I’ve founded a new company, this time all by my lonesome. Depending on how you count, this is at least my sixth startup:
The most common question I get after speaking at entrepreneurial events is always some version of “how do I start?” and the answer is “you just do,” which isn’t very useful for people. The only thing that seems useful is to give them examples. My plan is to tell the story of my next company as it unfolds, in the same way I documented my experience as an Eisenhower Fellow in a long series of posts on my old blog [Cereal CEO, which I'm copying into this new blog]. I hope that it’s useful to other entrepreneurs.
I just finished reason a really terrific book, Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall. An acquaintance suggested that I read it after I mentioned that I recently started and am loving barefoot trail running. I’m very grateful that she followed through and got the book to me.
It’s a shaggy-dog story that leads through the crazy world of ultra marathons, the Sierra Madre and the Tarahumara, and the top distance coaches, biologists, and anthropologists. I ended up understanding why I am running with joy for the first time since I left childhood, and a little bit more about humans beings. (Photo of a Tarahumara running is McDougall’s)
Turns out that persistence, and our natural ability to run long distances are both critical to our species success. (Yes, running is natural - but you’ll have to read the book or at least watch the video at the end of this post to get that story). Our ancestors hunted, and out-hunted our competitors, the Neanderthals, by running our prey into the ground. We ran long and easy, in teams. We chased an antelope until it literally dropped dead.
All if which got me to thinking about start-ups.
I’ve been told - often - that I’m persistent to a fault. Many knowledgeable folks say that persistence is a key attribute of successful entrepreneurs, though I don’t claim to be any proof of that. How could I use my persistence as a strategic advantage?
I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do next yet, but the lead contender today is a project I’m working on with a few great guys who are building a proof of concept that we will be ready to market in the fall. We figure that if we can sell it that’s proof that it’s a good idea and we’re off to the races. If not we won’t have lost much. The idea isn’t earth-shattering, but it would make life a ton easier for a lot of people.
There are many reasons that we think it’s smart strategically. First, the solution is very simple in a field of the very complex; simplicity and elegance are attractive. Second, I like the model - it’s analogous to Salesforce.com in the early days, when salespeople expensed individual accounts because the tool was so much better than Siebel, which they were supposed to be using (this was before Salesforce became Siebel). Third, it’s fun to take on the big guy with something small. It’s a Kopppelman value-destroying idea. And there are a long list of others like the supporting trends, the teams’ experience and expertise, on and on.
The truth is, though, that I was drawn to the opportunity primarily because I think that I’ve devised a way to start and grow it without outside capital. I’ve raised many rounds of venture capital, and I’ve worked with great (and horrible) investors. I’m ready to do it without them, I think. That has less to do with dilution than it does loss of control, and what I see as fundamental issues in the VC-entrepreneur model (I’ll post about that someday).
What I realized, thinking about persistence in the start-up context, is that internally-financed growth is the business version of persistence. It’s a weapon. When you can run longer than your prey, you get to eat them for lunch. When you raise outside capital, get into the habit of burning cash for growth, you have to keep raising money to run. When you provide enough value that customers are happy to pay more than it costs you to produce that value, you can run forever. You’re free.
Of course, there’s a trade-off: slower growth. There’s only so fast that an internally-financed company can grow. Look at the wacky counter-example, the fastest growing company in history, Groupon - it's hemorrhaging cash.
But I’m not that motivated by high-flying growth any more. As I learned from McDougall, great running stems from joy. Yes, you have to train hard and smart, it can be extremely painful, sometimes you fall. But, regardless, the greatest runners run with joy. It’s a deep thing, it’s about being a better person. It’s about giving rather than getting.
It might sound a bit wacky, but I believe that we can build a great company using those same principles. What I love about start-ups is the people - the team, the customers, the partners. I’m old now, and I don’t need any external affirmation. I can follow my slightly nutty ideas and not care what anyone but my team thinks of them. I just want to work with good people to build great things that customers find useful. As long as I’m doing that, I can do it forever. And everyone will be happy.
p.s. Back to running, here’s a great video from Nature that tells the basic story in just 6 minutes.
The New Yorker just published a long, loving profile of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, appropriately titled “A Woman’s Place”. For a brief moment in time it was at the top of Techmeme. Sheryl also did a popular TedTalk.
She mostly blames the male domination of the tech industry (and world leadership) on women. I think, mostly, she’s on the right track. She gives solid advice to young women - “lean in”, find a 50-50 husband, wait to have kids until you’ve established yourself (and don’t think about it until then). She focuses on what we can do rather than what others do to stop us, and I agree with that appraoch 100%.
She’s also an interesting model. She has all the normal super-powers: crazy-smart, hard working, clearly emotionally intelligent. She also had a critical and powerful mentor (get yourself one of those, girls). And she espouses some unusual views, including some I’ve been advocating for years: an approach to managing life based on blend rather than balance, forget about career planning, don’t focus on the fact that you’re a girl. I like Sheryl, I bet we’d get along well.
Yet it pisses me off that she’s the newest girl tech darling. Why? Because she’s a #2. She may be the best #2 in history, but I wish we had #1 role models.
We sold ClickEquations today. And I’m changing my name back to Lucinda Bromwyn Duncalfe (long story, and no I’m not getting divorced). So it seems like a good time for a fresh blog - and you found it! (My old stuff is still at www.cerealceo.com.) I also have a new email address: lucinda at duncalfe dot me and a new Twitter handle: @LucindaD.
I will help with the transition for a month or so, then spend the summer with my girls (yeah!). I plan to do one more company - let me know if you have a great idea or know someone who does.
I’ve been actively using and thinking about social media and how to use it effectively as a tech start-up CEO for over a decade. Finally, in just the last month, I think that I have achieved a balance of channels that works. I use each for a specific type of communication with a specific audience.
I started this blog a year and a half ago, and hardly ever post. I find it difficult to prioritize the time and, more importantly, I usually cant write about the things that consume me and that I think would be really valuable for those in my community. Id like to write about how we think about strategy and our competition, corporate development and major deals, the capital raising process, the dynamics on our board and with our investors, and our culture and people issues. Mostly, what would be interesting and informative are the big opportunities and big problems. These are, however, exactly what I cant share here. My conclusion is to keep the blog as a place for writing like this but not to worry about posting regularly.
In contrast, 347 updates ago I started using Twitter (@LucindaDH), which works a lot better for me than blogging not that theyre the same thing at all. I started during the SXSW conference when everyone else did (as @LucindaH) but I couldnt get going; I just didnt get it. Then, afraid I was aging, I made a month-long commitment to Tweet. And I was hooked. Its a terrific way to keep in touch with friends, get to know acquaintances and colleagues better, and connect with people beyond my network. I found that the most constructive effect was that it connected me better to other C360 people. And it gives me something to do when Im sitting at red lights.
I do love that I can update Facebook with my Tweets. Facebook is purely secondary for me, but there are a lot of very active users, and I can keep my page fresh through Twitter. It’s a place that you have to be if you work on the Internet, it’s a great way to connect with old friends, but it’s not a main platform for me. There are many other networks that I use but don’t contribute to (Yelp), some I find intriguing but don’t use regularly (Tripit), and those I choose to ignore (MySpace).
Again in contrast, LinkedIn has become critical to my business life. I use it to find new employees, to get background on people I’m going to meet with, and to find paths to get to people I’m trying to meet. It’s great, but it’s more as a database than a social space.
So if I blog as an occasional way to publish long-ish thoughts, Twitter to connect a level deeper, maintain Facebook as a seat at the table, and leverage LinkedIn as a business tool, is that the right mix?
No. This all brings us to Yammer. I love Yammer. Yammer fills a key void in the social media mix to date. I introduced Yammer to Commerce360 a month ago and find it invaluable already. People post really interesting things (to me anyway) like what theyre working on, competitor announcements, industry news, client feedback, that there are cookies in the kitchen, or that they’re going to lunch. Our dev team updates Yammer automatically through our source control system so we can all see hour by hour what’s happening. It all adds up to giving me a finger on the pulse of the organization in a way thats hard to get otherwise, particularly because I spend so much time out of the office. I also think that it helps people to have more visibility into what Im doing. I post things like meetings that Im in, what were talking about, what Im reviewing, client and sales call outcomes, how the board meeting is going, My hope is that this helps everyone stay excited about what were doing, and that how I spend my time is a signal about what is important to the organization.
Which, back full circle to the beginning of this post, is really the promise of social media for the CEO: it can help us connect to our constituencies in a more direct, genuine way.
So, with the addition of Yammer, I’ve finally developed a mix that works:
1. Yammer for inside the company
2. Twitter for quick exchanges with the tech community (and their spouses)
3. Facebook for a broader community
4. LinkedIn the business world workhorse
5. This blog for occasional longer posts
I've started and/or run too many venture capital-backed software companies, plus one ill-fated food startup.