully for fear of wasting it or maybe it was just a big clock. Unless I knew the reason behind something I couldn’t tell if it was covering up for a pain that needed to be fixed.

“Show me what you do when you first sit down.”

Just like physical items, all the little things that have to happen in the course of a day can point to a work around, a clear hallmark of a pain point. Getting to experience that path on the shoulders of one who walks it everyday gave me a feel for the flow. I could recognize the natural slow points and notice any stumbles as if they were my own. But you’ve got to start at the beginning.

“How many headlines would you say you go through each day?”

I always want specific numbers if I can get them. People speak in generalities but one person’s “a lot” might be another’s “not that much.” Numbers can always be compared from one subject to another to get a much more accurate take on the data – generalities cannot.

“Is that a pretty typical amount for someone in your industry?”

As this is not my world, I need to establish a baseline as quickly as I can. That way I can identify when things are out of the ordinary or go beyond an excepted amount. Having an outside perspective is helpful though, as things out of whack in my world - but accepted as normal for an industry - can be a clear sign of pain and a potential for disruption.

“Can you go into more detail about how you decide which headlines to click on?”

Anything that hints at pain needs to be explained as far as it can.  Follow the trail. 

I am told that hundreds of headlines need to be constantly scanned for each topic of interest – usually a company or a sector. Reading each of the daily 500+ articles isn’t a possibility so guesses have to be made as to which 5% of headlines hold the most promise for useful information. The chosen headline is clicked and the article is quickly scanned for some mention of the topic. Twenty percent of the time, something useful is found. That means eighty percent of time is wasted.

Here’s my trail: 500+ headlines viewed a day per topic. Twenty-five articles are chosen and read. Five articles have a sentence or two that adds value.

Here’s my pain. An hour of searching and reading only nets five useful sentences. Ouch.  Analysts I surveyed estimated that up to 75% of their day is spent reading. This explains why.

I’ve found my pain but what’s the solution?  Since I’ve seen the pain first-hand I can jump straight to some clear ideas of how to fix it, but someone who lives with that pain everyday is also constantly thinking of ways it can be removed.

So I ask what a solution might look like. What would solve the problem? What do I need to build to make them a customer?

It can be that simple. Find pain. Identify a solution. Get a customer.