Mitigating risk in a startup

As a fairly safe guy, I am trying to get used to the fact that I am going to have to eventually put it all on the line if I want to try to build a company myself. Being a pretty financially conservative guy, risking my hard earned money is something I constantly struggle with. To actually go through with this, I have started compiling a list of things I can do to remove as much risk as possible from my leap into starting my own business.

1. Save up money specifically for funding my startup-While I admire people who “risk it all”, I have come to terms with the fact that my brain doesn’t work that way. I can tolerate a decent amount of risk, but the idea of going bankrupt and putting my family in a really sketchy situation is not something I am willing to risk. So I am looking at starting a company as a really big purchase. I am saving up a fat chunk of cash that will specifically be used for the company. My retirement accounts, general savings, etc will be kept separate.

2. Start my project on the side– If it works and has enough traction for me to focus on it full time, then that is great. If not, then I can continue working at my normal job making money and use my spare time to test and iterate on various projects until one takes off.

3. Network with really smart people– The more people I surround myself with who are uber talented and uber smart, the better chance I have at succeeding. I’ve been trying to be a bit more active in terms of reaching out to people who fall into this category to help steal some of their wisdom. It’s been going well so far and I plan on continuing.

I’m sure there are quite a few other things I could do to help reduce the possibility that whatever company I start will fail, but if I do the three things listed above, I feel I will be going down the right path.

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Big Omaha 2011, an Attendee’s Recap

So Big Omaha 2011 ended on Friday after 2 1/2 days of speakers, parties, networking, etc. and I wanted to throw together a quick recap the observations I had from the conference.

I didn’t attend the opening party on Wednesday night, so the first Big Omaha experience I had was in the parking garage across the street before the conference even started. I got there at 8:30 (the conference started at 9) and was immediately greeted with a huge line of people waiting to use the one self-service ticket machine you needed to use to ensure you wouldn’t get a parking ticket. I’m not going to lie, the long line was pretty annoying, but the Big Omaha staff was running around trying to find a solution and they did a good job of delaying the opening speakers a couple of minutes to ensure those caught in line did not miss anything. Also, our wait in line actually worked out ok. It gave a me a some time to meet some people around me who were doing cool things. One guy was running his own web development company out of Lincoln and I also ran into the folks from Red Clay who won the free ticket to Big Omaha from the contest that Ram Hatter ran on his blog. Everyone was super psyched to be there and it made waiting in line a bit easier.

Once we got into the conference, we strolled through the registration area and past the food and lounge areas to take our seats. We didn’t have much time to check out the space at Kaneko because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the start of the speakers. I was there last year as well so I had seen Kaneko before (a very awesome, unique space for a conference) so I didn’t mind breezing through really quick. Anyway, the conference started with Dusty and Jeff from Silicon Prairie News (the organization who puts on Big Omaha) welcoming everyone followed by Hal Frances from Kaneko doing a brief intro about the space. Then we jumped into the actual meat of the conference. David Hauser, a speaker at last year’s Big Omaha, was the MC this year. He was responsible for getting the crowd to give every single speaker a huge standing ovation as they came to the stage last year and he carried on the tradition this year. You could definitely see the speakers get a bit more excited when everyone went nuts for them before they even said a single word.

The first day speakers were decent, but not overly exciting to me. When looking at the schedule, I was more excited for the second day before the conference even started. Of the speakers on the first day, I did particularly enjoy Ben Huh (Cheezburger Networks) and Sarah Lacy’s (TechCrunch writer) talks. The others were solid as well, but nothing that got me super excited. One of the things that actually made the day the most exciting for me was all of the new people I met. I probably had 10 -15 people over the course of the 2 days come up to me and say “Hey, I know you from Twitter”. I am not sure if I have ever had someone say that to me before this conference, but it was pretty cool. It definitely led me to meet a lot of new people who were all super passionate about the stuff they were doing.

After the first day of speakers, my friend Lauren and I headed out the party with the Hood Internet at the Slowdown later that night. When we got there we were greeted with some free shirts from the Dwolla team. I’m not going to lie, I love free stuff. Especially t-shirts. After we got the shirts we took a seat and started enjoying the concert. After we had been there for a bit, I met up with Shane Mac to talk about some side project work he was working on and to get a first person demo of Zaarly. I have to say, the app looked pretty sweet and Shane did a great job of yelling in my ear over the top of the loud music so I could understand what he was showing me. Lauren and I didn’t stay super late because we wanted to head home and be energized for Friday.

Friday was the day I was most excited for. The speaker line up was right up my alley. When I first got to the conference on Friday, I immediately noticed that the Big Omaha staff had taken care of the parking issue by getting an actual person to work the parking garage (props for making sure it wasn’t an issue for day 2). We jumped back into Kaneko and were ready to go. Gary Vaynerchuk was the first actual speaker of the day. He traded spots with Bo Fishback from Zaarly which I actually think worked out well. Gary is a super high energy guy so it was cool to have him speak first and set the tone for the day. Anyway, he nailed it like he always does and day 2 was off and running. Day 2 was more of the same. Speakers, networking during the breaks, taking photos in the photo booth, eating eCreamery at lunch, etc. Going into the day, I was most excited to see Gary V and the Bo Fishback speak but I ended up really enjoying the speeches from Philip Kaplan and Mark Ecko as well. I honestly didn’t know much about Kaplan before his speech, but he was very interesting. As far as Mark Ecko goes, I thought he was going to be unbearable to watch. The day before, he was part of a Q&A session at the end of the day, and I could have sworn he was baked out of his mind when answering questions. I thought his speech was going to be too dumb for me to care about, but I was wrong. His speech was very thought out and very intelligent. He was damn near too intelligent and deep for me to even follow along. I was very pleasantly surprised by him. None the less, day 2 did not disappoint. Between this year and last year, that was by far the best day of speeches Big Omaha has had. Every speaker crushed it.

As Big Omaha came to a close on Friday, I started thinking about how ridiculously lucky Omaha is to have guys like Jeff and Dusty put this thing together. The energy from the conference was so freaking infectious I couldn’t believe it. I have never been in a place where so many people were so friendly, accommodating, motivated, and helpful. The very first post I wrote on this blog was about how Omaha is on the brink of massive change. After attending Big Omaha, I am thinking that the title should be changed to “Omaha is massively changing”. This conference is creating a difference. Things in Omaha are changing because of it and the changes are extremely positive and beneficial to the community. It’s definitely given me a bit of a kick in the pants. I’ve already started working on moving forward with some side projects that I have been thinking about (more details soon). All in all, my writing can’t really do Big Omaha justice. Yes, it has great speakers. Yes, it has awesome networking opportunities. And yes, it is held in a cool space. But unless you actually attend, I can’t really describe why I think it’s so great. You just need to experience it for yourself.

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Lessons Learned from Rob Dyrdek

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a big fan of Rob Dyrdek. At first, I was just a fan because the dude is freakin hilarious and watching Rob & Big and Fantasy Factory was one of the highlights of my week. But this season, I started liking Rob for a different reason. This season he started sportin’ the “Make Your Own Luck” line of clothing. I started looking into it a bit more and I found out that he is not only a pro skater, but a successful serial entrepreneur. Much of his entrepreneurial mindset can be summed up in this video he created for the MYOL line of clothing.

My favorite quote from the video: “No one gives you anything in life. You gotta work hard and go after it to get it.”

I think that one statement sums up the mindset of how successful entrepreneurs think. Rob isn’t an incredibly smart person (just check out this episode where they take an IQ test), but he does a couple of things others don’t do.

  • He hustles
  • He constantly looks for opportunities worth pursuing
  • He doesn’t shy away from taking risks

Don’t get me wrong, being smart definitely doesn’t seem to hurt, but I think the three items listed above are more important. If you hustle, take risks, and work hard, your company has a good shot at making it. If you need to hang a Rob Dyrdek poster in your office to remember that, then I suggest doing it. That’s what I plan on doing.

To check out a summary of Rob’s life as an entrepreneur, I highly suggest you watch this video: Rob Dyrdek-How I did it

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Problem finders vs. Problem solvers

I’ve seen several articles on this recently, but I figured I would write my own post on it as well. As you can tell by the title, I am comparing two types of people. Problem finders and problem solvers. When thinking about assembling a team, who would you rather have on your team? Someone who can point out problems? Or someone who fixes problems (like Macgyver)? I personally would much rather have a problem solver and you should too.

It seems fairly obvious to me that problem solvers are more valuable to an organization but I see companies hire problem finders time after time. Why is that? I think it is because there are a lot more people who can find problems. Problem solvers are a lot less abundant. If your company actually has customers, you should already have a big pool of problem finders (Customers love telling you what isn’t working) so there is no need to bring on team members who will also tell you more stuff that is broken. If you aren’t hearing the problems from your customers, it probably isn’t a big enough problem that needs to be addressed anyway.

A few months ago, I read a simple story that highlighted problem solvers versus problem solvers (sorry, I don’t remember the source). The story was about a trash can inside a bathroom. The trash can used to get filled to the brim every day and would eventually overflow with paper towels before the cleaning staff would come in to empty it for the day. People complained about the excess paper towels on the floor, but no one ever did anything about it. Then one day, a new employee noticed this was a frequent problem. He didn’t complain about it though. He simply went into the storage closet where he knew there was an extra trash can and brought it into the bathroom. Now there were two trash cans in the restroom and there was more than enough space for the paper towels to get thrown away. This guy was a problem solver. He didn’t complain. He just recognized a problem and came up with a way to fix it. You would be surprise how many people would rather complain about something every single day, rather than actually take some initiative to fix it.

The way most businesses are run, they have their own various “trash can” problems. This means there are plenty of opportunities for problem solvers to shine. The problem is that most people aren’t problem solvers. They are problem finders. So here are some words of advice: Stop finding problems. Start fixing problems.

Posted in problem fixers, problem solving | 2 Comments

What motivates me

I thought I should actually put some thought into what motivates me. I have a feeling the success or failure of whatever business I end up starting is going to hinge on my ability to execute on certain key areas within the product. For me to spend the time needed to execute on these things, I actually need to be motivated to do it. So here is my checklist of things that motivate me personally.

  1. Believing in the things I am working on: If I don’t think what I am working on is important for some reason or another, I don’t do it. At work, I am very quick to say no to meetings or projects that I don’t personally feel will have an impact. I focus on things I care about and have real meaning. I tend to put in a much better effort when I realize the thing I am working on is for the better. If I feel it isn’t important, I have zero motivation to do it. Granted, I still do the things I don’t believe in if my boss says to do it. It just usually doesn’t turn out to be my best work.
  2. Building/doing fun stuff: It needs to be fun. If it’s not fun, I tend to get distracted. Also, when I say “fun”, don’t get the impression that the only things that I think are fun are ping pong, slow pitch softball, and funny movies. I think a lot of things are fun. I personally find studying personal finance techniques is really fun (I may be in the minority on that one). I also think team building and hiring a world class team is fun. I am a huge proponent of getting an awesome team in place to accomplish a goal. I haven’t been in the position to hire my own team before, but the concept is really intriguing to me and my past experience as an IT recruiter makes it very apparent to me that getting the right team in place is essential for success. That is a challenge I would find fun.
  3. Competing against others: I am naturally competitive. If I see someone else trying to prove that they are better than me, I can’t help but step my game up. I honestly don’t think there is better feeling than beating your competition. On the other side of that. I hate losing. I probably hate it more than I like winning.  Also, I am pretty confident in myself. I find that I can achieve most things I set my mind to. When I run into something I can’t succeed at, it makes me want to try harder.
  4. Being stable: This one is a bit of a tough one for me. I am trying to get myself in position to launch a successful company sometime in the future but one of my big motivating factors is stability. I can’t help it. I am from Nebraska and we like a good, stable work life. This is pretty much the opposite of what entrepreneurship is. This is one of the hurdles I will need to get over to start my own business. I honestly feel that if the need to be stable is one of the reasons I never start my own business, I will end up hating myself for the rest of my life. I just need to try (research shows that I will probably have to try a couple times before I become successful).
  5. Making money: I can’t help it. I like money. If I can make a successful business, that I enjoy running, and it makes me money, I will be extremely happy. Also, I am pretty sure if you start a business but don’t put some focus into actually making money, you are doomed to fail anyway.

So that’s my list. I’d love to hear what items are on other people’s lists. Feel free to throw your thoughts into the comments section down below.

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Being an “Idea guy” sucks

I’ve had a bunch of ideas for possible “game changing” web based businesses in the past couple of years. I figured that if I told others about these ideas, that I would eventually bump into a super talented programmer who would drop everything to work on my idea with me. Unfortunately, that never happened. And I am apparently not the first one to ever run into this problem. Just take a peek at this question on Quora:

Quora: Where can I find a rockstar developer to bring my idea to life?

As you can see from the responses in the thread, most techies could care less to about working on your “super awesome idea”. In fact, asking this question can be downright offensive for a couple of reasons:

1. Coming up with an idea takes 10 seconds. Writing the code for it takes weeks/months/years.

Does that sounds like an even distribution of work load to you? Me neither.

2. Developers hear about “the next big thing” from idea guys all the time.

Chances are that the developer you are pitching your idea to has been hit up many times before with ideas just as stupid as yours. They understand that ideas are a dime a dozen and that people are simply trying to use them for their skills.

3. They are often busy working on other things

Most developers have a day job that eats up most of their time. If they do like to write code in their spare time, they often like to write programs that they think are cool. They don’t go asking others “Hey! What stuff should I build?”. They like to tinker with their own projects.  Have you ever asked someone else what hobbies you should try to get interested in? If you did, you probably didn’t go very far with their suggestions because it wasn’t something that you were passionate about.

4. Asking someone else to build something shows that you are not very committed.

If you were really committed, you would try to put something together yourself to actually show how you think it should look/work/function. Even if you don’t have the skills, you should be so driven by your idea that it would make you go down the path of teaching yourself some skills to get the process started.

By now, you should realize that getting some “technical resource” is not the way to get started in your new tech company (unless of course you are sitting on a pile of money and you can just pay someone to build it for you). You need to take some initiative. This is why I am going to take a page out of Dennis Crowley’s book and suck it up and try to teach myself how to do some programming so I can actually start putting some of my ideas into action. I plan on writing more about my path from useless “idea guy” to slightly less useless “idea+shitty programmer guy” so you can follow me along while I attempt to take over the world.

Posted in Programming | 3 Comments

Wannabes are underrated

*Disclaimer: At this point, I totally consider myself a wannabe so I may be slightly biased with my opinion.

I was talking with my wife the other day about Big Omaha selling out and how I thought that indicated that Omaha is starting to shift into a community that is less risk averse than we had been in years past. I highlighted a lot of my thoughts on why that is important in my first post. Then she said “Yeah, but I feel like a lot of wannabes are going to be in attendance as well”. The “wannabes” she was talking about, were the people who want to be entrepreneurs and talk about startups all the time, but ultimately haven’t done anything to start their own thing. They just like pretending to be in the entrepreneur mindset. They just haven’t started/followed through on anything. However, as we started talking about it more, we started realizing that wannabes aren’t all that bad. In fact, they can often bolster entrepreneurship in the community for a couple of reasons.

1. Wannabes are quick to spread the word about people they look up to: Wannabes want to start their own companies but they haven’t. So what do they do instead? They talk about actual entrepreneurs because they respect what they are doing. It’s much the same way I talk about NFL players. I want to be able to play like them, but I can’t. But I am totally envious of what they are doing day in and day out (who wouldn’t be envious of people getting paid millions to play a game you play as kids?) so I talk about them…a lot. This free word of mouth works to your advantage as you are trying to let anyone and everyone know about your new venture. Half of the battle of starting a company is getting the word out. Wannabes do this for you…for free.

2. Wannabes can give a much needed confidence boost to a entrepreneur who is struggling: The wannabes are generally very optimistic things will work out because that is what they truly want. They want to see their idols succeed. It just makes them feel good to see that someone is doing the things that they aspire to do. They can often create a much needed confidence boost when you are down and out and things aren’t going your way. Many business owners talk about how they get motivated by the people who said they couldn’t do it, but sometimes I think you need is someone to tell you that you can and will do it. Sometimes seeing that someone else is envious of what you are doing is enough of a boost to push through the tough times.

3. Wannabes rarely detract from your business at all:Sure it may be annoying to hear people spout off their opinions when they have never done it themselves (hell, I am doing that right now). But when you actually think about it, that is all they are doing. They aren’t actually doing anything that will hurt your business. If they want to pretend to be something they are not, then let them be. I will only start caring when their actions actually hurt my business.

4. Some wannabes actually become doers: When I was in middle school and high school, I used to ride freestyle BMX. I was halfway decent too. I rocked all the biker gear so everyone knew that I rode BMX even if they didn’t see me on a bike. When I was 16, I was hanging out at the bike shop one day, and some middle school kid came in decked out in full on BMX gear and acting like he knew everything about everything. When we left the bike shop, I saw him get on some little kid bike and ride away. I immediately thought “Who the hell did that poser think he was?”. I just chalked him up as another wannabe who liked the idea of riding BMX, but didn’t want to put in the work to actually accomplish anything. A couple months later, I ran into that kid again, but this time I found out that he got a new bike and had been riding every free moment of his life for those last several months. The kid had gotten ridiculously good in a matter of months. That poser kid was now better than me because he spent every waking moment consumed by the fact that he wanted to become a doer (he also had a ton of natural talent). Same thing happens in business. It’s definitely not uncommon for people to go through a total wannabe/poser phase before actually breaking out and getting respect for accomplishing something.

Wannabes may get looked down upon, but in reality, they aren’t too bad. I’m not trying to pretend that these wannabes are as valuable as people who hustle and actually accomplish something, but they get a bad rap from many people who don’t realize that they can actually be pretty helpful. Take that into consideration next time you find yourself bashing wannabes. They are more valuable than you think.

*Editors note: “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls is also highly underrated. Watch the video and try not to smile. It’s impossible.

Posted in Entrepreneurship | 1 Comment