From Despair to Acceptance to Elation

IMG_3795This is a deeply personal story involving the most precious things in my life – my wife Renee and 18-month old son Jack.  Renee and I have been considering having another child, but at our ages the risks of complications and child health issues are increased, so we have been actively seeking out as much pre-pregnancy testing as possible.  One of the tests that was recommended by our fertility doctor was the Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) carrier test through a simple, and relatively inexpensive ($99) at-home saliva swab kit, and many insurance carriers will cover some of the cost.  We’d never heard of the test or the disease.  It’s important you read about this horrific genetic disease before progressing, but a few key points:

  • SMA is a disease where certain nerves in the brain and spinal cord die, impairing a person’s ability to move.  In the majority of cases (Types 0, I, II) SMA manifests in infants and toddlers before the age of 2 and in most of these cases, death is the result.  The remaining cases (Types III, IV) result in various degrading movement levels and onset ages, but the majority of cases result in loss of independent walking capability sometime between 3 and 30 years of age.
  • If you are a carrier of the disease, you cannot contract the disease.  Renee and I were being tested as possible carriers, as given our ages and no physical symptoms, it is obvious we do not have the actual SMA disease.
  • Approximately 1 in 35 caucasians (where the disease is most prevalent) are carriers of the disease, so the likelihood of having two parents as carriers is roughly 1 in 1225.  And there must be two carriers of the disease to produce offspring that contract it.
  • If both parents are carriers, there is a 25% chance that the child will be born with the disease, and 70% of those children will die before their 2nd birthday.  The remaining 30% have a wide range of prognoses and outcomes, ranging from inability to walk sometime between 3 and 20 years old to death.  There is no outcome, if the disease is contracted, where the disease is dormant forever.  As I said, horrific.
  • There is no active testing protocol in place today for parents considering children or for the fetus during pregnancy.  This is shocking to me given the combination of contraction probabilities and severe outcomes if contraction occurs.  Because of this, the vast majority of parents do not know if they are carriers and the contraction of the disease in children or adolescents is only known once physical symptoms occur, which can be as early as birth and as late as adult onset (early 20′s).  Insidious.

Because of the lack of testing, parents and their children know nothing of this disease until symptoms show in the child.  But, our story is different.  Renee was tested early in January and received a positive test as a carrier of SMA, which we didn’t think much of outside of being a fluke.  Given her positive test, I needed to ensure I was not a carrier in order to guarantee absence of the disease in Jack and any future children.  However, on Friday, January 18, I received a positive test as a carrier of SMA, and our immediate thought was not about how does this impact our desire to have another child, but rather what does this mean for our 18-month old son Jack?

This moment began the most harrowing week of our lives as we waited for the genetic testing results from Jack’s blood draw.  An emotional journey through despair, intense and depressing research, mental preparation for the worst outcomes and finally, a focus on how to comprehend that our beautiful, strong son, who has zero symptoms of this debilitating disease, could degrade in physical strength and be in a wheelchair at any moment.  Or, it could take years to manifest itself.  It was this uncertainty – knowing if the disease was present, there’s no way to predict when symptoms would show or their severity – that we just couldn’t get our heads around.

Then we thought, should we even get the results?  How would knowing a positive test affect our interactions with Jack?  Would we treat him differently?  Could we as parents deal with the waiting, the imminent result?  We ultimately determined that knowledge was power, that a positive test would enable us to do everything in our power – time, energy and finances – to help our son.  And certainly a negative test would give us peace of mind, a selfish, but ultimately another important reason for us to know the results.

We cried ourselves to sleep for 10 nights, waiting.  Then, on Monday, January 29 our prayers were answered with a negative test for Jack.

Given our experience, and our dismay at the lack of proactive testing, Renee and I are going to at a minimum make a financial contribution and possibly get involved more deeply with Families with SMA, the non-profit association dedicated to research, funding and advocacy related to SMA.  We’ve been amazed over the past week at how many people have said, “yeah, I have a friend who’s child died from SMA” just within our personal networks.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  And we’d like to participate in the advocacy for a broader testing protocol.

My Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs? Build Something!

I’ve been connected or introduced to a handful of aspiring entrepreneurs recently, folks that have lots of work experience, but no experience starting a company from scratch.  And the first question is always the same, “I don’t know how to get started”.

Ten years ago my advice might have been different, likely starting with the creation of a well thought out business plan that you use to raise money around based on the concept and research alone.  But today the costs of starting a business continue to plummet, particularly the costs to actually build a Minimum Viable Product or at least a prototype.  Simplified programming languages, open source code and dramatically reduced cloud-based hosting, processing and storage costs through services like Amazon EC2 and S3 have not only reduced the costs to build, but more important have enabled thousands of entrepreneurs to start businesses without the need for an outside cash infusion.    And there is no better way to share your vision and get others excited about your idea than to physically demonstrate it with a powerful product experience.  Gone are the days of million dollar investments required to get a demonstrable product, complete with features and functionality.

So the answer to the question is simple – Build something that you can use to:

  • Get others to actually use and thus prove value and traction,
  • Share with investors to get them excited about your product vision, and
  • Reduce the “cost of money” if and when you actually do raise capital

But what if you as the entrepreneur don’t have the skills to code a prototype or build a product yourself?  Easy, get immediately integrated into your local tech community events or get networked and find a technical co-founder.  Notice I didn’t say go find a engineer and convince them to build you something on the cheap or even free in exchange for “some shares”.  Rather, do your homework on the market opportunity, tell a compelling story and share your vision in a way that gets them excited and committed, even if part-time, to the success of the product which will inevitably require lots of iterations to get “right”.  Why should they be a co-founder?  Because engineers are the world’s scarce startup resource and, in my opinion, often the most underestimated from a strategic standpoint given the importance of technology in company building.

It’s really a subject of a future post and I digress, just go get a technical co-founder and thank me later.

Avoiding Complacency

This past week I sent the email below (verbatim) to my leadership team, not as a critique, but as a challenge.   I really find my own personal motivation goes in cycles and I have to fight through this issue from time to time.  The title of the email was the same as this post, “Avoiding Complacency”.

_______________

Guys, I wanted to share a simple technique I use every week to ensure I’m staying motivated and focused on the right stuff.  To be clear, this is not a critique on our/your work ethic, commitment or anything else other than my normal “challenging” the team to stay awesome.  I recognize everyone is working hard. 

Candidly, one of the issues I personally have to wrestle with is avoiding complacency, becoming “comfortable” in my role and most important, losing a sense of urgency and paranoia that I believe is critical for any startup to succeed – the leadership team simply has to feel an almost overwhelming sense of urgency and belief that if we don’t get better fast, someone else is going to kill us.
 
One of the things I do every Sunday night before the week begins is to answer the question, in writing “In addition to all the crap already on my calendar this week, what am I personally going to do, this week, to move the needle for the company?”
 
We should all take this view and we should push our teams to take this view.  On a weekly basis, its not sufficient for us to “move our existing, albeit important, workstreams closer to completion”.  We each must actually accomplish something, each week, that is foundational to our success, that we can all see as a big step forward, that those looking in (investors, press, customers) would say – yeah, that’s big.
 
Now, is this realistically going to happen each week?  No, but it HAS to be a goal, a focus that each of us holds each other accountable to.  I want us to ask each other this question and I welcome you saying “Rob, what did you do this week to move the needle?”

The Hardest Decision That No One is Forcing You to Make, But You Should

One of the inevitable truths about startups and building a real business from scratch, is that you rarely get it right from the start.  Meaning, most assumptions made in the beginning about the business model, target market, customer profile, product features, etc will change over time as you build, learn and adjust.  And this cycle often repeats itself several times over the course of the first few years.

Although the decisions to change the product in a different direction, or to abandon sales efforts in a particular segment or to completely pivot the business model are extremely difficult, especially since the team is so invested in confirming rather than disproving hypotheses, these decisions pale in comparison to the most difficult decision – letting go of good people, employees who are top or strong performers but now have a skill mismatch.

To be clear, I’m not talking about terminating non-performers.  If you can’t do this as an entrepreneur within the first 90 days of someone’s employment, then you should try another line of work.  I’m talking about terminating, in many cases, top performers in their trade, its just that their trade is no longer a burning, urgent requirement to build your business based on how requirements are evolving.

Why so ruthless you say?  Because you won’t have room on the payroll for the skills you really need, you will get marginal contribution from top performers that are skill mismatched, and you are increasing risk that you won’t get the traction you need before you run out of money or a competitor eats your lunch.  When you have 5, 10 or 20 employees, every single person must be the best that exists and must gel culturally.  Everyone in the company should demand this level of performance and since “like attracts like”, it makes recruiting only the best that much easier.

Listen, I don’t take any satisfaction for decisions like this that impact people’s lives so deeply, in fact I don’t sleep for nights before it happens, but the consequence of inaction is too large.  The key is to handle these terminations in a dignified, empathetic way.

One last point.  As you look at your team and recognize that there are several folks that unfortunately aren’t cutting the mustard, let go of them all at once.  And when you do it, embrace the remaining team and reinforce that they are the foundation for the company going forward.  In my experience, top performers recognize when there is a lackluster contribution by others and will have more respect for a tough decision that actually breathes more life into the organization by creating cash runway and room to hire the right people.

Pondering Mortality

I celebrated my 43rd birthday this week, but this one was distinctly different – it was my first birthday as a Dad, and it really had me reflecting on the past year and particularly on the future in a very different way than past years.  My typical birthday routine is to enjoy a phenomenal cigar and an even more phenomenal glass of scotch while thinking about the past year and what I hope to achieve in the next year.  While the cigar, scotch and prior year reflections followed a similar routine, my thoughts, objectives and priorities for the future could not be more changed.  There were two key differences this year:

First, its not just about me and what I want to accomplish or what I want to do.  This is probably obvious to you who are parents, the birth of your child and the immediate and complete priority shift and sense of responsibility for their happiness and well-being become the leading priority in life.  But what really struck me and had me reeling (read: panic) a bit was the second stream of contemplation - the realization of my own age and it’s conflict with the longing I have to know my child into his old age.  To experience his adolescence, help him through heartbreak, watch him become the man he chooses to become, rejoice in his marriage and see his world change, just as mine did, when his first child is born and I become a Grandpa.  But wait!  I’m 43.  That means 60 at high school graduation.  What if he marries or decides to have children “late” in life like me.  That’s 86 at first child.  Ugh, you can see how this began to quickly spiral out of control as I began to hyperventilate with the cigar and gulp 19 year old scotch.

Then it hit me.  Quit being an engineer, trying to plan and predict your life and every outcome for those around you.  While we like to avoid thinking about it, let’s face it, there are dozens of causes, accidental or otherwise, for us to “go” at any moment.  Accidental death took my own father when he was just 36 years old (I was 9).  There is no better defense of “live in the moment” than when talking about loving and nurturing your children and breathing in all of the experiences, every day, that they bless us with.  The energy it takes us to worry, plan and predict is energy that can be channeled into our spouses, children, parents, friends and most important, our own happiness.  This is definitely a work in process for me, I’m not so good at it personally or professionally.

So my personal objective for this coming year is to be present for Jack, Renee and the rest of my family while also satisfying my own professional and personal needs.  And when I start stressing about my own mortality, I’ll just hammer out some miles on my bike, which I love, and visualize (but not stress!) being the healthiest Dad at high school graduation, even if 60 years old.

The Fine Line Between Seizing Opportunity and Losing Focus

In the early stages of any business, proving that customers are willing to pay for your product is essential.  What makes it tough is that no one knows who you are (no brand), the product is basic (feature-less) and the business model is certainly not stable (not sure if you can make money).  This last point is one of the more difficult things to figure out as a startup – which markets do we serve, who are my customers and how much do we charge them?  You may think that you know these answers early, but in my experience you are rarely right out of the gate.  You run customer experiments, develop hypotheses, test them, then adjust.  This process can take months and really requires discipline to ensure decisions along the way are informed by market feedback.

And just when you think you’ve got the right industry, segment and customer profile nailed, you get an inbound inquiry from a “big fish” in a different market where the application of your product *might* prove valuable.  But, serving this tangential market would require significant investment of time, energy and mind share to create the delivery capability required to be successful – in product, technology and/or people.  The temptation to chase these improbable leads can be maddening, particularly when there is uncertainty about your current target market hypothesis and you have someone who is interesting in exploring a partnership with you that is unsolicited.

My approach to these tangential inbounds?  Only pursue them if there is -

  1. A direct application for your product or technology with minimal customization or feature development,
  2. At least two interested (willing to pay) customers in the same market – which means you may have to do some outreach to uncover the second, and
  3. Enough resources in the company to continue proving or disproving the target market hypothesis without undue distraction.

I doubt there are many big inbound opportunities that meet all three of these criteria.  That said, I don’t want to confuse chasing a tangential market (Losing Focus) with pivoting your business as a result of experimentation and testing in your target market (Seizing Opportunity).  The latter is a process that unfolds over time as you iterate with customers and prospects while the former is a “leap” and significant investment of time and resources to address a perceived or real need in a market you don’t currently service and probably know very little about.

What makes this decision process a “fine line”?  As a startup, there is likely a high degree of uncertainty that you can be successful in your TARGET market, so ANY opportunity that presents itself can be deceivingly attractive.  Don’t be fooled, persist and perservere until and if your target market customers and prospects disprove your hypotheses, thus requiring a data-driven decision to seek alternative paths.

Just make sure you keep the phone number for the “big fish”.

Back on the Grid

Wow, it’s been an extremely intense past 2.5 months in Startupland.  I haven’t written since December and I really miss the therapy in it.  Why no writing?  I’ve been channeling all my professional energy and mind share into working through a critical stage in my company’s development (which we are still in), and I’ve been hesitant to write about it transparently given the confidential nature of the issues I face everyday.  While I’m a huge fan of complete transparency, it’s not my place to share these details (despite my desire to do so), especially the unflattering, unsexy, fall-on-your-face realities of building a company when partners and customers have access to them.  So I’ve struggled with what to write about and in what level of detail such that its useful and insightful and, most important, so that others can learn from the tough stuff.

But I’m back!  And committed to striking a balance in what I share.  In the past 8 weeks, I literally have 20 topics listed that correlate directly to challenges, learnings, failings, big wins and the emotional roller-coaster that is my life right now.  I can point to several days when I had feelings of unsurpassed confidence and outright despair – in the same day!

I’m anxious to share more and will over the coming days and weeks, at least once each week.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers

%d bloggers like this: