Posts Tagged 'Advice'

April 17, 2015

A Grandmother’s Advice for Startups: You Never Know ‘til You Ask

Today my grandmother turns 95. She's in amazing shape for someone who's nearly a century old. She drives herself around, does her own grocery shopping, and still goes to the beauty parlor every other week to get her hair set.

Growing up less than a mile from her and my granddad, we spent a lot of time with them over the years. Of all of the support, comfort, and wisdom they imparted to me over that time, one piece of advice from my grandmother has stood the test of time. No matter where I was in the world, or what I was doing, it has been relevant and helpful. That advice is:

You never know ‘til you ask.

Simple and powerful, it has guided me throughout my life. Here are some ways you can put this to work for you.

Ask for the Introduction
Whether you're fundraising, hiring, selling, or just looking for feedback, you need to expand your network to reach the right people. The best way to do this is through strategic introductions. In the Catalyst program, making connections is part of our offering to companies. Introductions are such a regular part of my work in the startup community. In my experience, people want to help other people, so as long as you're not taking advantage of it, ask for introductions. You're likely to get a nice warm introduction, which can lead to a meeting.

Ask for the Meeting
Now that you have that introduction, ask for a meeting with a purpose in mind. Even if you don't have an introduction, many people in the startup world are approachable with a cold email.

Guy Kawasaki, former chief evangelist for Apple, and author of 13 books including The Art of the Start 2.0, wrote a fantastic post, "The Effective Emailer," on how to craft that all-important message with your ask.

Another great take on the email ask is from venture capitalist Brad Feld, "If You Want a Response, Ask Specific Questions." This post offers advice on how not to approach someone. The title of the post says it all, if you want a response, ask a specific question.

Ask for the Sale
Many startup founders don't have sales experience and so often miss this incredibly simple, yet incredibly important part of sales: asking for the sale. Even in mass-market B2C businesses, you'll be surprised how easy and effective it is to ask people to sign up. Your first sales will be high-touch and likely require a big time investment from your team. But all of that work will go to waste if you don't say, "Will you sign up to be our customer?" And if the answer is a no, then ask, "What are the next steps for working with you?"

Empower Yourself
It's empowering to ask for something that you want. This is the heart of my grandmother's advice. She is and has always been an empowered woman. I believe a big part of that came from not being afraid to ask for what she wanted. As long as you're polite and respectful in your approach, step up and ask.

The opposite of this is to meekly watch the world go by. If you do not ask, it will sweep you away on other people's directions. This is the path to failure as an entrepreneur.

The way to empower yourself in this world starts with asking for what you want. Whether it's something as simple as asking for a special order at a restaurant or as big as asking for an investment, make that ask. After all, you'll never know unless you ask.


March 20, 2015

Startups: Always Be Hiring

In late 2014, I was at a Denver job fair promoting an event I was organizing, NewCo Boulder. All the usual suspects of the Colorado tech community were there; companies ranging in size from 50 to 500 employees. It's a challenge to stand out from the crowd when vying for the best talent in this competitive job market, so the companies had pop-up banners, posters, swag of every kind on the table, and swarms of teams clad in company t-shirts to talk to everyone who walked by.

Nestled amid the dizzying display of logos was MediaNest, a three-person, pre-funding startup in the Catalyst program, at the time they were in the Boomtown Boulder fall 2014 cohort. What the heck was a scrappy startup doing among the top Colorado tech companies? In a word: hiring.

MediaNest was there to hire for three roles: front end developer, back end developer, and sales representative. They were there to double the size of their team ... when they had the money. In the war for talent, they started early and were doing it right.

I've often heard VCs (venture capitalists) and highly successful startup CEOs say the primary roles for a startup CEO are to always keep money in the bank and butts in seats. Both take tremendous time and energy, and they go hand-in-hand. It takes months to close a funding round, and similarly, it takes months to fill roles with the right people. If you're just getting started with hiring once that money is in the bank, you're starting from a deficit, burning capital, and straining resources while you get the recruiting gears going.

The number one resource for startup hiring is personal networks. Start with your friends and acquaintances and let everyone know you're looking to fill specific roles, even as you're out raising the capital to pay them. As the round gets closer to closing, intensify your efforts and expand your reach.

But what happens if you find someone perfect before you’re ready to hire them? Julien Khaleghy, CEO of MediaNest, says, "It's a tricky question. We will tend to be generous on the equity portion and conservative on the salary portion. If a comfortable salary is a requirement for the person, we will lock them for our next round of funding."

MediaNest wasn’t funded when I saw them in Denver, and they weren’t ready to make offers, so why attend a job fair? Khaleghy adds, based on his experience as CEO, "It's actually a good thing to show a letter of intent to hire someone when you are raising money."

At that job fair in Denver, MediaNest, with its simple table and two of the co-founders present, was just as busy that day as the companies with a full complement of staff giving away every piece of imaginable swag. I recommend following their example and getting ahead of the hiring game.

As long as you're successful, you'll never stop hiring. So start today.


March 26, 2013

Should My Startup Join an Accelerator/Incubator Program?

As part of my role at SoftLayer, I have the opportunity and privilege to mentor numerous entrepreneurs and startup teams when they partner with us through our Catalyst program. One question I hear often is, "Should I join an accelerator?" My answer: "That all depends." Let's look at the five lessons entrepreneurs should learn before they decide to join a startup accelerator or incubator program.

Lesson 1: The founders must be committed to the success of their venture.
Joining an accelerator or incubator comes with some strings attached — startups give up between 6 to 10 percent of their equity in exchange for some cash and structured program that usually lasts around three months. Obviously, this kind of commitment should not be taken lightly.

Too often, startups join accelerator programs before they are ready or mature enough as a team. Sometimes, a company's idea isn't fully baked, so they end up spending as much time "creating" their business as they do "accelerating" it. As a result, that company isn't able to leverage an accelerator's resources efficiently throughout the entire program ... The founders need to establish a vision for the business, begin laying the groundwork for the company's products and services, and be 100% committed to the accelerator program before joining. If you can't say with confidence that your startup meets all three of those requirements, don't do it. Take care of those three points and proceed to the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Be prepared to leverage what you are given.
Many startups join accelerator and incubator programs with unrealistic expectations. Participation in these programs — even the most exclusive and well-known ones — by no means guarantees that you'll raise additional money or have a successful exit. These programs provide startups with office space, free cloud services, and access to mentors, investors, recruiters and media ... Those outstanding services provide participating startups with a distinct competitive advantage, but they don't serve up success on a silver platter. If you aren't ready work tirelessly to leverage the benefits of a startup program, don't bother.

Lesson 3: Take advice and criticism well; mentors are trying to help.
"Mentorship" is very tough to qualify, and criticism is difficult to take ... Especially if you're 100% committed to your business and you don't want to be told that you've done something wrong. Mentors in these startup programs have "been there and done that," and they wouldn't be in a mentorship position if they weren't looking out for your best interest and the ultimate success of your company.

Look programs that take mentorship seriously and can provide a broad range of expertise from strategy to marketing and business development to software architecture to building and scaling IT infrastructure. Then be intentional about listening to the people around you.

Lesson 4: Do your research and make an informed decision.
With the proliferation of startups globally, we're also seeing an evolution in the accelerator ecosystem. There are a number accelerators being positioned to help support founders with ideas on a global, regional and local basis, but it's important to evaluate a program's vision with its execution of that vision. Not all startup programs are created equal, and some might not offer the right set of resources and opportunities for your team. When you're giving up equity in your company, you should have complete confidence that the accelerator or incubator you join will deliver on its side of the deal.

Lesson 5: Leverage the network and community you will meet.
When you've done your homework, applied and been accepted to the perfect startup program, meet everyone you can and learn from them. One of the most tangible benefits of joining an accelerator is the way you can fast track a business idea while boosting network contacts. Much in the way someone chooses a prestigious college or joins a fraternity, some of the most valuable resources you'll come across in these programs are the people you meet. In this way, accelerators and incubators are becoming a proxy for undergrad and graduate school ... The appeal for promising entrepreneurs is simple: Why wait to make a dent in the universe? Today, more people are going to college and fewer are landing well-paying jobs after graduation, so some of the world's best and brightest are turning to these communities and foregoing the more structured "higher education" process.

Even if your startup is plugging along smoothly, a startup accelerator or incubator program might be worth a look. Venture capitalists often trust programs like TechStars and 500 Startups to filter or vet early stage companies. If your business has the stamp of approval from one of these organizations, it's decidedly less risky than a business idea pitched by a random entrepreneur.

If you understand each of these lessons and you take advantage of the resources and opportunities provided by startup accelerators and incubators, the sky is the limit for your business. Now get to work.

Class dismissed.


October 16, 2011

Advice for the Non-Experienced Tradeshow Traveler

SoftLayer attends 60+ tradeshows a year. That may not sound like much too some people, but when it means you're only home for six days in a given month, it's pretty daunting. Some think that going to a tradeshow is a "free" min-vacation, but in reality it's exhausting work. You'll get lucky at a few shows where the booth time is only 4-6 hours, but most of the time, you're on the hook for 8 or 9 hours. You never know how much you use your leg muscles by just standing until you do it for nine straight hours. After being on your feet for that long, the first thing you want to do when the show closes is go to dinner just so you can sit down. Now think about doing this for three or four days in a row, and it doesn't sound like a vacation anymore.

Before I turn you off tradeshows altogether, I should admit that they are actually quite fun if you're a people person. I love getting to meet new people and show them what SoftLayer has to offer. It's a rewarding experience to see that light in someone's eyes who has never heard of SoftLayer and then finds out how we can make their business better. I can't help but think to myself, "Yeah, we are kind of a big deal." :-)

Given my extensive experience in the conference and tradeshow realm, here are a few key pieces of advice for the non-experienced SoftLayer tradeshow traveler (adjust for your brand as necessary):


  • Guys should wear black slacks with a polo or button down. For the more casual shows, nice jeans (no rips, tears or holes) and any kind of SoftLayer shirt is fine.
  • Girls should wear black slacks or a black skirt with a polo or button down ... And now you have the option of a SoftLayer dress.
  • It's always a good idea to wear slacks the first day to "test the waters" of the attire for the show. After that, you can plan your next day's attire accordingly.
  • Always wear black shoes. Girls do NOT wear high heels ... You will regret it 30 minutes into the first day. An great alternative for the ladies are black flats, these will look great with pants, a skirt, or a SoftLayer dress.
  • Sometimes it gets extremely cold in the conference hall, so I suggest bringing a jacket – even if it's 110 degrees outside. When wearing a jacket over your attire, make it one of the branded SoftLayer jackets – a SoftLayer logo should be visible at all times so attendees know you're not a random stranger in the SoftLayer booth.


  • I know how easy it can be to get carried away when other attendees get a little wild, but that is NO excuse to be late, completely absent or operating at less than 100% when you get to the booth the next day.
  • You should always have a smile on your face when talking with attendees. You're talking about great stuff when you're talking about SoftLayer, so you should be happy to share it with the next potential SoftLayer customer.
  • This should go without saying, but there should be NO cursing, yelling or arguing with anyone at the booth.

Last but not Least
The number ONE rule for the non-experienced traveler: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS know your stuff before going to a tradeshow. Nothing is more embarrassing for your colleagues (or SoftLayer in general) when you are asked a simple question about what SoftLayer does and you do not know. If you do not know something, ask a colleague or simply look on our website. We have plenty of information there and numerous datasheets that explain in detail the products and services SoftLayer offers.


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