Different Perspectives = Learning

The Lean Startup Challenge is at its halfway point at the time of this posting. I decided to take on the role of co-chair this year, upping my involvement after the inaugural challenge last year. It’s been, at times, a stressful responsibility yet its also been very fulfilling experience and I, myself, have learned a bunch along the way.

If it sounds like I’m slightly surprised, it’s because I am. Lean Startup Challenge is all about startups entering to ‘get lean’ by implementing a rather disciplined and scientific approach to growing their businesses with limited time and resources. With a required weekly report and only 4 weeks of iterations, the program is designed to accelerate the learning curve. But I didn’t anticipate the level of learning that I would go through as an organizer.

First and foremost, the LSC is its own business operation unto itself. And just as teams are talking to customers, validating assumptions, gleaning insights, I’m doing the same except my customers are the contestants. My product is the 4 week challenge. I’m getting feedback on what’s working and what’s not. We’re trying to iterate and improve each week as organizers. My co-chairs and team talk multiple times a week to gather our learnings and make tweaks (or in some cases larger changes). It’s important that I eat my own dog food, otherwise I believe there would be a question of legitimacy in what we do.

Secondly, as I watch teams go through the process, I’ve observed a pattern. Its related to the latter half of a post I put up on the LSC blog based on Professor Eisenmann’s (LSC’s kickoff keynote speaker) warning to avoid ego defensive behaviors. It’s a common pitfall. We can focus on adjusting the room temperature when the building is on fire because it feels hot. Nobody likes to be wrong. And no one likes to fail. When we have new ideas, they present opportunities to win and prove we were right and how smart we are. But the reality is that when we get brutally honest is when we’re poised to glean the most insights.

Lastly, it’s an interesting perspective to be at a bird’s eye view observing the progress of over 35 teams. Seeing what various actions are driving traction for contestants has been valuable. Culture Adapt wasted no time in going from concept to generating revenue. ZappRx has moved quickly in pulling a group of beta users together in its efforts to tackle big problems in healthcare. These are just two of our contestants that come to mind but there is lots of really impressive work being done by all our teams this year and its not only been a great experience to have front row seats but its also provided valuable learning for me as well.

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Blanket Approaches

The New York Times recently published an article about mobile advertising which included an interview with a media director from Goodby Silverstein & Partners. The media director actually describes how she tells clients not to bother advertising in mobile. This is a blanket approach and very rarely have I seen it work.

Having just spent the summer working with a great team at one of the most exciting new mobile advertising startups, Adelphic Mobile, I couldn’t help from addressing the NYT piece. Many of the points made are legitimate. Tracking in mobile has its limitations. There is much more supply than there is demand causing prices to depress. But beyond that, there’s not much I agree with from this piece.

Mobile provides dimensions of location and context that are unparalleled compared to desktop, TV or other media experiences. And while the technology has made leaps and bounds in the last few years, it still has a way to go to fully unlock this potential.

I would also back the claim that size matters but so does the degree of engagement. I can be in front of a 52″ TV and completely disregard an ad being aired. I can also be sitting in front of a 17″ external desktop monitor and not register a banner as floating next to my desired content. But when I am on my phone and an ad takes over my full screen, I am fully aware. Or if I’m reading NYT on my iPhone and an iAd rotates in the 320×50 ad unit, it catches my eye.

The point is, it’s all about context. Should a dishwasher manufacturer spend in mobile? Perhaps not in today’s world (but that could change as technology advances). Should a film studio invest in mobile the week of a new release particularly on movie related mobile websites and app? I believe it’d be a missed opportunity not to.

One size doesn’t fit all and a blanket approach is limiting. But given that few other mediums promise timely, targeted, contextual, geo-based ads at scale, I remain bullish on mobile’s future. And in the mean time, I’d suggest to see what fits rather than throw out the entire spring collection.

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The Role And Value of Connectors

Startup Babson launched recently and myself along with a handful of driven people from Babson are working to help create a more cohesive community. With the launch of our student (alum too) run effort, it’s had me thinking a lot about communities, the purpose they serve and the role people play within them.

As a founding member representing the two year MBA program, I look at my role largely as a connector. In the spirit of wanting to be a good connector, I wanted to break down what the role of a connector is and what real value connectors deliver.

Before I began my career in business school I worked as a marketer, and having read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I’ve always regarded connectors as influencers. These are the people who stay on top of what’s new, what’s happening and can then disseminate that info to the next wave of adopters. But I wanted to expand on that so I asked the Twitterverse for some input.

Jason Evanish, co-founder of GreenhornConnect, had this to say;

“it’s the glue that holds the community together. Without connectors we are all the dorky guy at the middle school dance.”

My buddy and fellow Babsonite, Ryan Dawidjan, remarked that connectors should…

“Be the center or medium for the exchange of value between individuals/groups. The ‘pivot point’”

Two great answers. Ryan’s response speaks to the role of a connector while Jason spells out the value. Communities need glue. There are a lot of heads-down, hard working startupers who are too focused on shipping and are strapped for time when it comes to hitting the ‘be-seen’ events. In effect, they are the wall flowers at the middle school dance. Sometimes it takes a connector to refer the entrepreneur’s product or service to someone expressing a need. Or perhaps its a recruiting referral when the connector runs into someone with the right skill set. Business partnerships, investor tip, there are a tons of different ways to make a connection and help exchange value.

Ryan also nailed a piece of being a good connector. “Be the center.” Connectors exist in the middle, serving as a conduit to catalyze that value exchange. This made me think of the idea of synergy in that the combined effect of two parties is greater than their individual efforts. How many great companies would Boston be churning out if everyone was working to catalyze more value exchanges?

With that as a framework, I still wanted to think through what it takes to be a good connector. I don’t believe this is a role reserved for certain personality traits who were born networkers. With some effort and conscious action, anyone can do it.  After a little brain storming, here are a few points IMO that seem integral to becoming a good connector

  1. Keep on top of what’s going on:
    1. Read… a lot. Keep up to date with local journalists, bloggers and Twitter feeds who are plugged into your startup ecosystem.
    2. Attend events… as much as you can. Network and talk to people about what they’re working on. Ask about what has captured their interest lately or new companies they’ve heard of
  2. Build your network: Related to 1b, the more exchanges you have with people, the more likely you’ll be to successfully create a connection.
  3. Make introductions: Even if you’re unsure if there’s a potential exchange, no one will fault you for trying to help. But don’t start introducing a founder to your neighbor’s son because they have similar eye colors. Have a conception of a good fit. After a while when people recognize that you’re a person who makes connections and adds value, you will begin to become a source for folks.
  4. Anticipate: This is what establishes Jedi status connection skills. Try to anticipate someone’s inexplicit needs before it becomes explicit and make a connection to help serve that need.
  5. Read part 1 again.

What’s in it for me you ask? Good point. Altruism may be good for the next life, but we all have to eat in the here and now. The reality is, if you’re making valuable connections for people and are actively doing 1-5 above, it’s doubtful you’ll ever be left unemployed or unfinanced.

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