Posts Tagged ‘startup’

Well that was fun…

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

dead tiredA little more than three years ago, I took on yet another start-up gig. This time, I asked my family for permission before embarking on the adventure. While I was given three enthusiastic thumbs up at the time, there is no doubt that at least my wife regrets urging me onward.

Livemocha was a blessing and a curse. I never felt more proud of a product or service. The newest version we built is revolutionary in design and implementation. You can in fact learn a language with this service – we have some evidence to back up that claim. And in the hands of a teacher, the service works magic. But Livemocha was probably the worst business experience of my nearly 30 year career. Sales growth was anemic – in consumer and institutional markets. Profits were impossible to achieve without massive capitalization or catastrophic cost reduction. Neither were ever a realistic option.

So we sold our venture to Rosetta Stone, which arguably needed Livemocha’s platform and product team more than any other company in the world.

So now I am in the last few days of transition – our product, sales, and finance teams are settling into new roles in the much larger parent company. And I’m ready to finally take a break. At the moment, it is unclear if my marriage has survived the past three years. But it is clear that my 51 year-old body, is a bit wiped but will recover quickly. For a little while, I will rest on this beach. And then – it will be time to stop lolly-gagging around and find what else might be fun to work on…

The root of courage is embracing doubt

Friday, September 25th, 2009

When confronted with great uncertainty, our sensory cortex fires into high gear and produces a feeling of fear in our bodies. Chimpanzees have a similar biological mechanism, but at least their fight-or-flight response only activates when confronted by real danger. We humans on the other hand react to our imagined fears with the same ferocity as a life threatening situation. Whether it is fear of failure, rejection, reprisal, or death, it is fear that rules this world.

In the midst of our chimpish lives, seeking some kind of bliss while leaping from fear to fear, every once in a while we encounter someone who stands still and stares willfully into the abyss of doubt. We admire those who can enter into a moment of great uncertainty and risk, and yet will not run. I see this kind of courage every day working with men and women who build and run new ventures. They face enormous doubt and at times experience visceral fear, yet they persevere.

What is it that allows some people to move boldly into doubt while others cower or run away? First, you need a little ego. You must believe your action might lead to a better future. Whether you are like Howard Schultz who built a new kind of coffee company despite all the naysayers that insisted middle-class Americans would never pay $2 for a cup of coffee, or like Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger because it just wasn’t right, if you believe that your actions might lead to a better future, you are more willing to risk the consequences of today. Neither Howard nor Rosa was sure of the outcome of their effort. Both faced great uncertainty and economic or personal peril. Yet they each acted because they deemed that the future they sought was worth the risk.

Our inability to know the future often triggers the fight-or-flight response. The human mind, always seeking certainty, then assigns certainty to the undesirable outcome, just as a child at night is sure that the bogey man is in the closet. But until we open the closet, we just don’t know what is in it. The bogey man is in our head.

We all face uncertainty. The root of fear is fighting your doubt. The root of courage is embracing it.

Doubt is not your enemy. Doubt is the source of your creativity. By staring silently and openly into the dark closet of your uncertain future, you discover freedom. Since you can’t know for certain anything that lies in the future, you are completely free to choose today. Fear kicks in when you want to control the outcome. By definition, the riskier the decision or venture, the less control you have of outcome. Most days you can control whether one foot falls before the next as you walk. On the other hand, no matter how hard you try, you cannot control the rain. Nor can you control whether your venture will succeed or fail.

If you relax into your doubt, you will find creativity, hope, and opportunity. And others will witness courage in action.

Lotus In The Fire

Friday, November 21st, 2008

It’s an ancient metaphor at least 2500 years old. Yet it is so apt today. The DOW has careened around 7500 all day, jumping in the last half hour to 8000 on the news of Obama’s pick for Treasury Secretary. If it weren’t for that bit of news, it would have been a terrible day for investors on Wall Street. Sumner Redstone had a margin call. The CEO of AIG had a margin call. Just about everyone I know is lamenting the loss of at least 40 percent of their investment portfolio in the past 6 months. Maybe fire is too gentle a word for this lotus. Maybe Lotus in the conflagration is better.

What is the lotus in this flaming financial hell? My clients are alive and well in Seattle and San Francisco. Everyone is facing financial turmoil. An online game company had it’s B round erased by the credit crunch a month ago. They restrutured, regrouped, and now have raised capital from the orginal investors and a few ballsy new investors to buy time to get to cashflow positive in the near future. A tech company with a huge cashburn has pushed for and attained an enviable client list and found strong interest in several large acquirers who remain undaunted by all the financial carnage around them. A hosting company that survived the bloodbath that killed Exodus, PSInet, and other hosting companies now finds itself completely sold out of capacity and yet unable to finance an expansion, and so they have decided to hunker down and optimize their client list for profitability. A startup that launched a clever social merchandising application on facebook less than a year ago finds its current investors skittish. The team has regrouped and is finding solid interest from new investors who like the progress to date.

The entrepreneurial spirit in this sector is the lotus in the fire. Not one of the CEOs i work with have given up. Not one of them has shown any willingness to concede. Everyone has had their mettle tested and are showing their ability to keep their eyes on the prize. It is a privilege to work with them and a privilege to watch such people of great character and intestinal fortitude driving for a win in the midst of such a storm.

Who says we are a nation of whinerse? I say bullshit. We are a nation of hard driven men and women willing to batte lwith self-doubt and a naysayers and high odds against us in order to have a shot at winning tomorrow.

The lotus in the fire is a beautiful sight

Interview with Pamela Richarde

Monday, April 7th, 2008

clip_image001.jpgPamela Richarde Past President of International Coaching Federation

Pamela is a charming and insightful leader. She has led an interesting and eclectic career in the Performing Arts, in Education, building her own businesses, and serving as Vice President & COO at Coach U, Inc . From 1996-2006 she helped create and then later led the International Coaching Federation (ICF) – a highly respected standards organization in the professional coaching field, serving over 14,000 members in over 80 countries.

Building the ICF
As one of the founding members and early leaders in the ICF, Pamela has keen insights into the challenges of building an organization from scratch. Her story begins with the motivation the early leaders had for creating the ICF: community and education. She was building a coaching business in the early 1990′s and like many others at that time, discovered that the market did not understand what a professional coach was. Nor was there any consistency in the definition of a professional coach, even among the more prominent schools who specialized in that field. “In order to help create a profession with competency based credentials, behavioral standards, shared best practices and effective self-regulation, I joined a number of prominent founders of coaching schools in a conversation to try to create and promote unity of purpose and process.”

As you can imagine, the challenges in forming the ICF were immense. At that time, if professional coaching was even heard of, it was viewed by most as a frivolous soft skills consultancy or worse, as a kind of charlatan psychotherapy. The challenges faced by Pamela and other early leaders of the ICF included not only the education of a marketplace; it also required the typical herding of cats in a startup and merging many strong egos into a unified vision for the profession. She describes her leadership model as “heart-centered” with her view of the role of leader as “inspiring others to greatness rather than laying down the law by wielding power.” Her approach is similar to the somewhat over-marketed term “servant-leader” so frequently quoted by politicians, pastors, and business leaders these days.

Heart-centered leadership
Pamela’s heart-centered leadership model builds on three pillars, “know thyself, inspire other to greatness, and defend the decisions made by team as if they were your own.” Using that platform, she focused first and foremost on exploring what was common among the founding members of the ICF. She did not sell her own vision to her peer group. In fact, she probably would have failed if she had tried that approach. As she explained, “Some of the first board members of the ICF were well established, internationally renowned experts in professional coaching with strongly held views.”

Instead, Pamela chose to remain open and curious even when the conversation went to places she didn’t agree with. “As a result, I was in a better position to facilitate and co- lead this group of passionate and insightful people.” She goes on to say, “We saw early on that there was already great enthusiasm and passion for the conversation” and she used that enthusiasm as a rallying point to help get the team through the more challenging debates. No matter what obstacles appeared during a specific negotiation, most often Pamela could bring the team back to center with an agreement that the debate itself was productive, no matter how contentious.

What became clear in those early ICF conversations was a shared view on the core competencies of a professional coach, even though there were radically different approaches to training, development, philosophical base, or the coaching process itself. She explains, “This early insight by the team led to a productive conversation about the standards for coaching.” This allowed the team to come to a firm resolution. And that agreement in turn served as the foundation for additional areas of agreement as time went on.

In Pamela’s heart-centered leadership model, there is a sense of ownership that is different from other leadership models. If you are selling your vision to a group, you certainly own that vision. But if you are inspiring the team to agree upon a shared vision, if you use your role as leader as foil for the debate, seed of discussion, builder of compromise, then the outcome isn’t yours. It belongs to the team. In order to create confidence among that team; to give them permission to take a strong stance on a risky position, Pam believes, “you need to be willing to be publically responsible for the decision made by the team. You create a space and freedom to fail. Trust is formed by standing up for the decisions made by the team and defending their position as though it were your own.” Of course, it follows that when the outcome is clearly successful, the heart-centered leader must then ensure the team gets credit for that success.

Source of leadership inspiration
This heart-centered leadership model is challenging enough. Using it during the formation of a new organization in an embryonic market filled with misinformation was daunting. Pamela was confident, however, because her style had evolved over a many years and different career phases. Her path in heart-centered leadership began in High School, where she had a drama teacher that called upon her to learn a new character role in only a few days to step in for a student who had abandoned the play. In the skillful hands of that director, Pamela discovered abilities she didn’t have and she watched him also draw performances from actors who had no idea they could act. That inspired her to pursue a career in the Performing Arts and to acquire the skills of a stage director. She says, “I learned that pulling together lights, sound, and whatever talent pool showed up for auditions, then revising the script to accommodate what I had to work with for that production – that process itself was the performance. Great results are self-evident to an audience if the creative process is treated as the reason for the effort.”

Whom do we serve?
Among the many debates by the ICF board members, the debate about the definition of “customer” for the ICF gave rise to a number of operational impacts. They argued:who is our client? Our members? The profession itself? The clients of the coach? What about the training organizations and schools? In the end, it was agreed that the membership of the ICF was the customer. But it was also agreed that no major decisions could be made without considering the impact on the stakeholders who helped make the ICF possible. This was easy to say but hard to implement. For example, the training organizations were often inadvertently left out of decisions and forgotten in important communications regarding changes to the emerging credentialing standards and processes. Though never intentionalt it caused unwanted friction. After years of practice, the ICF now has implemented a thorough decision making and communication protocol to consult with or inform stakeholders as required to ensure a smoother operation.

Having said all that, the ICF had a parallel mission it could not shirk. While the ICF had defined its membership as the customer and organizing principle, the ICF also had to educate the marketplace on professional coaching and what standards clients should seek in a professional coach. As a result, the ICF had to consider the clients of the coach as part of its stakeholder base. By that definition, most of humanity is a stakeholder which made segmentation for messaging a monstrous challenge that the ICF still grapples with today.

Know thyself
One of the operating challenges facing the ICF board in the early days was that the board members were experts in the practice of coaching and their own business, they were not necessarily experts in building a non-profit organization, professional association, or standards body. Pamela recalls, “The professional coaching process can fall short when trying to run a business.” A business management team needs to make decisions, take risks, evaluate performance, set objectives, and manage plans. Coaching can help you do all those things better but a coach doesn’t take those actions for the client. So in the same way that a sales associate promoted to manager suddenly finds himself not quite as competent at leading a team as he was selling the product, the ICF leadership team found its core competencies in coaching not completely sufficient to build and run a coaching federation. “We had hired a management firm and later hired an independent consultant to conduct a business audit of operational and governance processes and to establish benchmarks for performance.” This led to a management overhaul run by operational experts that set the stage for the growth that the ICF has enjoyed ever since.

Handling dissent
In her role as ICF President, Pamela had to travel the world and work with many different people. She learned to enjoy them all “even the grumpy ones because I came to see that their dissent led to insights that would not have come forward without them. The only times I really was irked was dealing with those who were stuck on only one way of looking at possible solutions.” When I asked her how she overcame this, she said “retaining self control. Not jumping into a debate; giving the dissenter and naysayer the opportunity to be fully heard: To fully make their case and to acknowledge their input.” Then she could say “Thank you for making that clear. And in addition to that well explained view, there are perhaps other ways to look at this…” which provided her a free and clear platform to allow someone else to make a case for the plan that caused the dissent in the first place.

Source of Joy
In all her travels to build and promote the ICF globally, Pamela discovered that no matter what country she was in, no matter how different the culture or challenges were the same principals of good business applied. Business is conducted among human beings and the most successful approach is asking “How can I help?” In Korea, significant focus of the ICF was on serving students who came to their first jobs already suffering burn-out after years of intense pressure to compete in school. By contrast in Bogota, significant focus of the ICF was on creating sustainable economic growth among the poor. In each place that ICF members worked, the basic intention was the same – helping other people succeed in their endeavors – and in each place that simple intention came alive in exciting, different activities. This inspired Pamela to work even harder to build the ICF and to share those many different approaches and common insights everywhere she travelled.

A Challenge
There is one insight that came from this conversation with Pamela about leadership that serves as a challenge to all leaders. A heart-centered leadership model requires a simple focus that anyone can apply immediately. Know yourself completely. Know your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and fears. Inspire others to step up and achieve greatness. And then have the courage to allow others to explore and express their own vision for your organization.

© 2008 BlueSeven Partners, LLC