Corp to Startup in 13 Hacks

Transitioning from the corporate world to a startup isn’t for everyone.  In fact, very few people are properly prepared for this and even fewer of those people have what it takes to succeed.  Whether you’ve already joined a startup or are contemplating taking the plunge, prepare yourself to stand out.

“In the startup world, you’re either a genius or an idiot.  You’re never just an ordinary guy trying to get through the day.” ~ Marc Andreesen

The desire to be entrepreneurial is very popular, especially these days where startups are all over the press, in movies and soon to be reality shows.  The hype surrounding the lifestyle, cool offices and potential payouts don’t even come close to representing what it’s really like to help build a company.

Hard work is an understatement and transforming your mind from a CYA (cover your ass) attitude to a COA (cover our ass) attitude is pivotal.  Be prepared to forget what you know, reset your expectations, reprogram your drive and change your attitude completely.

Assuming a functional startup, here are some eye-opening mind hacks:

1) Meetings – Forget the mindless meetings for the sake of meetings protocol.  You don’t need to be seen or heard by your superior(s) anymore.  You just need to produce and your actions will tell your story.  You will meet briefly, as needed, when needed because no one has time for that shit.

2) Politics – Office politics are non-existent.  There’s theoretically no one to impress, avoid, outdo, coddle, align with or kiss up to.  No need for a personal campaign here because your advancement and potential success are directly related to your hustle.  No one’s stopping you.

3) Selling – Forget the dedicated sales team(s) and department(s) that you’re accustomed to because your job, regardless of the specific discipline, will require you to sell.  Even if you’re not directly selling the product or service, you are selling the company and your faith in the endeavor to every single person around you.

4) Hours – If you’re used to virtually or physically punching in at 9 and doing the three-point stance at 5, you can forget that immediately.  You do the work until it gets done and if that means “flex time”, as the corps call it, then have a schedule that’s conducive  to your productivity.

5) Problems – As I mentioned above, you are no longer in CYA mode.  The startup’s problems are your problems so embrace it.  Transform your mental auto-responder from “S’not my problem” to “I’ll figure it out”.  This is quintessential teamwork.

6) Motivation – Perhaps your previous role allowed for a more comfortable paycheck and that’s what motivated you.  With startups, it’s all about the risk and the end game.  Your motivation needs to transcend the immediate decrease in pay to something bigger like an awesome product or incredible experience or maybe even changing the world.  Whatever gets your head in the game.

7) Structure – Fancy org charts only matter when you don’t know who the fuck does what in the company.  Get used to operating in a flat structure where everyone’s opinion matters and directly impacts the bottom line.  Paper-pushers have no place in startups.  Doers matter and they can always powwow with the boss.

8) Support – Boy is it convenient to have an IT department that requisitions that new mouse for you in a few hours (if you’re lucky) or that HR department that has time to listen to your woes.  Unfortunately, startups aren’t about convenience.  Learn to troubleshoot your own issues and keep your problems at home.  Most issues just require you to grow up and take action yourself.  The occasional “real” concern will always be dealt with properly.

9) Pond – You’re finally a big fish in a small pond so you will be heard.  However, that can be a double-edged sword.  Layers are gone so there’s no one there to protect your stupidity but everyone’s there to appreciate your genius.  Be the ball that you always wanted to be and shine.

10) Job – Forget your carefully structured and sequential chores of A, B, C and D.  Your TPS reports don’t matter and the gold stars don’t mean shit.  Prepare yourself for what I like to call organized chaos.  You will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done regardless of what you think you’re there for.  You’ll want to.

11) Perks – They’re different from what you’re used to so learn to appreciate them.  You’ll probably have “benefits” like health, vacation, PTO days (if you’re lucky) but the real perks are a bit more refreshing.  Notice your surroundings, the vibe, the team, the attitude, the lack of melancholy, the distaste for mediocrity and the sense of pride.  It’s infectious.

12) Trust – You’re likely coming from an environment where you trusted a few teammates or maybe even your superior(s) if you were lucky.  However, at the end of the day, it was all about feudalism and the Lord of the Flies mentality to get ahead.  Welcome to an environment where you trust the whole get’er done roster, from top to bottom, because you all have a vested interest in the success of the company.

13) Talent – I mentioned that mediocrity has absolutely no place in well-run startups and that all stems from the first hire.  Big corps sometimes lose sight of this because, well, they’re big and have long since made hiring decisions that are far removed from the A players.  Smart people tend to hang out with smart people so if you’ve been chosen for this game, consider it an honor and don’t disappoint.

You’re finally going to go from a deckhand to a rower and you’ll experience the concept of teamwork like you never have before.  You’ll also have your share of highs and lows during this ride.

If you’re mentally, physically and emotionally prepared, reinvent yourself to embrace the startup culture, especially if you have skin in the game because then it’s your checkbook too.  You can’t half-ass it!

Entrepreneurship Fantasy Land

What exactly is an entrepreneurship major?

When I was in college, I recall no such curriculum but I see and hear about it all of the time now. Admittedly, I would have chosen that had it been available and offered but I’m glad that it wasn’t an option. I’m sure that some of the lessons are valuable and likely could be of benefit to up and coming visionaries but how do you teach someone to have figurative balls? Better yet, how do you properly prepare a graduate in entrepreneurship to begin to understand exactly what they’re getting themselves into in our current climate? …not by taking accredited entrepreneurship finals, I assure you.

Building a business or joining a startup is a decision that many like myself have made based on the sheer dissatisfaction of working in an overly corporate and bureaucratic environment. Further, the inability to get things done efficiently and expeditiously is what drives most entrepreneurs towards the inevitable startup risk. Of course there can be reward but choosing to live on the razor’s edge is not for everyone. That’s a realization that comes from experience, not academics.

Even if you think you have the next big idea, you need to understand exactly what you’re not before you choose to be an entrepreneur. Making decisions the other way around without actually experiencing the corporate world is foolish. As an entrepreneur, you often need to sell to the corporate world, borrow money from the corporate world, interact with the corporate world and play by the corporate world’s rules if you seek the holy grail of potential acquisition or IPO. Learn how they operate.

Major in something tangible that interests you and then go to work in that field. Learn something about law, something about accounting, something technical and definitely something about sales and marketing. Get the proper experience, make connections, build your personal brand and become an expert in something that isn’t an adjective. Eventually become entrepreneurial in your chosen field. Endure the cubicle jungle, march past the cadaver grey walls, attend the unnecessary meetings for the sake of meetings but make mental notes of everything that you are not. In the process, build a network of like-minded individuals. Take that experience and only then apply it to your entrepreneurial endeavors.

This is what I consider a true entrepreneurship major. Your final exam is the actual plunge into the startup world. Good luck…you’ll need it.

Let Them Own It

One of the hardest things to do is to let go of the seemingly important stuff.  Startup leaders sometimes assume that no one else can navigate their day-to-day duties because after all, they are the ones who established them.  Assumptions are made that details will be over-looked or that accountability will be sacrificed.  “How could anyone possibly care as much as I do?” is a phrase that I often hear.

I’ve got news for you.  If you give your employees the ability to make a difference, you could be pleasantly surprised.  Hire correctly from the start or transform your average player in to your MVP by following these rules:

Do…

  • List your daily action items and separate them by tasks that “need you”, “may need you” and “don’t need you”.
  • Calculate how much your time is worth in dollars based on completing each item.  Assign a total value to each task.
  • Delegate in phases starting with “don’t need you”, then “may need you”, etc.
  • Ask for volunteers who would like to take on more responsibility in an effort to learn more about the business.
  • Give them the access, tools, resources, time, etc. and allow them to ask questions as frequently as needed.
  • Allow them to make mistakes and use it as a learning exercise to make themselves accountable.
  • Reward them unexpectedly with a small bonus equal to the value of the task.

Don’t…

  • Micromanage or visibly question their actions.  Earned trust is a two-way street.  Process can always be discussed and refined later.
  • Assume that your way of completing the task is the best way.  Different people have different approaches.
  • Assume that the amount of effort or time it took you to complete the task to your standards is applicable to everyone.
  • Over-complicate or over-think things.  What you deem complicated today will likely be a breeze for someone who learns and eventually masters it.
  • Take things personally.  Frustration is expressed in many ways by different people…usually while they are learning.

The return that you get far outweighs any perceived risk.  You win even by allowing your employees to make mistakes.  They learn, you reward them accordingly, they become accountable, you let go, and they end up feeling motivated because they actually own something.

5 Realities of the Startup Interview

Everything that I learned in college about interviewing is essentially worthless. After speaking to those that are close to me who will soon be graduating, I decided to jot some pointers down.

Most pertinent to a start-up or early stage environment, the following points stem from hundreds of hours of actual experience.  Tech interviews will be more tech-centric and sales interviews will be more dollar-centric but all interviews with an entrepreneur will require an entrepreneurial approach.

1) The person interviewing you would rather be doing something else.  Don’t kid yourself.  Very few entrepreneurial hiring managers look forward to spending hours of their day interviewing candidates.  There is always a critical problem to solve, email to be answered or money to be made buried in their hectic schedule.  Interviewing candidates is a need and not a want.  Make the experience as memorable as possible for them and capitalize on their limited attention span.  Use the first fifteen critical minutes of pitch time to communicate your personal executive summary.  Succinctly highlight how you make a difference, how you help the bottom line, how you deal with problems, why you can be player and coach, what motivates you and why you’re there for that opportunity.

2) The person interviewing you will speak to dozens more like you.  You likely have been “chosen” to interview less than you think.  With stacks of resumes piling up and a never ending to-do list, the entrepreneurial hiring manager has made a quick, educated guess to speak to you based on the need to solve an immediate problem.  Something in your resume, LinkedIn profile or referral has gotten you in front of them.  Make it worthwhile.  Be the first appointment on their schedule or the last appointment that day.  Give them a reason to remember you throughout the day or during their evening commute.  Connect on a personal level and appeal to their emotions.  Work days will be stressful, highly charged, energetic and sometimes painful.  Give the hiring manager a sense of comfort that when difficult situations and long hours arise, you can be the professional family member that they can count on.

3) The person interviewing you knows the textbook garbage.  Just like you already know how to respond to textbook interview questions, assume that the entrepreneurial hiring manager knows when they are asked by a candidate.  Further, if you get the textbook interview questions, run away…run far, far away.  It’s a sure sign of things to come but that’s a different topic.  Instead, craft questions that are intelligent, pertinent, thought-provoking and challenge the hiring manager.  Likely, you will come up with something that’s already been thought of.  The key is to find the sweet spot where the question/thought was previously their own or introduced by someone that they respect.  This is impressive and says a lot about your ability with creative problem solving.  Understand the business and craft questions related to expanding the business rather than defining it.  Repeating facts from a Google search or simply perusing the website is classic, textbook mediocrity.

4) The person interviewing you is not mediocre.  Start-ups and early stage companies have little time, money, patience and tolerance for layers of mediocrity.  You are likely interviewing with someone who is either the direct decision maker or a trusted previous hire.  This means that they have either developed their own tests or have already passed the tests so never assume that a half-assed approach will fool anyone.  No organization needs mediocrity.  Start-ups and early stage companies especially, are not looking for the typical 9-to-5′er looking for defined vacation schedules.  Set yourself apart by highlighting flexibility, adaptability, comfort with uncertainty and a general can-do attitude.  There’s nothing wrong with living for work in the entrepreneurial hiring manager’s eyes.

5) The person interviewing you is a salesperson.  They have no choice in the matter.  Every day they are either selling a product, a service, a solution, an idea or themselves to someone internally or externally.  You need to have the same exact mentality in the “everyone sells” model.  With limited experience, highlight entrepreneurial endeavors that you started in school.  For pro’s, highlight bottom-line milestones from previous engagements.  Talk facts and figures and make it all relative.  Focus on your personal brand and use your reputation as your strongest asset.  This reputation can come from your studies, collegiate organizations, co-ops, internships, professional organizations, or employer experiences.  No matter what the examples are, show that you identified an opportunity and capitalized on it.  Be prepared to sell yourself or don’t bother at all.

There’s more, of course, but these five points should get you started.  There’s no substitute for practice, practice, practice so if you are fortunate enough to have a trusted mock-interview resource, use them.  The worst interviews in the world are the ones where both parties walk away feeling like the hours were completely wasted.  No one has the spare time for that.

Formally Introducing Start Philly

I’m proud to formally announce Start Philly as a side project that I am working on with a growing list of regular contributors. We were interested in augmenting the existing Philly start-up scene and decided to create a destination where the local entrepreneurial community could contribute, network and share thoughts. This will be an ongoing project that we hope will continue to grow and generate buzz. So far the response has been tremendous and I’d like to thank those of you that were involved during the preview process.  The viral nature of these types of things is what we’re going for so please feel free to spread the word as we continue to develop this online community.

Welcome announcement from www.startphilly.com:

Philadelphia is a spirited and vibrant city full of culture, nightlife, sports and fine dining. Besides being the home of the former World Series champs and situated strategically between NYC and D.C., it boasts a booming tech community and an invigorated entrepreneurial drive. We love this city and the opportunity that it presents to its current and future startups.

Having been involved in and with local startups for more than a decade, we saw an opportunity to establish a regional online presence to highlight our thoughts, experiences and opinions. We are leaders, technologists, marketers, creative thinkers and above all, startup people. We get it done, no matter what, no matter when. We also value those who share our drive and ambition. This will be our/their forum.

Start Philly is about startups in and about Philadelphia. Getting them built, getting them staffed, getting them supported, getting them optimized, growing them and then some.

We look forward to your commentary and hope that you find Start Philly valuable while we continue to promote the entrepreneurial spirit of this great city.

- Join the Start Philly LinkedIn group
- Fan Start Philly on Facebook
- Follow Start Philly on Twitter

Building the Everybody Sells Model

Budgets are tight and money is scarce. You need to build an incredibly driven workforce and an incredibly effective sales team. Start-ups and established organizations deal with this reality every day so how do you build the right sales culture?

The answer is to create a viral environment of good tippers.

Let’s assume that the members of your sales force make the majority of their compensation plan through some sort of commission structure. Let’s also assume that the members of your support staff have no bonus plan and rely on salary as their sole compensation. Good organizations understand the value of proper bonus structures for non-sales staff but my experience tells me that these plans are difficult to develop, enforce, quantify, budget, justify and implement fairly. Worse yet, if your organization is small and doesn’t actually have the budget for it, then it becomes an impossible endeavor that inevitably leads to a major morale problem.

Building a culture of “everybody wins” is synonymous with building a culture of “everybody sells”. True that not every single employee has the ability or experience to sell your product or service but they can sell their respective expertise to both internal and external clients. They should be encouraged and rewarded for that. As a salesperson, you reward them by tipping them. If you win, they win.

Regardless of whether or not your organization formally recognizes a peripheral commission/bonus plan for support staff, your sales force absolutely should. They should proactively create an internal plan and you should help administer it so that you can observe and encourage from a distance. They are the ones that either know who has been effectively involved or they should make strides to find out. They should take care of those that help them close the deal and be consistent in their tipping out of their own pockets. Everything is relative in this model and inconsistencies are quickly realized. A natural and viral buzz is created that eventually leads to an infectious drive for reward. Those that are “taken care of” continue to stand out and those that choose not to be involved quickly establish themselves otherwise.

You start to notice complimentary skills and opportunities in employees that may not have previously stood out. You also enhance your pipeline as an added benefit which could eventually help to fund a more formal “tipping” model. Everybody wins because everybody is vested.

Having implemented this type of plan in the past more than once, I can report that aside from a few administrative snags and personality realizations, it works amazingly well and has a ton of side benefits. You are guaranteed to learn a lot more about your staff to make intelligent strategic decisions and ultimately grow your bottom line. I won’t pretend that this always goes smoothly but it will give you a very good sense of how you’ve been hiring both in sales and support roles. The concept of creative commissions and good tipping is the basis for building an effective company culture where everybody sells.

My Social Marketing Timesaver

I’ve written previously about Personal and Professional Branding. In my universe, the two are closely related. My hobbies are as much about business as my professional career is. Further, I find that my network gets the most value out of my status updates when they relate to interesting business topics rather than random and useless (in my opinion) rants. I enjoy marketing my business’ brand as an extension of my own and vice versa. For those that can relate to this counterintuitive insanity, I offer my preferred time-saving solution.

I have a personal blog and I contribute to a professional blog. Like many, I also have accounts on the popular networks like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter under my name. Luckily, there are some fantastic online and free tools out there to make your life easier and save you tons of time broadcasting. Assuming that you don’t want to separate personalities, here’s what to do to co-mingle your marketing:

- Create a Ping.fm account and link the networks that you want to post updates to. In my case, these are LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. If you’re not blogging and only updating status’, then this is all that you need.

- Create a Twitterfeed account and link your Ping.fm account to that. You’ll need your Ping.fm application key. Within your Twitterfeed account, add the RSS feed(s) that you would like to broadcast. In my case, these are the feeds from my personal and professional blogs. I also prefer to add a note to the beginning of my feeds based on where they come from. Thankfully, Twitterfeed gives you that ability. There are other settings such as post frequency, content, etc. that you can play with.

That’s it and here’s what my workflow looks like:

1) I Post an Article to Max Sobol : Brainwork blog or Start Philly blog.
2) Twitterfeed picks up the post from either source, summarizes it to a suitable micro-blogging format and posts it to Ping.fm.
3) Ping.fm posts it to LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter status’ with a destination link.

If you’re like me, it doesn’t get any easier than this once you have everything set up properly. Maybe there are other solutions out there but if your goal is to keep your personal and professional updates in sync, then this is your secret sauce.