Monthly Archives: October 2012

Are you an Outdoor Kitty? – A short quiz.

My company has an onsite project for a major client.  A few months ago, the project manager was out on vacation and I stepped in to fill his role for a week.  It was a drastically different week from those I had become accustomed to as an entrepreneur.

I didn’t leave the client’s office. I didn’t take any sales meetings.  No networking events. Just internal meetings, helping internal customers with their requests, and a lot of paperwork.

On Tuesday of that week, a member of my team came into my office and asked me if I was doing ok.

Me: Yea, I’m doing fine, what do you mean?

Her: I’ve seen you over these last two days.  You look like you’re trapped against your will.  You longingly watch everyone that passes by your office.  And I feel like you could make a run for it at any minute.

Me: That’s funny.  No I’m fine.  You really see that?

Her: Diana, you’re an outdoor kitty!  You’re just not going to do well in an indoor environment.

I thought her remark was pretty funny, and after lunch I did some more research on outdoor kitties and found this great description on a blog:

“Confident cats, particularly those with prior outdoor experience, may well vote for freedom and its attendant risk over the alternative – a long, but boring, healthy life of incarceration.  For cats of such persuasion, it seems that the New Hampshire state motto – “Live Free or Die” – might easily apply.

For those cats that must remain indoors all the time, or even most of the time, it is an owner’s duty to make sure that his cat has copious daily opportunities for exercise, games, fun and interaction with family members.”

The more I think about it, the more the moniker applies.  Once you realize that you are an entrepreneur, there is NO GOING BACK.   So I wrote this short quiz to help you figure out if you are meant for a life of adventure and risk or something more safe and predictable.

In the spirit of Jeff Foxworthy, you might be an Outdoor Kitty if:

  • You feel claustrophobic in a traditional office setting.
  • Regular working hours don’t apply to you because you are always hunting.
  • You never, ever pack your lunch.
  • You aren’t afraid of failure because you can always land on your feet.
  • Indoor kitties think you’re crazy.
  • You’re comfortable in an “eat what you kill” environment.
  • You’ve found that you are much more productive and can hunt bigger game in packs.
  • The only thing you fear is doing the same thing every day…oh..and also coyotes.

Hope this little exercise has been helpful.  Happy hunting to all you Outdoor Kitties!

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Why you can’t write a business plan for being a good basketball player

ImageWhen I was a sophomore in high school my family had very little money.  My dad was a mechanic with dreams of starting his own business and my mom was fresh out of technical school working as an entry-level programmer.

I knew I wanted to go to college, but I also knew that my family couldn’t afford to send me to a good school.  Heck, we would have had trouble just paying for housing and a food plan.  I needed to get a scholarship.  I checked out books on scholarships from the library, talked to a few seniors, and decided that my best chance of going to a good school on a full ride was some sort of a sports scholarship.

I was not an athletic kid.  I had good hand-eye coordination, but I didn’t really run.  In fact, I had never run a full mile … EVER.  Not even in P.E. classes.  Just couldn’t do it.  So after narrowing down my choices, I picked basketball.  I don’t really remember how I picked it, but I think it had something to do with having a basketball goal in our driveway.  I had never really played basketball on a team, let alone tried out for any team — but how hard could it be?

I practiced shooting for a few weeks and got pretty good; I checked some books on basketball out from the library; and my cousin and I played a few games of NBA Hoopz on his Playstation.  I was ready.

The first day of the two-day tryouts, I wanted to give myself a little extra boost.   Unfortunately, the only nutritional knowledge I had at the time came from the “Milk does a body good” commercials on TV, so I drank a full glass of milk that morning and another cup of milk at lunch.  That first day was really tough.  There was barely any shooting on the first day, but there was plenty of running.  Sprints over and over from one end of the court to the other.  I got a huge cramp pretty early on in the practice and had to spend most of the tryout in the trainer’s office trying to understand what a muscle cramp was.

The next day, I knew what I had done wrong.  I clearly had not consumed enough milk the previous day.  So that morning I drank two and a half glasses of milk before school.  And then — just for good measure — I drank two more pints of milk at lunch.

Needless to say, the second day of tryouts didn’t go as I had hoped.  I was exhausted even earlier in the workout than the first day.  During one of the running drills I felt my mouth start to fill up with a heavy mucus-like substance.  I thought I was foaming at the mouth so I went back to the trainer’s office.  He asked me what I had to eat that day and quickly diagnosed the problem.

During that second day of tryouts, the coaches finally ordered up some shooting drills.  Of course, I never got the chance to showcase my well-honed skills because I was again stuck in the trainer’s office.

Out of what felt like hundreds of girls who tried out for a spot on the Varsity, Junior Varsity, B Team and C team, I was one of TWO cut from the tryouts.  Word about my milk consumption got around pretty quickly, so I was both embarrassed and disappointed that I now had to figure out a different way to get a scholarship to college.

As silly as this episode seems, I see countless entrepreneurs repeating my mistake on a regular basis.  They choose to start companies in industries in which they have no personal expertise.  They think they can just read the market research, talk to a few people, and begin building their product.  What they don’t understand is that launching companies outside your area of expertise can be filled with minefields that you never knew existed.

I thought my biggest challenge was going to be making baskets.  But I didn’t even get to shoot the ball. There were other parts of being a great basketball player that I didn’t know I needed and that the experts I talked to thought were so obvious, that they didn’t even bother to mention basic fundamentals like running, endurance, or nutrition.

If you are going to build a company outside of your area of expertise, you need to have someone with industry expertise on your team.  And you need to take extra steps to make sure you have identified the right customer segment with a clear problem that is interested in your solution.

I didn’t try out again for basketball or any other sport.  I just thought it was impossible for me.  Instead, I was fortunate that there were scholarships available outside of sports, and got a debate scholarship to go to college.

Later in life I came to understand nutrition and built up my physical endurance.  I even started playing basketball for fun.  Now, my ability to outrun my opponents is my greatest strength.

Make sure that you turn your lack of industry expertise into a strength by spending as much time with your customer segment as possible.  Interview them, sell something to them, join them for happy hour and find out everything you can about their problems, dreams, and goals.  That’s the best way to find out whether your startup will be a good fit in the industry and save yourself some embarrassment from getting cut for something you never suspected.

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Is your problem a headache or a migraine?

How do you know if your startup has identified a problem worth solving?  The trick is to never assume that every identified problem will create a successful business.  You will significantly increase your chances of startup success if you focus on solving only those problems that are causing serious issues for your customers.

Customer problems can be put into two categories: Headache problems and migraine problems.  A headache problem is a recognized annoyance that a customer isn’t willing to spend much time or money fixing.

I take my dogs on a lot of walks, and I have to pick up behind them after they defecate.  It’s annoying. And I wish I didn’t have to do it.  If you asked me if picking up after my dogs on our walks was a problem, I would say Yes! But I’m not going to spend any money on a fancy pooper scooper that I have to bring with me on my walks.  My current solution, used bags from the grocery store, works well enough, and I honestly have never gone online to look for other options.  This problem is just like a headache.  It’s annoying, but short of taking some over the counter medicine, the majority of people wouldn’t do anything else to treat it.

A migraine problem is a completely different story.  Here are the symptoms that can accompany a migraine (from

  • Moderate to severe pain (often described as pounding, throbbing pain) that can affect the whole head, or can shift from one side of the head to the other
  • Sensitivity to light, noise or odors
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea or vomiting, upset stomach, abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensations of being very warm or cold
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Bright flashing dots or lights, blind spots, wavy or jagged lines (aura)

Migraines are such a serious problem, that people have tried anything and everything to decrease the pain: brain surgery, antidepressants, botox, anti-seizure drugs, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, etc.  This is a problem worth solving.

Two days ago one of my dogs, Winston, got really sick.  He was vomiting every few hours and couldn’t keep anything down.  He kept looking at me with his puppydog eyes, trying to communicate to me that something was wrong and he wasn’t feeling well.  After about 20 hours of this without any marked improvement, I rushed to the vet’s office to get him checked out.  This was a migraine problem.  It didn’t matter what tests the doctor wanted to run, or what prescription he wanted to issue, I would pay anything and everything to make him feel better.

When you are talking to potential customers and trying to figure out if they identify with the problem you think is worth solving, make sure you are asking the right questions to determine whether you’re solving a headache problem or a migraine problem.  These questions can include:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how seriously does this problem affect your life?
  • What do you currently do to solve this problem (note: if they don’t really have a current solution, then it’s not a real problem)
  • How much would you pay to solve this problem?
  • What other solutions have you already considered? Tried?

What have you done in your startup to figure out if you were solving a headache problem or a migraine problem?

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What do entrepreneurs and poker players have in common?

I had dinner with a friend last night who was lamenting about his recently failed startup. He had put his heart and soul into his company for over two years.  He borrowed money from friends and family, maxed out credit cards, and did everything he could, but the market just didn’t respond to his idea.  He had a cool product, but it just wasn’t addressing a problem.

My friend was trying to figure out what to do next.  He could go work at a big company, go back to school, or…there was this one other option.  An early stage startup he knew and respected asked him to join their team.  It was clear from his description of the idea that this was definitely the opportunity he was most excited about, but he was nervous about taking the leap. He was worried that if he goes to another startup and it doesn’t work out, he’ll be pigeonholed in the business community as someone just waiting for his next startup to come along and won’t be able to find a “real” job. He was worried of what his friends and family would think about him going to another highly speculative startup. “I’m just nervous they’re going to think I have the equivalent of a gambling problem or something.”

I think he’s right to be nervous about the perception.  Being an entrepreneur is often seen as a risky vocation, not much different than deciding to be a professional poker player.  In most conversations if you tell someone you are an entrepreneur, they hear unemployed, just like if you told them you played poker for a living.

But I like to think of the similarity between professional poker play and entrepreneurship in a positive light.  Poker players know they aren’t going to win every hand or every tournament.  It’s a statistical impossibility.  They know they are going to lose money some days.  The trick is to minimize your losses.  Learn from them. And live to fight another day.  The only factor that determines whether or not you are a professional poker player is if you can afford to keep playing at the professional level, meaning that you have to win more money than you lose.

I told my friend that he has to have a similar mentality to his entrepreneurial endeavors.   It’s clear that he’s drawn to start up companies.  He wants to create things that have never existed.  He wants to change lives. He wants to solve problems.  There are few other professions that can offer the same level of risk and reward that he covets.

But sometimes startups fail.  Sometimes the ideas are bad.  Sometimes the execution is poor.  At some point in their run, virtually every single successful entrepreneur has encountered failure.  Some of them lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Some of them lost millions.  But it’s not the individual setbacks that determine whether you should continue your path to being an entrepreneur. It’s whether you can learn from your mistakes and afford to keep playing.  If you are passionate about startups and you have the ante, then don’t let a bad hand chase you out of the game.

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