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.

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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.

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