Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Next Two People You Need to Start Up Your Startup

Business leader and team

It’s a lot easier to figure out the startup puzzle when you have the right team!

By: Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

It seems that every week there is an article or post that bemoans the shortage of innovation in America.  However, this is not due to a lack of great ideas and the pace of discovery in the labs across the nation.  The problem is getting the right team to lead and to grow these ideas into commercially successful endeavors.

Don’t go it alone
Having an exciting technology or scientific discovery on hand is not enough to form a successful company.  You need a team of talented people to help you realize your vision.  However, going from one person (you) with an idea and a passion to assembling an effective team and moving forward can seem daunting.  The answer to this is not complicated.  The first thing you need to do is assemble your first board members.

Who are they?  Early Advisors vs. Active Board
Whatever you want to call them, you need others to help you take your idea to the next step along the way to a successful company.  The best way to begin is to gather a small, but powerful group of people that you can rely on to help you develop a realistic strategy, identify productive tactics and complete the critical efforts needed to get this off the ground.  You will find that there are many that will be more than happy to become advisors but far fewer that will become valuable board members.  You need both but you need the active board member more, especially in the early days when this is still an idea.  Here are a few ways to distinguish the two types of people: Table of advisor traits

Your board may typically only have 2 or 3 other members in the beginning which is fine.  You will likely have significantly more advisors at the beginning but some of these may migrate over to the board member column as things progress.  Your advisors allow you to get a breadth of guidance and ideas and your board will provide the depth you need to sort through all of the ‘suggestions’ and actually help you with the heavy lifting of launching your new startup.  In addition to this, it is a lot easier to share the burden of this effort with a committed team than shouldering it all by yourself.

Next Steps:

      1. Identify 10 people who have the experience, resources, talents and connections you need and ask them to be on your board.
      2. Schedule a kick-off meeting to discuss your ideas with them and to identify what commitments you might need from them.
      3. Agree on a regular meeting schedule
      4. Parse this initial group, using the table above and your intuition, into Active Board Members and Advisors.
      5. Continue to recruit until you have at least 2 – 3 board members.

Picture Credit:  © Suravid | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Get the Biggest Bang for Your Tradeshow Buck with These Tips

Tradeshow packing case

Make sure you are coming home with more than just free T-shirts and pens. The best souvenirs are a big list of hot customer leads and referrals!

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Tradeshows can be a great place to get the word out about your product and also to keep abreast of late breaking news, trends and opportunities.  However, they can also be very expensive.  Registration fees, travel costs, shipping and other logistical costs, not to mention opportunity costs by having your sales team out of the field for a few days, add up fast.

Don’t just attend, participate!
It is important to identify all of the tradeshows and conferences that will be good sources for customer leads.  Note that I said ‘good sources for customer leads’ not just which events you think your customers will attend.  Some tradeshows and conferences, although excellent events for scientific exchange, are less than great places to make meaningful contacts with potential customers.  Determine which events will have the most value for you by attending as many tradeshows and conferences (as an individual not as a vendor in the beginning) as your budget and time will allow.  Make sure to plan time towards the end of the event to speak with some of the people manning the vendor booths.  Be sure to speak with a representative sample of vendors to get an overall but relevant sense of how valuable this event has been for them in terms of identifying good sales leads (both quality and number).   Be sure to attend some of the scientific sessions and especially the poster presentations of those researchers that could become some of your first customers when you launch.

When Attending Prior to Your Product Launch

  • Talk with vendors about how valuable they think the show is.  (Do this towards the end of the show but not at the very end)
  • Visit the posters of researchers that you think could be customers for you and find out if the problem you plan to solve with your great product is appealing to them or not and why.  (Don’t propose your solution yet)  This can be a great way to start narrowing down what the minimal performance characteristics and features are that your product must have when you launch.  You will also get a sense of how well your offering will be received if and when you host a vendor booth here in the future
  • Take advantage of the fact that this can be a great place to set up meetings with key people that will be important for your business since they might also be attending the meeting.
  • Post Show – Get all of the contacts that you made into a database and follow up with a brief thank you.   (MS Excel spreadsheet is more than enough for this at this point)
  • Post Show – Use your meeting value assessment (see above) to rank all of the shows you attended based on how valuable they would be for getting customer leads (The conference at the top of your list will be the one that you should plan to use as part of your launch strategy)

When Attending After Your Product Launch

  • Before the Show – Be sure to have a customer lead follow up plan for how all leads will be handled after the show and by whom
  • Have sales team and/or product management manage the booth
  • Have your booth staff rate the value of each contact they make immediately after meeting them.  For example: add an A, B or C next to each new contact using your lead capture system to aid in your post-event follow up.   Put an A next to those that could be customers in the next 30 days (First follow up group), B next to those that would be customers in 60 days (Second follow up group) and a C next to everyone else
  • Continue to visit posters and get feedback on the problem your product is solving.  This way you will be on top of important trends that will guide the next iteration of your product, modifications to your sales value proposition and other positioning materials based on what you learn
  • Measure your brand strength.  When meeting with people at the booth or at the scientific sessions, ask ‘Have you heard of ‘your company name here’ before?’.  If they have, ask what they think about it.  Don’t correct them if they get it wrong.  Just collect this information for now (The first time you do this can be a bit discouraging but you will be setting a baseline, If you are doing things right, you will notice a real improvement at next year’s tradeshow.)

Stay vigilant
Some conferences and tradeshows that were initially valuable may not be worth the expense in later years.  Meeting agendas change as do the attractiveness they have for your customers.  Getting in the early habit of doing a post-event value evaluation after every tradeshow or conference will insure that your time and money for this are maximally rewarded.  As your budget for meeting attendance grows, consider reserving some of this to attend new events that could have a better return on your investment.

Picture Credit:  © Budda | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Are we there yet? The Secret to Keeping your Company on Track

Road in the rural woods

It’s not how far you have gone, it’s how much further you need to go to get there.

By: Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Every summer as a kid, my family would pile in the car and drive to beautiful Lake Champlain, Vermont for a week of fun and relaxation.  The car ride itself felt like a quick detour to the 9th circle of a place a little less nice than Lake Champlain.  This was due to my brother and I repeatedly asking my Dad, “Are we there yet?” (Ten minutes into a 6 hour drive).  Sound familiar?  This scenario plays itself out every week at companies all over the world at the dreaded update meeting.

The Problem
You and the team went through the effort to prepare a good plan for charting how you will get to your next milestone.  One day after publishing the plan, it is out of date.  The key here is then updating your plan with new information and then moving on.  When a lot of effort is spent fiddling with the plan and keeping it updated, a lot of time is wasted on  ‘managing the plan’ rather than focusing on getting the things done that are going to move you closer to reaching your goal.  At the end of the day, you really need to know what is left to do more than what you have already done (eg you really want to know how many more miles left to go before getting to the lake than how many you have already travelled).

The Secret
It’s how you ask for progress updates.  The use of Gantt charts, lists and other planning and project management tools can make this seem like an exact science.  You plug in a number and out comes the new finish date.  The problem is that most of us are terrible estimators of how close we are to finishing unless there is a hard metric to provide guidance.  So here is how you ask for feedback that will be the most accurate and will require the least amount of time and effort on everyone including yourself.

Cut and paste these lines into the Request for Updates e-mail that you are sending your team.

  1. What tasks on the list assigned to you are now completed (100% done)?
  2. Which tasks have you started?
  3. Of those tasks that you have started, how many days will you need before it is done?

Sounds simple and it is.  The key here is in the last question.  When asked in this way, a person will have a much better idea of how much time they need rather than the percent complete of the task.  (Professional project management tools will automatically calculate the percent complete when you enter this information – you will find that the percent complete will go up and down over time until this is finished) Each person will automatically factor anything else that they are working on or delays or problems that would affect getting the task completed.  This whole process should take no longer than five to ten minutes of effort from the team including yours to update and send out the updated plan.

Quick Tips:

  1. Cancel all update meetings.
  2. Send out requests for progress updates via e-mail using the 3 lines I suggested above. (Once every 2 weeks or more often as you approach a critical milestone)
  3. Update the plan with progress and send out to the team.

Picture Credit:  © Hamiltongraphics | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The Company You Keep: Three Steps to Finding the Breakthrough Team

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D. and Sarah Cardozo Duncan

Path through trees

Finding that next great team and company could be right around the corner. With a little preparation, this journey will be much easier and much more rewarding.

You can find new articles for entrepreneurs almost every day advising how to best make a success out of their brilliant ideas.  One of the key pieces of advice is to make sure that you hire the very best team you can to make this all work.  In a previous post, The ABC’s of Building a Startup A-Team, we provided guidance for startups to help them identify the new team members that will best help them achieve success.  One of the best indicators that a given candidate will make an ideal team member has to do with how well the culture of both the candidate and the company fit.

Assessing the fit:  A candidate’s perspective
Joining a new team is a big commitment of time and future career progression as success at your next post will influence your path further on.  Make the right decision here and you will have given your own career a boost.  The proper fit of culture and expectations is just as crucial for any individual team member as it is for the company doing the hiring.  The following guidance is intended to help generate the kind of understanding between candidate and company that leads to terrific outcomes for both.

Step 1:  Clarify your own expectations
It is easy to miss opportunities to learn more about the company you are evaluating during the heat of the interviewing process.  Preparation beforehand will help you to maximize your knowledge of what it might be like to work on this new team.  This first step will not only simplify this process during your interview but afterwards as well when you are assessing which company to select.

Create a prioritized list of the top 6 -10 requirements that you have for your next role.    For example:

  1. Opportunity for growth by learning new things?  (What skills or expertise will you gain?)
  2. Is the culture of the company a good fit for me (How are decisions made?  How much autonomy is there? How are conflicts resolved? Etc.)
  3. Compensation package (How does this compare with industry norms?)
  4. Title (Will this help, hurt or be neutral when viewed by your colleagues in the industry)
  5. Distance from home (What about the ability to work from home?)
  6. Travel (How much? International or Domestic only?)
  7. Opportunities to continue to publish (Will you be able to maintain or build your reputation in the academic community?)
  8. Work with cross-functional teams (Will you be a contributor, team leader or both?)
  9. Opportunity to contribute to the company’s growth strategy (Will you have a ‘seat at the table’ to shape how the company grows?)
  10. Opportunity to drive and mentor a team (Will you have direct reports?)
  11. Does the company participate in Social Responsibility initiatives? (How does the company give back to the community?)

Step 2: Assess the fit with your list
You likely will not have the opportunity to formally ask about everything on your list during your interview.  Obviously you can mix and match what questions you ask each of the people that you meet, but be sure that you cover at least the top 4 or 5 items during your interview.

You can get a pretty good idea of what type of culture there is at the company by observing the actions of the people you meet both during and after the interview.  Taking note of your surroundings can tell you a lot about how employees are valued.  (Are there big offices for the senior leadership while everyone else is crammed into a cube farm?  Do they have free coffee or other amenities?)  It is also important to take note of post-interview behavior.  If they said that they would be in touch, did they in fact follow through with that in a reasonable time or with the time that they indicated? How do they respond to further communication with them?

Together with your assessment during your interview, your appraisal of both the environment and behavior of those you met, you should have a pretty good idea of what it will be like to join this team.

Step 3:  Close the deal
Once you receive a formal written offer from the company, you will likely have gotten good answers to the most important items on your list.  If there is 100% agreement here, the next step is easy.  Accept the offer!  However, such clarity and total alignment is rare.  Furthermore, this can be more confusing when you are considering multiple offers.  The way in which you negotiate with them and they with you should provide the final insight you need to make the best decision.  Remember that this is about seeing if you can get your expectations and those of the company closer together.  This is a place for conversation not ultimatums.  How things go at this stage in the relationship can be one of the most influential in your decision.

Finding the right team to join can be one of the best decisions you make for both your own career and your happiness for the upcoming years.  With a little preparation, and persistence, this sometimes daunting task can become quite manageable and ultimately leads to the building of strong companies and careers.

Additional Resources:

Picture Credit:  James Wheeler via photopin cc