Thursday, July 31, 2008

I must be CRAZY

On July 21 I addressed the Ideation Subgroup of Bootstrap Austin, a fine group of beginning Entrepreneurs. They, and I, follow Bijoy Goswami's Bootstrapping ideas about the flow from worker bee to business Entrepreneur, in this case you start with and idea, create a Demo, and then proceed with raising some money to get on with business.

As usual I found my self 1) running overtime about 45 minutes with the help of lots of questions from the listeners, and 2) yelling a lot, no one has ever tagged me as Mr. Congeniality. Many are appalled at my choices of adverbs and adjectives when talking about such things as VCs, bit-time CEOs, and corporate careers; but I get laughs and a few lights blink on (you can see it in their eyes) so it is not in done vain.

My son pointed out to me that my primary message is always the same; Francis Bacon was wrong, knowledge is not power, it is a mental holding pattern. Knowledge plus action is power, and in the end we do pretty much everything today for power. The difference between being an entremanure and an entrepreneur is action.

So again the theme is get off your ass and do something, customers will give the final idea so you can start with almost anything close. Only your personal insecurity retards the progress (it's called the "BOX", the one you are always trying to think out of). Just take it to the customer as soon as possible, they will straighten you out.

As short story before I close this testimony. I went to a presentation review for entrepreneurs a couple of months ago. I was a mentor along with a couple of other guys and we listened to a presentation by a couple of folks with an idea that they had poured $70k and a year into for software. They were looking for half a million and wanted us to comment on the presentation. They launched off on the idea, the pitch was all laid up on PowerPoint (which is only slightly better than morphine for numbing your mind). Five minutes into it I stopped it and asked - The Question..."What did the customers say?" The CEO told me that they had not presented this to any customers yet, only friends, family, and experts (someone who used to be call "Pert").

Well, I alienated everyone in the room with my usual question (delivered in my drill Sergeant's voice) . . . "What the F*** are you doing? Without customer feedback this is all a work of fiction! You made this all up, there is no reality in this presentation, only you dreams."

How can I comment on fiction in a real world? The other two mentors went on to talk about the cute slide show and how to make it cuter, they were corporate guys used to living in a cartoon. I got up and left. I don’t live in a fictional world (I may be delusional at times but not that day). They were too polite to deal with the truth, what a waste of everyone's time.

The truthache you have to have is the customer's reaction – will he give you a check for your idea when you can get it to work and what does "work" mean???

Nothing else counts!

Barry W Thornton is technologist, who organizes, manages and explains knowledge. Copyright Barry W Thornton 2008 all rights reserved

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Old Masters and Young Geniuses

First and foremost, the idea that continued to come up for me during the discussion at the July 7 Bootstrap Art Subgroup meeting with David Galenson, was the notion that experimental and conceptual artists alike should not try to be anything other than what they are.

While this idea is comforting and liberating, as an experimental artist at the beginning of my career, it is also somewhat disconcerting. On one hand, I found it comforting to feel like I fit into some kind of framework. It was as if I was somehow finally granted the "permission" to work the way that I work. As an experimentalist, that kind of validation is no small thing. On the other hand however, I was also faced with a sense of impending doom with the idea that these insecurities that I harbor about my self as an artist are also an intrinsic part of being an experimentalist. David suggested that on average, most experimentalists tend to live a life of discontentment. As I stand here in the beginning stages of my career looking to the future, I can't help but feel a bit like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain day after day only to watch it roll back down again.

Camus' message seems to be similar to Galenson's message to experimental artists, which is to embrace the way that you work and don't try to compete with conceptual artists. However, the problem that I run into with this notion is that of how to continue forward knowing that if I follow this way of thinking, that my "rock" will likely continue to roll back down the mountain perhaps indefinitely.

I think that while the theories presented in Old Masers and Young Geniuses are indeed worthy of consideration and undoubtedly thought provoking; they lack an investigation of lesser-known artists who are currently making their living as artists. That is to say that I think that the scope of Galenson's research may have been too narrow to provide a measuring stick for artists working today. I completely understand why he chose to focus on the artists mentioned in the book. It stands to reason that in order to collect quantitative data he would have to limit his focus to well known documented artists. I think that the theories that he presented are quite insightful and serve as an important jumping off point for anyone interested in understanding the creative process. However, I also think that these ideas should be interpreted with consideration of the limited scope of the research.

I suppose that in the end, I make art because I am compelled to do so regardless of monetary gain. While my intention is to generate an income with my work, I think the important thing to remember for now is to do the best I can with what I know. This book has added one more piece to the puzzle in that it has helped me define my goals just a little more. So, I will continue to push my "rock" up the mountain with the intention that one day it will stay at the top and perhaps even reach another peak that I cannot yet see.

Dara Chambers is a member of the Bootstrap Art Subgroup.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Inner Journey

I'm supposed to write about the Bootstrapper's Inner Journey. You already know about the Outer Journey, the one that goes from Preideation to Growth. A while ago I theorized with Bijoy and others that there is also an inner journey that may be just as important and that we could discover what this journey is.

As time passes the inner journey gets clearer, but in this blog I'd like to take a bit of a detour. Some of you will be wondering why the detour is important. Maybe it isn't, but then again, maybe it is. :)

Over the history of humanity two fundamental theories about consciousness have been proposed. Without reciting every development in theology and philosophy (and even physics) we can roughly call these objective and subjective reality. You know what's coming.

Objective reality asserts that there is a reality that is external to our thought and consciousness. We can perceive this reality through our senses and process it with our minds. This external reality exists independent of any of us and would still be here even if we weren't.

Subjective reality asserts that all reality is totally within our thought and that there is nothing outside of our own consciousness. Even those things that now appear external are simply manifestations of our own thought and they are not outside of us. If we wink out, our reality goes with us. There is nothing outside of us to continue on.

Now this may seem very close to a theological blog, but . . .

In an objective reality two journeys are taking place. The external journey of our idea/company with its interactions with the world and the internal journey which is our own personal growth as we learn what to do and how to do it. In this reality both journeys are important and, at any given time, one may be more important than the other.

OTOH, if we really exist in a subjective reality then there isn't any external journey at all! The journey is entirely an inner one. What we experience (what our venture experiences) is totally a product of our own thought. Hence, our venture's journey (the external journey) is identical to our inner journey, how we grow and learn and, more importantly, what we vision out.

So now let's do some odds (because physicists can't stay away from math). In the objective scenario the inner journey is at least half the journey. In the subjective scenario the inner journey is the whole journey.

If we take the fraction of both scenarios we see that the external journey only makes up 1/4 of the journey while the inner journey makes up 3/4 of it.
Let's assume that either scenario (objective or subjective) is equally probable. Then to get things right we should pay more attention to our inner journey because it is, most probably, the important part of the process.

Math whizzes, don't hold me to the probability theory. :)

But, the exercise could tell us that we need to pay much, much more attention to our inner bootstrap journey. If experience is objective, it's at least half the game. If experience is subjective, then it's the whole game.

Alex Cavalli is a physicist, technologist, actor, author, thinker, bootstrapper, speech/life coach and a whole lot of other things that you just don't want to know anything about. He leads the Bootstrap Inner Journey Initiative.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Don't Rock the Boat!

There is an old story that goes: sit down and don't rock the boat, I'm trying to drill a hole in the bottom. Trying to scuttle the boat, or business, may not be intentional, but the action or conduct that does that may be all that people can figure out to do. This is part of the problem of the Entrepreneur inside a company has to face. Businesses die today because, in the now common business vernacular, the DNA is wrong (we know it really is the MEMEs (1) that are wrong but the folks with bad Memes think of it as DNA, how foolish, everyone knows you can't change DNA, Memes on the other hand are fluid and can morph with degree of ease).

The internal entrepreneur's problem is changing the way the business thinks and acts. Like different DNA in a body, he (or she) is attacked as a fatal threat by the rest of the business unless he is shielded or camouflaged.

Protection or shielding does not work that well because it permits all the 'antibodies' to focus on a clear target. An example would be a CEO deciding that he needs to change the course of the business to grow, so he puts a spotlight on the group trying to change the way people think. Targeting, simple targeting. That spotlight makes it clear to all just who has to be wiped out to maintain the status quo. It is the guy rocking the boat that everyone can hate.

Camouflage on the other hand is surreptitious and a bit sneaky, doesn't attract a lot of attention and in the internal entrepreneur's case, lets him win converts, even gets the sympathy vote by the very people who will eventually be changed. By not putting the change mechanism in people's faces you offer a way to adapt that is not confrontational.

Traditionally new ways were developed in a skunk works, a place that was simply not visible where the Standard Operating Procedures could be tossed out and newness could happen. Problem is that skunkworking doesn't allow the newness to infect and drive the oldness to change, It leaves the oldness in isolation. You may get a neat new product but you don't necessarily get a new way of doing things.

The point is that the internal entrepreneur's job is really to adapt the organization to treat the customer in new ways. To do that his act must be visible and infectious to all but not threatening. Quite a trick, takes special guts, and in the end a love for both the business and customers. Because in today's marketplace this has to be a continuous process. Too bad GM can't figure this out.

Question is, can your company figure it out?

(1) DNA are the units of biological knowledge that set the pattern for the entity containing them, Memes are units of cultural knowledge the set the pattern for the way the entity thinks

Barry W Thornton is technologist, who organizes, manages and explains knowledge. Copyright Barry W Thornton 2008 all rights reserved

Thursday, July 17, 2008

VC Money in Bootstrap Companies

Bijoy and I have had a long standing discussion about whether or not you can apply bootstrapping principles to venture backed companies or not. I've always felt that the principles of bootstrapping could be recreated in a venture backed company at some level. For the last two years, I've gotten to be part of a living case study. Taking some time off has allowed me to spend a lot of time reflecting on the effect that raising venture capital money has on a bootstrap businesses.

The Bootstrap Austin website
talks about Plato's "Necessity, who is the mother of invention" and its bootstrap corollary "Constraint creates innovation". I don't think I appreciated how important the constraints are in helping a business find itself until now. Constraints are so amazingly important in helping businesses focus on the essence of what matters. Constraints force a bootstrap venture to communicate with customers and prospects to ensure that whatever is being delivered is something that is needed. The money that venture capital brings removes the constraints and my experience has been that when the constraint is removed, the focus on the customers' needs is replaced with either a shotgun approach ("lets see what sticks") or a focus on a perception of their needs.

There is a cultural shift that takes places after you raise venture money. First, it changes the mindset of employees who were part of the company before the venture money arrived. It's human nature that when money is scarce you are going to value it differently than when it is plentiful. Second, you begin to hire people who never knew the company as a bootstrap organization but only as a venture-backed one. The overall risk profile of the employee base shifts. Third, one of the benefits of taking venture capital is access to the resources of the venture capitalist who invested in the company. Among those resources are senior executives that will help you round out your team. Generally, the culture of those individuals are even further away from the culture of the company pre-VC.

When you add Silicon Valley to the mix, I believe all of these points blow up even more. The cost of living, the importance of speed often perceived as impatience, the sometimes incestuous relationships that maintain the cycle, and the search for the next Google are all factors that are magnified in Silicon Valley but are in no way exclusive to Silicon Valley.

Intellectually, I still believe you can apply bootstrap principals to venture backed companies but practically speaking, I believe it is very difficult to do so. Here are some random ideas, none of which have any proof of working, that I believe that would allow bootstrap companies to maintain some of the things that made them successful while still leveraging the catalyst that is money that venture capital provides.
  • Don't announce internally or externally how much you raised or that you raised money at all. Reducing the number of people that are aware of your the company's bank balance is one way of artificially maintaining a culture. Of course, this is not realistic and comes with other consequences that I feel would outweigh the positives.
  • Use budgets and targets to create artificial constraints. Controlling how much your sales team travels (e.g., 3 weeks per quarter) can create constraints that drives the right behavior. A sales person knowing that they have to make every travel day count will make sure that they prioritize the right customers (e.g., balancing the size of the deal with the likelyhood of closing the deal).
  • Create a culture of capital efficiency. One such tactic is to be a hawk on expense reports (esp. the first 1-2 that a new employee submits).
  • Lead by example. Employees will look to their leaders to determine acceptable behavior patterns. If their leaders are eating at Tavern on the Green and ordering $100 bottles of wine, the employees will think that is acceptable behavior.
  • I'll reiterate the leadership point. If the founders and leaders of the company test their ideas by talking to customers, it will create a culture that the "Customer is #1". If the founders and leaders answer support questions regularly or at a minimum on occasion, it will create a culture that support is important.
  • Use lore. I can not underestimate the power of stories in creating a company's culture. Every company has some stories the define it. Those stories course through the veins of the organization and every employee in the company knows those stories. When in an ambiguous situation, the employee will have the lore to fall back on to know how to handle that situation.
As I said, none of these ideas have been tested or proven. As such, I would love to get feedback on what things have worked for other companies or if it is even possible to maintain some of the bootstrapping culture in a venture backed company.

Neelan Choksi is currently enjoying a 4-6 month break from his efforts on the SpringSource management team, spending time with his pregnant wife and daughter, trying to get in shape, and knocking of the items on his "honey, to do" list.