Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

No excuses – just win baby.

One of the most transformative moments from my High School years came from a very unlikely source, a Madden football video game.

I was playing this game in our football team locker room against one of my teammates. The game was not going well for me, and I was furiously trying to make a comeback on offense. The game ended with me throwing an interception over the middle, and then loudly complaining that my virtual wide receiver had messed up his passing route.

At that moment, our head football coach, Matt Irvin, had stopped to watch a couple plays. He looked at me for a second, and then said “Guess you’ve got an excuse for everything.”

I thought about talking back to him, but instead sat dumbfounded. He was right. I had a tendency to assume that all of my successes were hard-earned, while my failures were the fault of everyone but me.

This is actually a well-known human cognitive bias, called the negative agency bias. However, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean we’re going to let ourselves get away with this sort of spoilsport attitude.

In the seven years since then, I’ve gone out of my way to attribute as much of my activities and outcomes, both positive and negative, to myself.

When an investor turns me down, I know I need to refine my pitch. When our company misses its monthly targets, it’s time to check my bearings and make sure our strategy and implementation are still on track.

This is not an invitation to beat yourself up over every little setback; rather it is an acknowledgement of your personal responsibility over the outcomes in your life.

Try this approach for a few months, and let me know how it goes. The key to this strategy is to acknowledge the negative outcome, and then immediately look towards your path to improvement. Take that motivation with you as you retool your pitch, fine-tune your business strategy, or even just aim to complete your next virtual pass.

Why LabDoor?

Note: This post was initially published at LabDoor.com.

To understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of LabDoor’s products, you must first learn why we first became obsessed with simplifying the world of product safety.

It all started when I watched my parents come home from a doctor’s appointment with a new prescription. After years of taking Pfizer’s Lipitor, they had both been prescribed Ranbaxy’s generic equivalent.

My father, a Ph.D. chemist, pulled out every book, article, and online review he could find on the two products. 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry helped him make the right choice – after over ninety minutes of intense research.

Why did he tackle this problem himself? How can LabDoor make this process easier for everyone else making the same decisions? What is the perfect product to solve this huge challenge?

Why: Be safe. Be certain. My dad was choosing an important medicine for my mom and himself, a pill that will be a daily part of the rest of their lives. Just like him, you want to know you’re making the right call.

How: Find the best product research and safety data. You could do this yourself, like my dad did. But wouldn’t it be great if a team of scientific and technical experts did all the work for you?

What: Choose a product that is safe, effective, and affordable. We make decisions like this every day – whether it’s choosing a new lotion, reviewing your daily multivitamin, or deciding which prescription to fill. You want to make a smart decision faster. LabDoor provides this through our report cards for pharmaceuticals, supplements, and cosmetics.

Every LabDoor employee is here to build a little peace of mind for someone special. For me, it’s my parents, whom I adore. For others, it’s their wife, brother, daughter, friend, or even a stranger.

When we put in a sleepless night at the lab or in the office, we’re working to make sure each LabDoor user sleeps a little better. We invite you to share our passion, join our journey, and sign up for our exciting new product at LabDoor.com!

This post was inspired by Alexis Ohanian’s book Make Something People Love and Simon Sinek’s speech How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Both are at the top of my list of great resources for bold entrepreneurs.

The Liam Neeson School of Entrepreneurship

“I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.” – Liam Neeson, Taken.

For those who have never seen Taken, the whole plot can be summarized as follows: CIA operative’s daughter gets kidnapped by a European gang. Said operative (Liam Neeson) spends the rest of the movie on a killing spree to get her back. In Silicon Valley/Hollywood speak, it’s essentially ‘Die Hard in Europe’.

You wouldn’t expect it, but in terms of entrepreneurial takeaways, there’s a lot to be learned from Neeson’s character. His focus and resourcefulness under pressure is impressive, and he executes on his vision flawlessly.

Here are three important lessons that every startup founder should follow:

Focus on what makes you special:

“You can be so bad at so many things… and as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users and customers, and you have something that is unique and valuable… you get through all that stuff.” – Mark Zuckerberg

Neeson’s character has a lot of flaws. No social skills, stuck in an unfulfilling job, and his wife left him for a billionaire. But he has two things going for him: his undying love for his daughter, and decades of CIA experience in assorted James Bond-style badassery.

The best startup founders have this level of single-minded passion. Entrepreneurship is incredibly hard. To truly succeed, you must be absolutely obsessed with your mission and put a lifetime worth of experience — and years’ worth of work — into building something people love.

Then go execute like crazy:

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” – Steve Jobs

Executing on your entrepreneurial vision is rarely pretty. Few people believe in you, and there are times when you’re sure your idea is dead. But if you trust your instincts and skills, greatness is within reach.

CIA operative Liam Neeson understands this. He leverages his assets to a flawless victory, and even gets his wife back. Not back for a few days of work.

Caveat: Don’t do it alone:

Now, this is where the movie ends and real life begins — Liam can do it alone, but we can’t. All entrepreneurs have weaknesses.

Steve Jobs relied a lot on his excellent technical and design staff; Zuckerberg heavily leans on the operational expertise of Sheryl Sandberg. LabDoor is only successful because I have an awesome team next to me. People who have their own very particular set of skills. And together, we’re going to make LabDoor a nightmare for companies who use fancy ads and confusing labels to sell bad products to consumers.

Note: This blog post was initially published at Forbes.com.

Are you running your business like a lemonade stand?

On day one of your new business, you have a hundred job functions. Try to fit “CEO, President, CFO, Technical Director, Web Developer, Accountant, Sales Representative, Receptionist, Janitor” onto your business cards. To millions of experienced entrepreneurs, this feels like what a small business is always supposed to be.

Wrong. The problem is you. There is currently a 1:1 relationship between your work output and business operations. That’s your Growth Multiplier.

Think back to second grade, an age of lemonade stands and multiplication tables. That’s when we learned that you couldn’t change anything by multiplying by one, either in the classroom or selling sugar water by yourself on the corner.

An entrepreneur’s passion, drive, and intelligence can be a startup’s greatest asset, but for a company to grow, it must expand beyond its founders. The best leaders develop key systems and personnel and trust them to succeed, freeing up time for innovation and vision and multiplying their businesses’ growth potential.

So What Are The Key Multipliers?

1. Add a Super Assistant. Find someone you trust with your schedule, your customers, your money, and your life. Make them the hub between your business and the outside work and give them the power to tell you what to do, where to go, and when to be there.

2. Create a hierarchy of business functions in your job description, from lowest to highest impact on growth and profitability. Start at the bottom, and delegate like it’s your job. Because it is.

3. Forget the old corporate cliché of boring, slow HR departments. Hiring and developing A+ talent is a powerful engine for company growth. Hire and train well early, and you’ve built your future leadership team. Hire poorly or ignore training, and you’ll lose valuable time, customers, and profits.

4. Plan for explosive growth. The best businesses will grow too large for an entrepreneur to manage alone and linear growth brings exponential complexity. Mastering business growth requires an early focus on key operational systems. Consistently gather customer feedback for inputs into the product development process. Track key business metrics and attach them to an employee compensation plan.

5. Give away your corner office. Find someone you trust to run daily operations, and let them. Then go start your second business. Or sit on a beach.

It’s hard to scale a business using Growth Multipliers.

Only 21% of businesses in America will grow to 10+ employees and only 4% ever make $1 million in revenues. The average entrepreneur is most comfortable while manning their own little ‘lemonade stand’, living and dying with every sale. Fight this false sense of security, build your way out of daily operations, and become the leader and visionary your business needs. The payoff is immense, both for your life and the bottom line.

Note: This blog post was initially published at Under30CEO.com.

Surviving a failed tech startup

What to do if your first company isn’t the next Facebook

In my first startup experience, I worked nights and weekends in an entry-level position with the founding team while finishing up my college degree.

Now that I’ve finished school and launched two startups of my own, I’m beginning to reflect on the lessons I learned outside the classroom, especially in that first startup job—and how they came to influence my decisions as a startup founder four years later.

Timing does matter

I absolutely loved that first team’s product concept, which aimed to improve the in-stadium experience at sporting events by providing live statistics, video replays, and even concessions orders to a mobile device. The in-stadium atmosphere is great for fans, but teams are increasingly fighting to increase ticket sales against the free and convenient experience of watching games at home.

I knew that bringing some of those comforts to a stadium seat could be valuable for both fans and teams. But after working on the product launch team for a season, I was in a unique position to project the long-term viability of both the product and the overall company. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t promising: It always felt like the company was too early for its time.

We initially loaned out iTouch devices at the venues, since not enough people had smartphones at the time. This iPhone/iPad sales chart shows the market growth in these categories from under $5 billion in sales in January 2008, when I started at the company, to close to $100 billion now.

Failure is not the end

We had difficulty gaining traction. Whether it was the market, the timing, or the business model, I didn’t see much of the company after I left in mid-2008. Four years later, new companies are having success in that market, including FanVision, owned by the namesake of my alma mater at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, the founding team has gone on to do other great things, which led me to research what drives serial entrepreneurs. It’s a common theme in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, but is it really true that startup failure breeds future success?

2008 study from four Harvard researchers argue the answer is yes, but barely: They found that a successful serial entrepreneur has a “30 percent chance of succeeding in his next venture. By contrast, first-time entrepreneurs have only an 18 percent chance of succeeding, and entrepreneurs who previously failed have a 20 percent chance of succeeding.”

The lessons I learned

Clearly, past success is a better indicator of future success. Employees, investors, and customers are all drawn to big-name entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, my college experience working with a failed startup greatly shaped my future successes at both Avomeen and LabDoor.

Specifically, they taught me:

1. Customers come first. I loved that first company’s focus on customers. They only had a few full-time employees back then, so they did a great job of leveraging associates like me to be at every sporting event interacting with customers. I followed their lead at Avomeen, where we constantly requested feedback from our clients, especially when launching new services.

2. Analyze—and capitalize—on market trends. My early exposure to mobile development and its user growth informs our work at LabDoor, allowing us to time the launch of our product-safety applications at a key inflection point in the market. Mobile health users doubled in 2012, and we’ve capitalized on that growth.

I loved the experiences at my first startup and will be eternally grateful to my bosses there for giving me my first shot in the tech-startup world. I didn’t work there long and definitely never made any money in stock options, but it was a transformative experience that I still refer to when running my current startups—and one I’d recommend to any entrepreneurial-minded student weighing entry-level work versus a startup gig.

Note: This blog post first appeared in an edited form at Upstart Business Journal.

Are you building a small business or a startup?

Note: This blog post first appeared in an edited form at Forbes.com.

In 2012, I officially left my rapidly-growing, profitable small business to launch a tech startup with a huge vision and zero salaries. Why did I do this? For me, it came down to the huge differences between a small business and a startup.

First off, the difference between these two company types is in their top objectives. Small businesses are driven by profitability and stable long-term value, while startups are focused on top-end revenue and growth potential. Steve Blank’s three-minute definition provides great insight.

And why did I quit? Early this year, I got the opportunity to meet Mark Cuban, Kevin Plank, and Scott Case, who asked me a classic question with a special motive: “What do you want out of your life in five years?” I knew how Cuban and Plank had made eight-figure companies in their 20’s, so I said “30 million dollars,” thinking it would impress them. Instead, Plank said, “That’s a terrible goal!”

That remains the best piece of business advice I have ever gotten. Instead of focusing on great products and huge customer bases, I was too focused on dollar amounts — a small business mentality instead of a startup mentality. I spent the rest of the weekend working with Case on new business models and products, and left these meetings with a grand new business idea. My startup journey led me to LabDoor, where we use dietary supplement testing to help consumers choose safe, effective products.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with starting your entrepreneurial career with a small business. Building a solid financial base will help create a longer personal financial runway for future startup ventures. Also, establishing a successful small business can build credibility and networks through the business community that will be hugely valuable when launching a startup that requires outside Angel and VC investments. However, be careful not to get too comfortable with a steady paycheck.

How do you decide which one is for you? Ask yourself, what is your tolerance for risk? What is your tolerance for failure?

My advice – no matter where you are in your life, it is a great exercise to stop everything and visualize your absolute top-end potential. It’s the kind of brainstorming you did as a kid, when you imagined being the President or, even better, an astronaut.

Start by deciding the biggest problem in the world that you want to solve.  Develop your ideal solution to this problem, and then invite your trusted friends and family to poke holes in it. Iterate until you’ve got an awesome idea. If you can build a great team around your awesome solution, now you can stretch one foot into the world of startups.

Finally, determine your top objective. Is your long-term goal to build a nest egg or make a dent in the universe?

What do you want out of your life in five years?