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One of my favorite acronyms of all time is IHTFP. Its originated at MIT in the 1950s and has achieved widespread adoption. And yes, it does actually stand for I Hate This Fucking Place, which as any MIT alumni will tell you, is part of the beauty of the MIT experience.
Today, I was in a meeting helping a CEO work on an upcoming investor pitch and told him that his problem was that he wasn’t getting to the fucking point. I scribbled down GTTFP. I just looked it up and lo and behold a new FLA (the cousin of the famed TLA) has now entered my vocabulary. It’s got nice onomatopoeia if you say it just right.
I’m on the receiving end of people who can’t seem to GTTFP multiple times a day. It’s especially true when someone is trying to create false intimacy at the beginning of a conversation, is using ancient sales techniques like the endless rhetorical question to try to build agreement from me, or is simply in a “tell rather than show” mode where they figure that if they beat me over the head with words I’ll read the conclusion they are trying to beat me over the head with.
Now, GTTFP is different than bloviating. While I don’t think I actually bloviate, I’ll often suggest that someone has just been on the end of a rant or a space jam of mine, which I often refer to as a good bloviate on my part. However, my bloviating almost always is storytelling – where I’m trying to give an example, or a lot of examples, by “showing rather than telling” to make a point.
But GTTFP is just an avoidance of actually getting to the point. Or its a ramble that doesn’t focus on what is trying to be communicated. Or it’s an effort to build connection in advance of making a point, which often comes across as saccarine.
Enough – GTTFP. Which is to say, simply, GTTFP.
The Boulder TechStars program is in week three and the intensity level is high. The TechStars office is across the hall from ours at Foundry Group and it’s wild to see the level of activity ramp up during the three months that TechStars Boulder is in session.
I’m trying a new thing this program and doing a weekly CEO-only meeting. I’ve been trying to figure out a new way to engage with each program other than mentoring a team or two, and have been looking for a high leverage activity that I could do remotely for all of the other programs. My current experiment is an hour a week with all of the CEOs in a completely confidential meeting, but a peer meeting so each of them gets to talk about what they are struggling with to help solve each other’s problems as well as learn from each other.
We’ve done two of these meetings in Boulder and I love it so far. I’ll run this experiment for the whole program, learn from it, and iterate. If it works, I’ll scale it across all the programs.
Yesterday I also finished up my first set of 1:1 meetings with all of the teams. In my 1:1 meetings, I try to keep them very short – 15 minutes – and focus on what is “top of mind“. I learn more from this and can help more precisely than if I spent 30 minutes getting a generic pitch, which will likely change dramatically anyway through the course of TechStars. So each of these top of mind drills is “up to 5 minutes telling me about your company” and “10 minutes talking about whatever is top of mind.”
By the third week, I notice what I call “pitch fatigue” setting in. I think every entrepreneur should have several short pitches that they can give anytime, in any context, on demand.
- 15 seconds: Three sentences – very tight “get me interested in you” overview.
- 60 seconds: What do you you, who do you do it to, why do I care?
- 5 minutes: Lead with the 60 seconds, then go deeper.
- 15 minutes: Full high level pitch
- 30 minutes: Extended presentation that has more details
Bt week three, the teams are still fighting through getting the 15 second and 60 second pitch nailed. That’s fine, but there’s emotional exhaustion in even trying for some of them. The founders have said some set of words so many times that they are tired. The emotion of what they are doing is out of the pitch. Their enthusiasm is muted – not for the business, but for describing it.
Recently I was on the receiving end of a description from an entrepreneur, who has a great idea that I love, that had the emotional impact a TSA inspection at the airport. He was going through the motions with almost zero emotional content. At the end of it, I said one sentence - ”Don’t get sick of telling your story.” I then went deeper on what I meant.
He responded by email later that day:
Thanks for articulating what was going on in my head. I think I was getting burnt out from telling the same story to so many mentors. I need to stay focused and stick with the story that worked well the first 40 meetings. I also need to be careful that the lack of “freshness” doesn’t affect how passionate and energetic I come across. Timing for this realization couldn’t be better given our upcoming fundraising trip.
I’ve done an enormous amount of pitching and fundraising over the years. When we raised our first Foundry Group fund in 2007, I did 90 meetings in three months before we got our first investor commitment. By meeting 87, after hearing no a lot (we got about 30 no’s out of the first 90 meetings before we got a yes) I was definitely had pitch fatigue. But every time I told it, I brought the same level of intensity, emotion, optimism, and belief that I did the first time I told it. Today, six years later, when I describe what we are doing and why we are doing it, and why you should care, I’m just as focused on getting the message across as I ever have been. And I never get tired of telling our story.
For the past two days I’ve been at an even called SERGE (Seasoned Entrepreneurs Gathering Exchange). I co-founded it with two long time friends, Martin Babinec (founder of Trinet) and Keith Alper (founder of Creative Producers Group). Martin, Keith and I have known each other since the mid-1990s when we were much younger entrepreneurs playing leadership roles at the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (now simply “EO”).
We each invited about ten entrepreneurs and their partners to the event. 50 people showed up – 25 entrepreneurs and their partners – and we spent two days on Miami Beach hanging out and covering a lot of different topics. All of us were between the ages of 40 and 50 (+/- a few years), have each had at least one successful business, and were from all over the US and in plenty of different industries.
We had a solid 12 hours spread over two days in a conference room where the following eight topics were discussed.
- How Will You Measure Your Life?
- Mentor Manifesto
- Impact in the Public Interest – Doing Something That Matters
- Finding and Managing High Impact Board Members
- B Corps – Leveraging Social Purpose To Drive A Business
- Setting Up Family Office to Manage Diversified Portfolio
- Leading the Team: CEO Habits That Set The Pace
- Maximizing Impact of Your Angel Investing
One of led on each topic (for example, I kicked things off with “How Will You Measure Your Life?” – talked for about 15 – 30 minutes, and then facilitated a discussion for the balance of an hour.
It was amazing. If you’ve ever been in an organization like YEO, YPO, EO, Birthing of Giants, or Gathering of Titans, it was like a “super forum”. Two days with peers, talking confidentially and intimately about a wide range of issues, and getting to know each other at a different level. In this case, there were three intersecting groups (mine, Martin’s, and Keith’s) so you got the added bonus of meeting a set of new people that were highly vetted to be your peers that you could immediately trust and engage with.
Partners were included. Some – like Amy – participated for most of it. Others didn’t. This was the only big miss – we should have worked harder to include all the partners in the entire discussion, and have several of them lead topics. Next time.
Once again I was reminded of the power for entrepreneurs of spending time with your peers outside of the craziness of the daily schedule. 50 people invested two days of their life in this event – the feedback I’ve heard so far was awesome. And – for me personally – it was very rewarding.
If you are an entrepreneur, do yourself a favor and find a peer group. If you don’t know where to start, try Entrepreneurs Organization. You’ll thank me in 10 years.
I’ve spent the past two days at the Global Entrepreneurs Congress in Rio. It’s been really powerful for me as it’s shown how broadly the message of Startup Communities has taken hold across the world. At the point I can see that the Startup Communities movement is in full swing, the language and principles that I introduced in the book are being talked about, dissected, and improved on, and many entrepreneurs around the world are leading the development of the startup community in their city.
In a discussion with my long time friend Paul Kedrosky, we talked about a paper he’s writing about the number of “important companies” that get to $100 million in revenue. Our discussion shifted to the magic number – was $100m the right number for “important”, or was it $50m, or $25m, or even $10m. At some point we both realized it wasn’t about a magic number, but about the concept of “scaling up” a business once it had started up.
I’ve been hearing the phrase “scale up” a lot lately. The first time I noticed it being used was in Daniel Isenberg’s post Focus Entrepreneurship Policy on Scale-Up, Not Start-Up. While I didn’t agree with the tone of Daniel’s article, the meta-point, that we need to put more attention into focusing on scaling up businesses, range true with me.
I view the concept of startup and scale up as linked. You have to have a vibrant “startup community” to get to the point where you have enough interesting companies to “scale up.” Many geographies haven’t had enough focus on “startup.” That has dramatically shifted and entrepreneurs around the world understand what “startup” is, are learning and doing it, and a phenomenal amount of activity is happening around it.
So, I’m shifting my focus for the balance of 2013 on “scaling up.” Fortunately, I’ve got a great laboratory for this – the Foundry Group portfolio. Of the 55 active companies we’ve got in our portfolio, more than half are solidly in the “scale up” zone – some scaling very rapidly. In the same way that I used Boulder to form my thesis on Startup Communities, I’ll use our portfolio, and my activity with it, to form my thesis around scaling up. That’s where I’m going to turn my intellectual attention over the balance of the year.
This is consistent with the next three books in the Startup Revolution series – Startup CEO (written by Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path), Startup Boards (written by me and Mahendra Ramsinghani), and Startup Metrics (written by me and Seth Levine). Each of these are a lot more about “scaling up” than “starting up.”
As part of this, I’ve shut down all my travel for the rest of the year (starting in May, as I’ve got some commitments for the next six weeks that are too close in to cancel.) But I’m going to spending a lot more time in one physical place (Boulder), going deep on the notion of scaling up, while continuing to support the incredible energy around startups that has a wonderful and amazing life of its own.
I meet a lot of people. I hear a lot of people introduce themselves. I interview a lot of people. Sometimes I want to hear their story; most of the time I don’t.
I’ve realized recently that I’m tired of hearing histories. And I’m tired of telling mine. It’s easy to find out most by a simple search on the web. Or a scan through LinkedIn. Or listening to one of the video interviews I’ve done where someone has said “tell me your story.”
I was thinking about this especially in the context of any interview. I don’t care where you went to school (I never have). I don’t care what your first job was. I don’t care what happened 15 years ago. I care what you did yesterday, and last month, and last quarter, and last year. That’s probably as deep as I want to go in the first five minutes of our interview. Sure – I’ll go back further in specific examples, but I don’t need to spend the first fifteen minutes hearing your story from beginning to today. It lulls me into a false sense of complacency, making me feel like I know you better because I now know your version of your history, when in fact I don’t know you at all.
I’ve learned a lot about interviewing people over the years. I used to be terrible at it. Now I’m pretty good. I don’t enjoy it very much, so I force myself to do a good job. I only interview senior execs and I separate clearly between evaluating people for the role and evaluating them for culture fit with the company. But in both cases I feel like I have to grind through the process. Some of it is my introverted nature; some of it is just not enjoying the interviewing a person thing.
I’ve realized that spending half of an interview listening to someone tell me their story is a total cop out on my part. It lets me shift out of evaluate mode and be passive during the interview process. And, while a lot of people love to listen to themselves tell their story, it’s not doing them any good either since my goal is to make a recommendation as to whether or not they fit in the role and the organization they are interviewing for. I should be more focused on what they have learned over their career and how they apply it today, not the path they took to get to this point, which I can read on a resume or on LinkedIn.
I’m no longer interested in telling my own story. Each time I do it, I realize I am wasting another 15 minutes of my life. By starting with the now, and not worrying about going backward, I can get to the meat of whatever I’m communicating, or want to communicate. I’ll more quickly engage whomever I’m talking to – making the conversation immediately active instead of passive. When I need to reach into the past for a story to support an example, I will.
I’ve decided that going forward I’m telling my history in reverse chronological order whenever asked. I’ll start with what I am doing now. I’ll go backwards as relevant to the particular context. I’ll skip stuff that doesn’t matter, and I’ll stop when it’s time to go on. I expect my introductions will be a lot shorter going forward. And I’ll be less bored with myself. And that is a good thing, at least for me.