3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

3 Lessons Learned From a Young Entrepreneur’s First Pitch

Communication Pitch Preparation

When Joshua, our young entrepreneur, was 17 years old he had an opportunity to pitch his product idea to two experienced entrepreneurs who had just left a successful company to start their own development and digital marketing firm.  These guys were well known and respected in their field.  Initially, they agreed to speak with Joshua as a favor to me to help us decide whether Joshua’s app idea was viable and worth pursuing.  Joshua sent them some information on his product and business plan, and they all three eventually ended up around our kitchen table to discuss it.  They quickly realized that Joshua had done his homework.  He knew the market, the customer segments, how to implement and market the product, and he thoroughly understood the technology that would deliver the features that customers wanted.  He was prepared, and because he was, he earned their respect and got their attention with his pitch.

So what can young entrepreneurs learn from his experience?

  1. Know the product – Joshua spent hundreds of hours researching phone technology, app features, and UX/UI design before this meeting. He had the original idea when he was 15 but didn’t have the coding experience to do it himself.  As part of his pitch, he had simulated screen shots, a list of features that he knew, based on his coding and phone technology research, could be developed, and some customer data to help validate whether this was something potential customers would be interested in.
  1. Know the market – Joshua’s idea was an app that combined the features of console based first person shooter games and outdoor games like paintball and airsoft. This was a hybrid product that didn’t exactly fit in either existing market.  Instead, if successful, it could create a whole new market that combined the most popular features of games in the two existing markets.  Essentially, he had to research both markets and understand everything there was to know about crossover gamers who were active in both console and outdoor gaming.  Further, he needed to understand what it would take for gamers who played only in one market to cross over to the other.
  1. Know how to communicate your idea – Having a good idea is not enough. Lots of good ideas never see the light of day because their originators can’t create a compelling story that explains in simple terms what their product does, why it matters, and also gets customers excited about it.  Knowing your audience and hours and hours of practice are the keys to making this work.

Ultimately, the two guys Joshua pitched around our kitchen table, Joe Saumweber and Michael Paladino, the cofounders of RevUnit, liked his product idea.  They were impressed that he already knew the answers to tough questions about the product, market, and development plan.  Their confidence in Joshua’s ability to make this work grew as the conversation continued.  So much so that they eventually agreed to become cofounders in Innovis Labs and build the product with Joshua.

THE TAKEAWAY:  Despite the apparent overnight successes in startup land, there is no substitute for the hard work it takes to be successful.  Thousands of hours of research on product development, market research, pitch practice, etc . . . .  Turns out that the old saying about luck being the result of when preparation meets opportunity is actually true.  Opportunity is often serendipitous and you can’t always create it.  However, there is no excuse for not being prepared and that is completely up to us.

2.5 Keys to Balancing the Roles of Parent and Business Advisor

2.5 Keys to Balancing the Roles of Parent and Business Advisor

Communication Parenting Relationships

The challenge of being both a parent and business advisor to a young entrepreneur is formidable.  Keeping the parent-child relationship and the business advisor-entrepreneur relationships separated was, at least for us, a major challenge.

We always viewed our jobs as parents as that of teachers, spiritual guides, counselors, confidantes and disciplinarians.  Our parenting style is a very hands-on, values and rules oriented, sometimes in-your-face approach.  While we welcomed hearing the opinions of our kids most of the time, ultimately, we tried to guide them in learning how to make good decisions on their own and made those decisions for them when necessary, usually much to their displeasure.  However, being a business advisor was a completely different kind of relationship with Joshua, our young entrepreneur.  I saw my role as helping to educate, advise and connect.  I didn’t do things for him and I didn’t make business decisions.  In my view, that was part of his learning process.  He needed to own what he was doing.  It was on him to educate himself about product development and business, and somehow balance all that with school.  It was a test of his passion and his drive to succeed.  It was the only way I knew to prepare him for the challenges of an entrepreneurial life.  He had to succeed or fail on his own merits.

Here are some of the things we did to make it all work:

1.  We kept our business and family conversations separate – We learned the hard way that we needed to do this. Joshua and I found ourselves mixing many of our normal family conversations with business discussions.  The stress this put on our relationship resulted in some rather heated interactions.  Gwen, my wife and Joshua’s mom, was inadvertently thrust into the roles of referee and peace maker.  We all knew we had to do something different and Joshua and I began to plan our business conversations just like any other business meeting.  We did our best not to discuss business at other times especially family meals or when we were around extended family and friends.  

2.  My business advisor role was confined to educating, questioning, advising and connecting – I don’t believe I ever told Joshua what business decisions to make. I did the best I could to help him figure it out by understanding his options and the potential outcomes.  Most of the time he sorted it out and made a sound decision.  He learned to make decisions without all the information he really needed.  He also learned to own the outcomes of his bad decisions.

2.5  You have to watch them fail – This fits closely with #2 and it was a tough one.  To allow your child, excuse me – my business advisee, to make a bad decision that you know will have a negative impact on him is one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do.  The parent side of me wanted to nurture him and step in to take over before it all went south.  Unfortunately, failure is part of learning and is sometimes the only way to get the really important lessons in life.  As a teenager, Joshua was also trying to carve out his own place in the world and be independent.  He thought he knew more than he did sometimes.  Teenage naiveté and an entrepreneurial ego are not always a good combination. My philosophy was that it is okay for young entrepreneurs to hit the ground once in a while.  My job as an advisor was to make sure he hit the ground hard enough to get his attention, and hopefully learn how not to make the same mistake twice, but not so hard that he didn’t want to get up and try again.  Hard to watch and hard to manage but I’m convinced that this is the only way certain young entrepreneurs will learn some of life’s most important lessons.  Always having a soft landing doesn’t teach us much.

THE TAKEAWAY – It is impossible to completely separate the roles of parent and business advisor with a young entrepreneur.  However, with a bit a structure, strategy and everyone understanding their role, it can be managed successfully.  There were times when I felt I was too tough on Joshua.  I told him once that “if he survived me he would be prepared for just about anything life might throw at him”.  I guess you’ll have to ask him how it all turned out.

3 Keys to Good Communication in an Entrepreneurial Family

3 Keys to Good Communication in an Entrepreneurial Family

Communication Parenting Relationships

As our entrepreneurial son, Joshua, and I became more intertwined in business, issues began to arise regarding our communication as a family.  Joshua and I talked about business frequently.  Those conversations began to replace family conversations about school, friends, and how things were going with others in the family.  Compounding this issue was the fact that we were speaking the language of business, a foreign language to my wife, our daughter, and many of our friends and family.  Joshua and I had unintentionally isolated ourselves from people we loved and the world around us.  This was clearly not sustainable and we had to make some changes.

This is what we did:

  1. Schedule business conversations – Joshua and I found ourselves mixing many of our normal family conversations with business conversations. It all came to a head one day when I praised him for doing a great job at an investor pitch and then proceeded to chew him out for not picking up his room and getting his school work done.  Those kinds of surprise twists and turns that could happen in almost any conversation put us both on edge.  Gwen, my wife and Joshua’s mom, was inadvertently thrust into the role of peace maker.  At that point, we all knew we had to do something different.  Joshua and I began to plan our business conversations just like any other business meeting.  We did our best not to discuss business at other times and especially avoided talking about business during family meals or when we were around extended family and friends.
  1. Educate those closest to you in the language of business – If entrepreneurship is a major part of your life and who you are, you owe it to those closest to you to involve them in conversations about what you are doing. Unfortunately, most people aren’t familiar with the language of business.  Even if they have a traditional business background, they may not be familiar with the language of the startup community.  This lack of a common language made Gwen, a great elementary school teacher, feel isolated from the entrepreneurial life.  Had she and Joshua been working together on an education project, I would have had the same struggle.   She felt embarrassed when she couldn’t explain to her friends and coworkers exactly what Joshua was doing.  Joshua and I had to be intentional about involving Gwen in some of the casual business discussions that popped up in normal conversation.  We also made sure that we either explained the terminology we were using or used more common terms to help Gwen be more engaged in what we were talking about.   Once we did a better job of involving her in the entrepreneurial life, she felt more comfortable talking to others about it and we found that she contributed great insight from time to time regarding people, relationships and communication.  Her insight was, and still is, very valuable.
  1. Provide routine updates – In the fast paced world of a startup, events and transactions occurred daily about which Joshua and I neglected to inform his mom.  There was no daily briefing so when she dipped into the startup world every few days she felt lost. “So when did that happen” she would ask in frustration.  As if that trend was not enough to make a mother feel sad and out of touch, because Joshua and I spoke multiple times a day on business topics, I was also the parent that he informed about everything else that was going on with school, friends, where he was and where he was going.  It was up to me to keep Gwen informed and I did a poor job of this and, at times, still do.  This had the effect of putting a strain on the relationship between Joshua and his mother and also on my relationship with my wife.  Not good.  As the saying goes, “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”.  Other than my relationship with God, my relationship with Gwen is the most important one in my life.  If it’s bumpy, everything else just gets harder.  That’s why, when we realized how this journey was changing all of our relationships, we made a point of doing a better job of involving everyone in routine updates on business and family matters.

THE TAKEAWAY – Many books have been written and studies done on how important good communication is to being successful in business.  It is equally important with young entrepreneurs and their families.  Raising an entrepreneur is a bit like running a startup company.  It takes a team to be successful and if that team isn’t engaged and communicating with one another, the journey will be unpleasant and the odds of success will be significantly diminished.

Managing Communication:  Entrepreneurship vs Normal Life

Managing Communication: Entrepreneurship vs Normal Life

Communication

This post is inspired by a recent lack of communication between my wife, Gwen, and me.  It reminded me of how we had to manage communication with Joshua, our young entrepreneur.  At first, we didn’t realize there was an issue, but a couple of confrontations identified the problem.  We had to figure out how to talk to each other all over again.

I was Joshua’s parent, business adviser and educator.  The problem was that the conversations on all these topics would run together and get very convoluted.  I found myself praising him for a great pitch to investors in one breath and chewing him out for his room being a mess in the next.  Gwen was not always in on some of our business conversations, which was another issue we dealt with, and would expect Joshua to be responsible for some school or family task without knowing Joshua and I had agreed on some other prioritization of his time.  It was confusing and frustrating for all of us.  We had to do something different.  We were all living two different lives, the normal one with school, family and friends, and the business one with product development, meetings, pitches and investors.  It was challenging, tiring and incredibly exciting.

Here’s what we did.  We treated business conversations like a business meeting.  We had certain times of the day devoted to business discussions, and planned topic focused conversations just like any other business meeting.  When casual conversation morphed into business, we had to all be conscious of what was happening and decide whether to table it and schedule a business conversation.  Gwen limited our business conversations during our family dinner.  She said that was a family activity and she was absolutely right.  She helped us set boundaries and priorities.

Yes, it was weird and a bit hard to get used to.  However, without compartmentalizing and organizing our conversations, chaos ensued that had a negative impact on our family.  With faith and family as top priorities for us, this was an unacceptable consequence.

THE TAKEAWAY: Good communication is critical for businesses and families to be successful.  It is important that communication issues be recognized and dealt with immediately.  Allowing poor communication to fester will undermine our friendships, families and businesses.

3 Ways Clear Communication Can Help Entrepreneurs Avoid Confusion

3 Ways Clear Communication Can Help Entrepreneurs Avoid Confusion

Communication

I can’t stress enough how important communication skills are for entrepreneurs.  These skills are, of course, generally important in life and business but that importance is magnified when trying to describe how a new technology or product works, why it matters and how the company intends to make money selling it.

I routinely see pitches from entrepreneurs and listen to them describe their product, market, business model and growth plans.  Below are a few key areas that we must get right for successful communication to occur.

  1. Clear, concise, precise speech – We cannot let our speech patterns get in the way of the message. Every second that the audience spends trying to decipher your improper pronunciations, slang terms, imprecise or lazy speech, or gets distracted by silence filling “uh”s, “so”s and “like”s, is time they are not focused on your message.  You’ve just explained your major value proposition while they were still trying to figure out what you meant by “Our product is like, uh, well sort of like if Uber and Facebook got married and had a baby in the flash delivery space”.  https://hbr.org/2013/06/how-to-give-a-killer-presentation/
  1. Know your audience – I can’t tell you how many times I see entrepreneurs do the same pitch to prospective customers and investors. These two audiences are very different in terms of their priorities and language.  With prospects we focus on the product, why they need it, why it’s better than the alternative, and why it should matter to the consumer.  Investors, while interested in the product, are more focused the market, the business model, and how they make money.  Investors speak the language of business. As an entrepreneur, even if your expertise is in the technology or the industry, you MUST learn the language and concepts of business to communicate with investors.  Prospective customers want to know whether the product comes in chartreuse and investors want to know how you intend to scale the business. This informs us of the best use of our presentation time. http://www.forbes.com/2010/10/21/public-speaking-selling-leadership-sales-rein.html
  1. Conversation, slides and demos – Each of these elements plays a part in communication and it is important to know which one is the best tool for the job. Conversation alone may not convey more complex concepts best communicated in a graph on a slide. However, you can’t put everything you know on a slide or it will look like you vomited a novel in Power Point format.  The audience doesn’t know whether to listen or read.  I’ve seen many engineers pitch ideas, most of whom worked for NASA, that were communicated in this manner. Finally, demos are great if they have been properly introduced.  The other concern about demos, videos and accessing websites in real time during a pitch, is that local connections to the internet and outside sources of content often fail.  This can throw off your timing and cause the presentation to lose momentum.  Always have a backup. http://onboardly.com/startup-pr/best-startup-pitch-decks-of-all-time/

THE TAKEAWAY:  Clear, concise verbal communication with the appropriate support of graphics and demos can be your most powerful tool when trying to convince prospective customers or investors of the value of your product, team or company. Prepare. Let trusted advisers critique you and practice, practice, practice before you go LIVE.

3 Essential Soft Skills for Young Entrepreneurs-Part 1/3

3 Essential Soft Skills for Young Entrepreneurs-Part 1/3

Communication

I believe entrepreneurial success involves our natural gifts, technical skills and soft skills.  The importance of soft skills to entrepreneurial success, and success in life as well, is confirmed every time I advise or mentor a young entrepreneur.  Young entrepreneurs are usually pretty knowledgeable about the technical aspects and functionality of their product or service.  That is great, but it’s not enough. TECHNICAL SKILLS BUILD PRODUCTS . . . SOFT SKILLS BUILD COMPANIES.

So what are the essential soft skills that every young entrepreneur must have?  There is certainly plenty of debate about this.  From my years of advising and mentoring entrepreneurs, this series of blogs will identify my top three:

COMMUNICATION

THE SKILLS – The greatest idea in the world is useless if you can’t communicate what the product or service does and why it matters.  Communication requires both transmitting and receiving.  In addition to speaking, young entrepreneurs must also learn to listen intently to questions and guidance.  The questions inform us about the interest of the questioner and elements of our pitch that we left out or didn’t communicate clearly.  Seems intuitively obvious right?  Still, many young entrepreneurs do not do this well.

One must be able to speak the language of business as well as explain the functionality of the product or service. Right now some technical cofounder is reading this with the title of Chief Technology Officer and thinking “Dude, I’m the CTO.  Someone else does all the business stuff”.  Nice try.  The word “Officer” in your title means you have an obligation, as does every officer in the company, to be able to speak about the company and its products and services on some level.  The company leadership needs to be able to speak the language of business (run rate, burn rate, strategies and cost of customer acquisition, EBITDA, etc . . . ) in a simple, articulate, passionate manner.  That means no acronyms, limiting the use of the terms “like”, “you know”, “uh”, and one of my least favorite practices, starting the response to every question with the word “so”.  In addition, one must look people in the eye when speaking, and have the posture and manner of someone who is confident about the topic.  So . . . let’s move on to the next topic because it’s like, you know, also important.

Most of us are not very good listeners.  However, for entrepreneurs, this skill is critical.  In the early stages of a company, there is so much that we don’t know.  We must always be in the mode of discovering, researching, and learning about things that will improve our product, connect us to helpful people, or improve how we manage and lead the company.  Unfortunately, we are usually so focused on pitching our product and responding to questions with our well-rehearsed answers, that we fail to fully listen to questions and guidance.  We tend to keep our communication dial on transmit and forget to switch to receive.  A saying I’ve heard many times in my life is that “God gave us two ears and only one mouth for a reason”.  Let that thought serve as a reminder for our communication priorities.

THE TAKEAWAY – Research the language of business, key concepts and terms.  Take speech or drama classes, join Toastmasters, sell products door to door or work on a political campaign.  Like most things, you get better with practice.  Pitch your business to anyone that will listen.  Record your pitch, study the video and make adjustments.  Yes, I know you feel silly practicing in front of a mirror.  Would you rather feel silly and be prepared, or wing it and take the risk that your great idea never sees the light of day?