Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff


You Go Where You’re Looking

When beginners attend auto racing or high performance driving school, they are taught that drivers tend to go where they’re looking and, where they look is usually only 10-15 feet in front of their vehicle.  I see this all the time as I’m riding my bike.  While cycling on the right side of a shoulder, a passing car will wonder into the shoulder right where I’m riding even when there’s no oncoming traffic.  I know that the driver is looking at me, even thinking that he/she should avoid me.  Nonetheless, because they’re looking at me, they tend to steer that way (just because you’re paranoid . . . ).  High performance drivers are taught to look much further out and to strategically optimize their driving around a point further ahead and to let their natural tendency to steer where they’re looking take them to where they want to end up, instead of just reacting to what they see directly in front of them.

Things are similar with startups.  It’s often easy to get caught with your head down, focused on near-term problems and opportunities while ignoring the big picture and where the new enterprise should be headed.  As with focusing on what’s happening on the road directly in front of you, when you solely focus on the myriad of short-term problems you have to deal with, they will consume your thoughts, energy and time.  You will be constantly drawn towards them.  Soon, the startup’s strategy will become less strategic and more tactical.

Here are a few short-term issues that I see grabbing the attention of startups all the time:

  • features, features and more features – yeah, you have to add features to your product, you simply can’t (and don’t want to) add every requested feature all at once.  There are two problems that come to mind here, one is that if you don’t step back and ask yourself if the feature moves you toward your strategic goal before implementing it, you run the risk of wasting very precious time and, two, if you focus all your attention on features at the expense of architecture, you can build a house of cards that will fail miserably later.  Each feature should be weighed in the context of the product’s goals before time is spent on it.
  • reaction versus response – when a startup has only a handful of customers, it’s easy for it to get distracted by the feedback it gets from any one of them.  It’s easy to react to every call, email and tweet regarding the product and to try to address the needs or wants of the few people who seem to be paying attention.  It’s important that the startup keep in mind, as with features, spending time with early users is valuable inasmuch as the feedback is taken in perspective.  Is the customer the target customer, for example?  If not, you may spend your time reacting to feedback that doesn’t help you land the kind of customers you’re trying to get.
  • the technology itself – loads of startups end up getting caught in the vortex of the underlying technology at the expense of marketing or gathering customer input.  Often, because that’s what the founders really know well.  The product is required, of course, but is just not sufficient.  Simply put, it is highly unlikely you can engineer a perfect product that will dazzle your customers and meet their needs on its first pass.  Product development is much more than technology development and needs to include data from the market and from potential customers.  Only when you have a complete package of technology, target customer input and market information do you have a real shot at delivering a successful product.

There are many more factors that cause startups to eschew strategy for tactics.  A founding team needs to set a course based on a point reasonably far ahead and not optimize around what is happening now.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that it can ignore what is taking place near-term.  A good driver uses his/her peripheral vision to observe what’s happening close to the vehicle.  Similarly, a startup needs to treat short-term tactics seriously, but only within the scope of the longer-term strategy.  Longer term isn’t 10 years.  That’s just not reasonable or even possible.  But a year or two is reasonable with even a few brain cells reserved for thinking out even further.

Keep in mind, you steer where you’re looking.  Steer the company toward a point in the reasonable future while keeping an eye on what’s happening today and you’ll find that you will encounter fewer mistakes, less rework and a smoother path to success.

 September 22nd, 2009  
 General Business, Leadership, Management  

My Life Has Changed Forever

I was completely blind-sided.  I thought I was prepared, but I was so very wrong.  It was just going to be another step like any of the infinite others that define parenting and the relationship between a parent and a child.  A father and a son.  I’m so naive.  A few weeks ago and like a million other parents, we dropped our son off for his first year of college.  Moving in was stressful.  Loads to do and everything so new to all of us.  When the cars were unloaded and the new roommates met, we all gathered for the usual orientation stuff.  Parents and their sons and daughters listening to the college president talk about their choices and the next four years.  Then he said it . . . “it’s time to say good bye.”  What?  But . . . but . . . but, the schedule says that’s not for a couple of hours.  Then it all came down on me like a ton of bricks.  Nineteen years of hand-holding, watching his every step, waiting up for him at night, worrying if he was happy, was he going to make the team, was he working hard enough, how was he getting along with his girlfriend . . . it all flooded in.  Tears welled up and, when I hugged him, I completely lost it.  I told him I loved him, would miss him and how proud I am of him.  I bawled.  And then he walked away.

As it turns out, he is completely ready.  It’s me who isn’t.  I was worried about how he would take it and how my wife would deal with it all, but it’s me who came apart at the seams.  I’m already missing him desperately.  I feel lonely and incredibly sad without him.  Stuff around the house reminds me of him or of something we did together.  I know this seems silly.  After all, I saw him just a few weeks ago and I’ve certainly been away from him many times in his life, even for prolonged periods of time.  But this is different.  My son has been my friend, my cohort, my sharer of common interests for so many years I can’t remember it any other way.  I’m just not ready for this change.  A permanent change.

Of course, he’s still my son and he and I will spend loads of time together in the future.  I’m even looking forward to our relationship maturing and being taken to a new level.  Man-to-man, adult-to-adult, responsible individual to, well, you get the idea.  But I’m already missing what we have had.  The spontaneous discussions of why one football player is better than another, how a single crease in the bodywork of a car defines the entire design or what the impact of the latest technology release will be.  I’ll miss our Sundays sitting in the stands at Gillette Stadium watching the Patriots and in a funny way, I’ll even miss only sleeping lightly until I hear his car pull up the driveway late on Saturday nights (well, early Sunday mornings, anyway).  And who am I going to watch Bond movies with?

Some of my angst surely comes from the fact that I want to make the diving catch to rescue him when he’s in a stressful or difficult situation.  I know that I’ve been an overly protective parent at times, but it was really obvious as I left him at school.  How is my 19 year old son going to do it all himself?  Stupid question of course.  He really hasn’t needed to be bailed out in ages.

I jokingly told my daughter (the younger of my two children) that I’m not going to let her go to college.  I don’t think I can take this level of emotional upheaval twice in my life.  But that’s still two years away.  I’m going to go and start preparing myself now.

Taylor, if you’re reading this, which I’m sure you’re not, I love you.  You are a terrific person and you will do great in college.  Always know that your mom and I are here for you.  But, while we’re not around, be safe and make smart decisions.  Have fun and work hard.  That’s the sum of everything I’ve ever wanted to teach you.

 September 18th, 2009  
 Misc Thoughts  

122nd Place And Proud Of It

Univest Cyclosportif 100k - 2009 Yesterday, I raced in the Univest Cyclosportif 100K in Souderton, PA.  While I ride in many events each year, most of them with some competitive component, this is the first true timed, competitive event that I’ve participated in.  It rained – no, actually poured, during the entire race.  Additionally, there had been a storm the night before and the course was littered with tree braches, pine cones and wet leaves.  While many better riders were able to deal with the slick roads and assorted obstacles, I was cautious and liberally applied my brakes on much of the course.

The results?  I came in 122nd out of the 219 riders who did the 100K (there was also a 60K ride that had about the same number of riders).  I finished in 3:23.  Slower than I think I can do the course, but faster than I expected I would.  I’m pretty pleased with my performance.

I was really worried about the rain before the race and it certainly affected the way I rode.  The thought that there are only two little one-inch square contact patches keeping your body from skidding across the surface of the earth in a corner never really fades too far from one’s thoughts.  I also saw three major crashes during the ride and twice passed ambulances going in the opposite direction – ouch.  All that said, the weather stopped really bothering me after about five miles.  Once you’re soaked, you just can’t get much wetter.

A Cyclosportive is sort of the cycling equivalent of a marathon – a timed event that is very competitive for the top participants and is a race against the clock for most of the others.  In cycling, it is sometimes linked with a professional race on the same course, as this one is.  The pro event – the Univest Grand Prix – starts three hours after the amateurs start, making sure even the slowest of the non-professionals are off the course before the real racers come through.  Watching the pros finish after having raced the course puts ones effort into perspective.  Man they’re fast.

It was a great event.  I’m really glad I did it and I’m happy how well it turned out for me.  Special thanks to my support team – my wonderful wife – for making the long trek to Souderton with me and for helping me navigate the ins-and-outs of a big event and the incredibly bad weather.

Update (9/22/2009): Not that I’m counting or anything, but it turns out that there were 229 riders.

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 September 13th, 2009  
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