Both in startups and large companies—heck in any company—culture is critical to success. This is something that I’ve been waxing about for close to 20 years now. And the criticality of storytelling in businesses is another favorite and recurring topic in this blog. So I was tickled this morning, to come across an interview of Paul Teshima, CEO of Nudge (and formerly of Eloqua) being quoted saying
culture eats strategy for breakfast, and business culture can be built through storytelling.
What was particularly gratifying about this was his assertion was made in the context of marketing and sales. Sales folks have always understood that relationships are critical to their success. However their challenge has been to quickly identify and nurture the most promising ones, as they balance their need to deliver on results on finite timelines with the lead times of building meaningful relationships. Good marketers recognize that their job is to help sales shorten their selling cycles, by getting qualified leads to them consistently. Storytelling is a powerful to achieve this and a culture that promotes such consistent storytelling to customers and serving sales’ needs will always will the long game.
Last week, my daughter had a question for me about Transformational Leadership. While individually the words make sense, I can’t say I’ve kept up with all the kinds of leadership that’s in the literature, be it servant leadership or Attila-the-Hun leadership. In fact I’m still learning from my students and others. As I read up and discussed with my daughter, I understood that transformational leaders
transform themselves and their audiences in visualizing and implementing big ideas.
With that it’s easy to see why Dr. Martin Luther King and MK Gandhi who inspired him were both transformational leaders. I also realized how this lesson had been shared by my dad but not necessarily learnt by me that day.
“I want you to have this home for the aged built.” Jayendra Saraswati, then the head of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt, and our family’s spiritual guru had told my father. This was in the late ’80s. My father, who’d lost his father early in life, had come up the hard way and was keen that he help as many people as he could, particularly when it came to matters of education. By the time of this conversation, he was in a good place financially and willing to spend, what he’d earned and saved, to serve others.
However, the family’s spiritual guru had one additional stricture, “I don’t want you to build it with your money. I want you to raise the money from others in the community and have it built!”
As my father found out, paying for something yourself is a whole lot easier, than getting others to pay for it. It is not that people were unprepared to give to a charitable or deserving cause, but most people in a position to do so, already had their favorite causes to give to. Thus began my father’s journey of getting people in the community to buy into the vision of an old-age home, one ideally that was co-situated with an orphanage, allowing for young and old to both interact, learn and grow with one another.
Unlike in his professional experience, where purpose stemmed from the organization and unlike at home, were as the head of our rather large extended family, he could set the direction, this project required the learning and practice of transformational leadership. In my dad’s time, he did accomplish one half of his dream—getting a functional old-age home off the ground and operating for over nearly twenty years in his life time. And surviving two transfers in operating leadership, when his co-founder passed, then my father’s own Parkinson’s and subsequent demise.
He not only internalized this lesson on transforming himself and others, through visualizing an idea and executing on it, but shared it with me and others. Today as I listened to Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 — the day before he was assassinated, I heard him say
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight.
Yesterday when I wrote about what can make your pitch deck sizzle, I alluded to the fact that there are excellent pitch decks out there. Rather than have you search for them, I’ve compiled two actual decks from AirBnB and [Co] here as well as templates recommended by two venture capitalists that I admire. Hope you find them useful.
Brad Feld, another of my favorite writers/venture capitalists also provides a counterpoint, namely focusing on the pre-deck face-to-face pitch. In his words:
Feld often prefers more of a free-flowing conversation. So how do you spark an investor’s interest in that conversation? “The pitch should be very clear about what you are doing, why you are doing it and why I should care,” said Feld. “If you can cover those things quickly and precisely, it’s easy for me to decide whether I want to spend more time with you or not.”
Once again as I begin meeting with young (two high school sophomores) and not so young (their kids are in high school), the issue of making a short, yet compelling pitch to investors arises. Though a wide variety of folks have created excellent posts on what an ideal pitch deck should look like, I reckoned it is worth reminding folks of two things:
What is it that venture capitalists or for that matter any institutional investor (including some angel investors) are looking for
How best to address their needs but also attain greater clarity for yourself
Following a recent NY Times article and Jason Calacanis’ sarcastic response to it, Jason Fried wrote a nice post, about what it is that drives venture capitalists. In order to increase their probability of delivering double-digit returns year after year, amongst numerous other criteria, there are three critical things investors are looking for. These are:
HUGE market If the market is large enough, the probability that high and rapid growth is feasible increases
Proven team If the team has demonstrated success, the risk that they will NOT deliver is decreased
Unique competitive advantage The product/service/company brings something to the game that sets them way apart, giving customers a reason to buy – sometimes this is demonstrated by customer traction
While there are any number of other things are good to have such as customer traction, rapid sales growth potential, advisors and other investors, having two of the top 3 is critical. If you have a proven team and key competitive advantage and are NOT serving a large market, the investors can help direct you to the large market. Similarly if you are targeting a huge market and have a proven team, you can seek out a unique competitive advantage. If you have only one of the three, it can be an uphill sell to investors.
With the above as context, your pitch had better address upfront four questions
What is the problem or need you address? And who is your target customer whose need or problem you are solving?
How BIG is this need (or market) – units, numbers or revenue potential
How is it being addressed (or not) now and what makes your solution different? In other words why would customers buy from you?
These usually should be your first 3 or 4 foils. And they address two of the top 3 concerns for your investors – market size and unique competitive advantage.
You’d follow this with what you’ve actually accomplished. The trials you have run, ideally the customers you’ve already signed up or paid for your product or service, the feedback you are getting, the growth or traction you are seeing. In other words, you are real business with growth potential. And what are your next steps or milestones for the next 18 months broken down by quarters and what is your ask, “We are looking to raise a $2M (or $20M) round and how you plan to deploy the money you raise.
Depending on the audience you address, you can open with the team — “We’ve spent the last 30 years buying advertising and therefore know the problems advertisers face” to segue into the problem. My own preference is close the presentation with what makes your team the right one for this. By this time you’ve shown—not just through your presentation, your responses to their questions and your overall energy level rather than merely telling why you are the right folks to do this. Never hurts to be explicit though!
It’s worth keeping in mind, that your pitch is a living document. As you learn from each meeting you have, try to incorporate those insights. You don’t have to react to every single input, but when more than two or three people have the same question or input, it’s worth looking at what it is in your pitch that’s either not addressing it or possibly has it wrong. And don’t forget to share you pitch with your own team—you might be surprised both by how much of it is news to them, as well as the discerning feedback you might get from them. Get out there and break a leg!
I’ve been reading Getting to Plan B, by John Mullins and Randy Komisar. In it they discuss how one entrepreneur, while at Stanford B-school was inspired by meeting Carlos Ghosn, Chairman of Nissan and Renault, one of the world’s largest automotive companies.
Ghosn, who’s been featured in numerous case studies in business schools across the world and extensively quoted in business media, has unfortunately been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Ghosn was arrested in Japan nearly two months ago for alleged financial misconduct. He’s “accused” of under-reporting his salary for several years. Ghosn says he’s wrongly accused and wrongfully detained. It’s entirely possible that Ghosn is indeed innocent though he might be detained for several more months given how the Japanese justice system works.
“The 64-year-old executive is accused of moving personal investment losses worth 1.85bn yen (£13.3m; $17m) racked up on foreign exchange dealings to Nissan. Mr Ghosn says he did ask the company to take on collateral temporarily for his foreign exchange contracts, but that it did not lose any money through this move. He said if he had not been able to do this, he would have had to resign and use his retirement allowance as collateral instead.”
Media stories abound of misdeeds of corporate leaders such as Vijay Mallya, Chairman of the United Breweries Group, India, who is fighting extradition from the UK for nearly two years. Hardly inspiring for a man who billed himself as “The King of Good Times.” It didn’t help that his name featured in the Panama Papers.
Of course these much like the Enron scandal earlier or Bernie Madoff are only examples of lack of integrity at the highest level of organizations. As was apparent in those cases nothing good can come of such a lack of integrity – unfortunately it is others such as the employees of Enron and customers of Madoff who paid a much larger price in terms of their lost retirement funds and pensions.
“The spirit of an organization is created from the top.”
Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices
As individual job seekers or entrepreneurs, it is important to “evaluate the character of the CEO and top management” be it of the company we seek to join or intend to do business with.
While we may always not be able to determine how a CEO or a Chairman is, each of us can start with the people you interact with. Your immediate managers, your suppliers. Sometimes this shows up in the simplest of ways.
Last week, a young graduate interviewing for a job spoke to me after her interview. She liked the company and the role she was interviewing for. Yet, I sensed she was hesitant. I asked what made her uncomfortable. She said it was the fact that every single person that she spoke with, about their reason for being there, responded that it was “for the money.” Her fear was if money is the primary reason they were there, what would they be prepared to do or not do.
Align yourself with people who have integrity
Ever since I read Drucker’s “The Effective Executive” I’ve been partial to his writings. While there are a few things I find myself occasionally disagreeing, I’ve found few writers with greater clarity on the matter of business and leadership. I’ve begun to re-read The Daily Drucker and once a week plan to blog on a topic from the book. It is a good way to share what I’m learning and reinforce those learnings.
The end of the year is as good a time as any other to take stock. As I get working on my first full length novel (set in 16th century Vijayanagara, India) and business book (on selling your company happily) I felt it might be useful to look at what people have found useful or read most on my blog.
Over the last three years, the top two posts, every year have been
Having recently traveled overseas, the wife and I have been struggling with jet lag. In an attempt to stay awake, yet warm we snuggled up on the couch and tried to find something good to watch. Mr. Church was what we ended up watching. Many times before the movie ended, my wife said, “This is one of the best movies I’ve seen. No movie has affected me like this.”
As with every family or even any two people, we struggle to find movies or shows that we’d both enjoy. The one thing we’ve learnt is that reviews do little for us. Silence, one of the worst movies we’d ever caught had a high Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic score. On the other hand Mr. Church had a poor Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes score. We’ve found escapist fare, preferably not something that will drag us down (Season 3 of Wanted) and short (90 minutes or less) is what works for us. So when we tuned into Mr. Church we weren’t sure what to expect, and were fully prepared to abandon it to our second choice, if it failed to hold us.
Mr. Church didn’t fail us—it held us enthralled. Both of us found ourselves getting drawn in and teary and a little choked up in places. Above all, we’d inadvertently learned our first lesson of 2019.
We are so blessed for all the wonderful people in our lives.
We need to cherish the people—our neighbors in Bangalore and Columbus, our children and parents, family—the numerous cousins, classmates and colleagues in our lives. And for just being there.
As entrepreneurs, I know we’ve all certainly taken people for granted. Whether our partners, employees, advisors, partners or suppliers. Even when we’ve been appreciative of them, we’ve not appreciated the people in our personal lives.
Mr. Church, with its simple, yet moving story of the two protagonists reminded us to be grateful for the blessing that people in our lives are. We couldn’t have started the new year better
The family and I had to make an unplanned trip overseas due to a parent’s minor medical emergency. Shutting down our house, packing for travel and all the other many minutiae of last minute travel was stressful. So to keep our sanity, the wife and I made list of the top 1, 2 and 3 things we’d like to have accomplished during the trip. This is an exercise we’ve found helps us both stay focused and reduce the stress of dealing with change that’s inevitable from having aging parents and young adults.
Many unexpected and not-always-pleasant things happened during our trip—from one of our kids getting a nasty strain of flu to home aides quitting making parental post-operative care difficult. So our way back to the airport, as we listed all that we got accomplished and were surprised at all that we’d been able to accomplish, despite the low bar we’d set for ourselves. As we dug deeper, we realized that as always we had much to be grateful for. Some of these lessons are applicable just as much for our businesses as to our daily lives.
Goals – have few, finite and clear goals and de-prioritize all else
People – put people first and this will always pay off
Self-care – take care of yourself; short breaks go a long way
Goal clarity By keeping three things, as the primary outcomes, whenever we encountered a fork (or plain temptation) we were able to pick the right things (or say no) without dithering or guilt (both hard when family’s involved). Surprisingly, this provided us sufficient wiggle room to get other things accomplished (eight at last count on the airplane back).
People focus By keeping people as our primary focus, we not only had fulfilling and meaningful interactions but once again got more accomplished as the people we met with sought, often of their own volition, to get things off of our plate. In a few instances we were able to actively help them, but in most instances, the joy of meeting one another was both fun and de-stressing that our productivity bloomed.
Self-care While visiting India is always enormously enjoyable, between others and one’s own expectations, real-world constraints not limited to traffic, bureaucracy, and inertia can render the simplest thing challenging. And that’s when the family is not involved. So accepting that there are constraints and it is okay to retreat and seek some time for yourself to recharge is not easy. Even the occasional 10-minute power nap or 2-hour curling with your e-reader recharges and lets you come out roaring.
Last week, I shared some of the insights that Bea Wolper, entrepreneur and lawyer focused on family businesses, shared with my class. An area of special interest for Bea is how succession happens well (or not) in family businesses. She shared the four critical steps for succession (which is rarely seamless) to happen well. Upon discussing this with some of my students, it dawned on me, that this is just as applicable to startups and non-family businesses as well. And not just in a founder or CEO transition, but for any major role in a business – such as HR, Marketing or Sales heads.
Ownership In a family business this is usually a controlling interest. In a startup or other enterprises, this is equity with the potential for significant upside. As Bea pointed out this is the easiest to “do” – you sign a piece of paper and it’s done. This is however only a necessary condition and not sufficient. If you do this alone, it is almost always going to result in failure.
Knowledge Change is never easy. Having a new person in charge without equipping them with everything that your organization and you know is dooming them to fail. This ranges from how things are done, who does them, how they are done and why they are done (or not) the way they are. I have walked into marketing positions, with nary an introduction to existing customers, current prospects and can tell you it’s not fun. Successful organizations, debrief and even put together a “Bluebook” of everything the person leaving the position knows for their successor. Ideally, you have a team, including the person presently playing the role do an ongoing knowledge transfer for the successor.
Relationships The old cliché “business is all about relationships” is true. So formally introducing the new person to key employees, key customers and of course key business partners—starting with bankers, component suppliers, channel partners is vital for success.
Authority This is where the rubber meets the road and even well run companies stumble. When you promote someone or hire someone new, but other employees still come to you or their old boss or colleague, you’ve not handed authority. Most times the founder/entrepreneur is the problem (or “Dad” in the family business) when he is not willing to relinquish his authority. So the new person while having the title has little or no actual authority – or what he has is undermined by others.
As you can see any one of these, even when you’ve done the other three well can cause your executives to fail. I’ve been guilty of violating every one of these, at one point or the other. Which ones have you not been giving adequate attention to?
One of the joys of teaching is the opportunity to invite guest speakers who bring their experience and insights alive for the class. The speakers have the added advantage of being a “guest” lecturer and their message not only sounds new but resonates well. I was fortunate to have Bea Wolpert, an amazing entrepreneur, lawyer and woman leader. Over an hour, Bea in her inimitable style—reality laced with humor and self-deprecation—shared her own experience as a lawyer and entrepreneur as well as the stories of some of her entrepreneur clients. I realized her stories and insights serve well as advice for most prospective and practicing entrepreneurs. Here they are
Purpose Be purpose-driven – It’s well worth figuring out what are you passionate about. Pursue that passion rather than money alone – be it dog-walking, raising Labradoodles or being a chef or lawyer (all examples she illustrated)
Relationships Work on building authentic relationships – these take time and will pay off in spades
Give forward Focus on giving something of value first – people will automatically seek more and become customers. This could be a blog, seminar or webinar, free consultation, or samples at farmers markets – make it easy to buy from you.
Sales Recognize your job is selling – not just being a chef, designer, lawyer and learn to become good at it.
Numbers Business is about numbers – so the more you learn to understand numbers – costs, profit & loss the better off you will be
Commitment Be all-in. Don’t expect a bank (or anyone else, except a parent possibly) to fund your company or you, if you are not willing to be all-in and
Plan Whether a business plan for a bank, succession plan for yourself or a marketing plan for the company, planning is both important and will help.
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.