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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Executions, Visions and Revolutions

Executions, Visions and Revolutions
The second session of the Silicon Valley Startup Leadership Program took place on Wedneday (10/27). R. Paul Singh was the speaker. During his career he has been the Founder & CEO of 4 high-tech startups (security, VoIP, mobile) with three successful exits. His talk was about his experiences in Silicon Valley, about the technology business in general, and about entrepreneurship. There were three major takeaways for me (they are obvious, but worth re-iterating). Here's my take on them.

"There are no $B ideas. There are only $B Executions"
We all are entrepreneurs at heart. We dream, we discuss, we detail. But few of us do. That's what takes some of us from being entrepreneurs at heart to being the real deal. The difference between a $100M company and $15B company is the team and it's execution. When money is put in front of an entrepreneur with a brilliant company, he or she has to have the courage to say no and keep it growing. An example of this is Mark Zuckerberg who rejected many acquisition attempts when Facebook was worth around $1B and has grown it to its current value of close to $20B. At the same time, it is important to know your business' strengths and weaknesses and take an exit if chances of it growing more without outside help are, honestly, not high. To some, an exit is an exit. Make whatever money there is to be made on this deal and let the next one be sweeter -- don't let greed be the winner. And remember, that there is more to life than money.

"Vision has to be Huge, but Execution has to be Focused"
When pitching investors, friends, family, potential employees, and a team, a CEO needs to have huge visions of changing the world and its sweeping impacts. In reality, though, CEOs have to focus the energies of their teams and achieve measurable, meaningful targets and move one stone at a time. Getting overwhelmed by moving a mountain is the single most common way for companies to fail. It is important to sell everyone on the big picture but achieve it through smaller steps.

"Markets like Evolutions not Revolutions"
If we think about the successful Apple consumer products over the last couple of decades they all have one thing in common -- they evolved what was available. They never tried to change what the consumer was used to in a revolutionary way. The iPod took MP3 players (first made popular by Creative) and presented it in a more intuitive interface. The iPhone innovated upon the iPod's interface and the iPad built on the iPhone. The iPhone and iPad wouldnt have succeeded if the iPod hadn't done so. Microsoft had touch screen Windows Mobile phone much before the iPhone and HP had touch screen tablets much before the iPad but neither succeeded in the same way that Apple did. Why? Because the market wasn't ready for it. While skill and quality of product is important, the success of products and entrepreneurs has an element of luck and timing to it as well. When thinking about ideas, it is often easy to think about something that "hasn't ever been tried before". Why not think of something that has been done before, but not so well... Why not use breakthroughs in technology to improve the life of a consumer so that he or she will want to use your product or service. In effect, this goes back to how a consumer offering has to somehow fit into the consumer's 24 hours in order to be successful. And what better way of fitting in than to replace something that already exists... It just makes sense that the barrier to entry in the consumer's mind will be lower!

I know I said three takeaways but there was a fourth one that I think is true for any person - entrepreneur or not - so here goes!

Bonus: "Sell, Sell, Sell"
An entrepreneur's, and specifically a CEO's, job is to sell. He or she must sell to their family on why not taking a paycheck to develop an idea into a company is a good idea. Then the CEO has to sell the idea to some crazy friend to join the venture and give up their paycheck as well. Next, the CEO must convince some friends, family, angels, VCs that the idea (and/or prototype) is worth real money. Then the CEO has to convince the market that the idea is worth more than just some words and the offering actually delivers on the promise. I've always believed that selling a vision is easier if someone else vouches for you. Over the last couple of years I've noticed companies like Twitter,, Posterous, TweetDeck, etc 'sold' to Silicon Valley, not just by the CEO and employees but by their investors. If a reputable investor will not only invest in a company, but also go on record at conferences, to the medi, and wherever they can to talk good things about a startup and its offerings, a consumer and the media is more likely to give it a fair chance. And for many startups, getting that chance is a make or break. So, CEOs, go out and sell your visions. Do it in a way that doesn't oversell, but sells enough to make salesman out of everyone you interact with. The power of many, especially influential many, can get you places that your own pitching won't get you. But to get there, you need to master the pitch!

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