1. Looking Back and Learning

    A little more than a year ago I joined the board of a private company that I had gotten to know well.   The company had raised some seed financing and wanted to fill out its board with a few independent directors.  Having been close to the company for many months, I jumped at the opportunity to have a completely different - and more intimate - view of the inside of a high growth tech company. 

    Recently I was searching for a file and stumbled across the detailed notes I took for our first Board meeting from April 2013.  In re-reading my thoughts from last spring, I was struck by several things: 

    My notes were so incredibly detailed.  

    Mostly this was a function of me not having a clue what I was doing.  I tried to write down everything that seemed important and then I summarized my notes for everyone on the board to read afterwards.  With a year+ more experience under my belt and many more board meetings completed, I find that now I don’t take nearly as many notes.  

    This is both encouraging and frustrating.  Encouraging because I feel much more comfortable as a director and able to contribute in real time now that I’m not using training wheels.  But frustrating because being able to read back over exactly how we felt in April 2013 was incredibly valuable.  

    Sense of Appreciation 

    We hear all the time about the massive pivots some startups take.  But the vast majority of progress is actually achieved through daily micro pivots.  These are often really hard to appreciate in real-time.  There’s an awareness that these micro pivots are happening and when we look back down the proverbial mountain we can see some of the switchbacks and tough climbs.  Yet it’s not always easy to remember exactly what we thought the climb would be like to assess our predictive competencies.

    Reading my notes made me appreciate many of the small steps we’ve made forward over the last year.  At that first board meeting, we spent a lot of time talking through corporate governance matters, key executive roles that needed to be filled, and theorizing on how the capital raising process might play out.  In each case, there has been tremendous growth, and things played out in a fashion that wasn’t too far off from our predictions. This leads to a great sense of appreciation of where we’ve come from. 

    As I shared my notes with the CEO last week he replied, “it all feels like a good pace. It isn’t a burn and flip couple year thing but it also isn’t slowly but surely. Feels like sustainable and consistent forward motion”  

    Stopping to recognize this forward motion is so crucial, especially since we’re no where near where we hope to go yet.  But we’re moving forward, and that’s exciting. 

    A Pause for Recognition

    Things are usually not 100% rosy though and it was instructive to recognize that some of our biggest areas of focus today were identified a year ago.  Our theories on the sales pipeline and process were not quite as prescient as in other areas.  I found myself wishing I had documented in a more detailed manner the projected numbers so it would be easier to quantify some operational metrics.  Moreover, I wish I had similar notes from each of the next quarterly meetings so I could more accurately track our progress - it’s just too hard to remember what happened at what point without this detail. I know deep down there are patterns that would jump out if I was able to take the time to assess, but I need to get better at documenting the steps to make this analysis possible.

    Best Practices

    This board experience has highlighted the value of structuring processes so I can better remember the past.  I’m thinking of ways to integrate this theme with my work at the bank (better salesforce.com habits!) and also interested to know how other startups play this out.  The obvious answer is budgets and performance to plan.  But I’m wondering if anyone has best practices for looking back over quarters or years with the lens of performance relative to expectations of how things would play out.  It seems this is a core competency of any high growth entrepreneur or investor and would love to hear via comments or email or things that have worked for you. 

  2. Soccer and Startups: The Beautiful Games

    Like most of the world, I’ve been watching with fervor the World Cup over the last couple weeks.  For most Americans the World Cup is a once every four years chance to enjoy a taste of the best of sport combined with patriotism.  For me, it feels like I’ve won the Golden Ticket and I’m spending close to a month in Wonka’s chocolate factory.  A self-professed soccer nut, I’ve been playing the game since I was two and a half and the games in Brazil give me a chance to bask in all the old memories of my playing days.  

    The older I’ve gotten, the easier it is to summarize my soccer “career” into a simple sentence.  “Zack was on the National Championship soccer team at UNC,” is a phrase that my business colleagues will sometimes throw around.  While technically true and a great conversation starter, it’s certainly not the first thing that pops into mind for me.  

    The things I remember are the way the freshly cut grass smelled and the feeling of the wet dew on the field at 6:00am on the first day of soccer practice my freshman year in high school.  While watching Brazil’s penalty kick shootout victory, I couldn’t help but remember the time when I was 8 and scored the deciding kick in our rec league championship.  I will never forget the pit in my stomach after losing in the state semifinals my sophomore year.  Or the same gut punch the next year when we lost in the semis again, to the same team. 

    As I progressed in age, my goals became bigger and the odds longer.  I had always dreamed of playing at UNC and had arranged a formal tryout for my freshman year.  I didn’t make the team and thought my dream was dead but it ended up they needed warm bodies for the spring offseason and somehow I played myself into a roster spot for the 2001 season.  

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    The culmination of that season was confetti and the oversized tshirts and the ugly hats that said “National Champions” on them. It really couldn’t have been a more storybook ending  - I was a real-life Rudy with a big fat ring and one heck of a story to tell the grandkids. 

    What’s funny is thinking back on that fall of 2001 the first image that comes to mind isn’t the final scoreboard that says UNC 2, Indiana 0.  Instead I see the first day of preseason and the 20+ guys who showed up with a vague perception that we had an opportunity to be really good but nothing accomplished yet.  I can almost feel today the time midway through the year when my body shut down doing the fitness at the end of practice.  I replay the dozens and dozens of practices - of shooting drills and small sided games and daily battles - the mundane but necessary puzzle pieces that combine together to form the full picture. 

    I find that startups are a lot like this.  All too often we see the highlight reel in the press: Company X raises a $10 Million Series A! Company Y sells for $100 Million two years after launching.  But when you talk to entrepreneurs who have really been through it, they will tell you it’s all about the build up and not at all about the press release.  I learned the hard way early in my career that perception and reality are often quite different with startups.  Things look neat and tidy from the outside but on the inside they’re inherently messy.  

    And yet, just like my love for soccer, there’s nothing in the world that entrepreneurs would rather be doing than trying to build these messy beasts called startups.  That round of funding or eventual exit is so much more satisfying when you recall the time you didn’t know if you’d meet payroll or when your team worked through the night to get out a product release.  There is nothing like the thrill of finding those first customers who are willing to pay money - real money! - for something you’ve created.  

    Startups are a Beautiful Game too, full of the interplay between agony and ecstasy that makes it all worth it.  So take a couple hours out of your day tomorrow to cheer on America vs. the Belgians.  Then get back to making that thing you’re building.  Because many years from now you may find that you remember the making of the thing much more than the thing itself. 

  3. Building your company culture through values

    Of all the aspects of building a big company from scratch, nailing a great company culture is perhaps the hardest to quantify and thus also one of the hardest things to do.  It’s inherently difficult because it’s all about people and there will be all different types of people in an organization and the needs of the organization will require different skills and talents at different points along the journey.  Culture is not just a mission statement on a banner - we can all cringe remembering the class scene from Office Space, “Is this Good for the Company?” It’s not ping pong tables or free food or a decent vacation policy.  Culture is the ethos of the company in practice - the guiding views or ideals that characterize the organization. 

    We spend a lot of time thinking about product and markets and how much capital is needed to grow a company.  But at the end of the day, a really successful company is going to need people to work together to grow it and establishing the values that are going to guide your organization early can be critical.  

    We made a lot of mistakes growing Square 1 over the years but the thing that I’m most proud of and that is most amazing is that we are still guided by the exact same set of core values that were outlined the day the bank opened in 2005.  Every single employee is aware of the values and can recite them from memory.  This is partially due to the fact that we propagandized the values in the front of notebooks, at every hands on meeting, and in every all staff email for years.  Was it cheesy at times? Yes.  Did it feel like overkill at times?  Of course.  Did the values sink into every single person at the bank and become a part of our very being? They absolutely did. 

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    Our values are simple (which I think is the way to go with values): 

    Be a Partner: everything should be about developing and nurturing relationships both internally and externally, by serving others

    Act Like an Entrepreneur: Don’t settle for the status quo.  If you see an opportunity to make something better, do it. 

    Be Passionate: The magic glue that drives us. 

    TNT (Today Not Tomorrow): Time is of the essence. We must act with a sense of urgency

    Be Square: Above all else, be open, transparent and accountable. 

    Some of the ways that we put these values into practice include the following: 

    • Before every single employee is hired they are presented with the values and it’s made clear that these are the guidelines that we use to run the company.  We have had “Values Teams” who assess the fit and set expectations for new hires. 
    • We call the values out, even in the little things.  If the coffee is empty and not refilled, an email might go out to remind everyone to “Be a Partner”.  When there is a client that needs to close a deal on a tight deadline, you will see and hear TNT all over the place.  And then we celebrate publicly those instances when our team lives out the values. 
    • Finally, we talked about it.  ALL. THE. TIME.  As I mentioned, every notebook had it plastered on the first page and every all hands meeting has the values on the last slide.  Our values are everywhere. And we’re still innovating - in the last few weeks we put up a new Values Wall in the middle of our headquarters to highlight top performers on a quarterly basis.  

    Square 1 is certainly not alone in terms of putting a focus on values.  I’ve always been impressed with Moz over the years and their TAGFEE code.  I recently saw that one of my clients Automated Insights lists their values on their careers page.  Deciding on core values early on in a company’s life - deciding WHO you’re going to be - is one of the most important things you can do as it will define the HOW you will do it which will have a profound impact on WHAT you want to accomplish. 

    If you have insights into how other companies have been successful in creating a positive culture through a defined set of values, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.  

  4. How to Raise Venture Debt

    Finding the right financing for your company is one of the most important jobs for a CEO.  For many high growth companies, this means navigating the maze of raising equity capital via friends and family, angels, or institutional venture capital firms.  As companies mature, it is often a smart idea to consider debt as an alternative source of capital to most efficiently capitalize the business.  While there is quite a bit more written about raising VC money than raising venture debt, I have previously discussed many of the more theoretical aspects of the debt side of the table.  In this post, I hope to lay out some very practical and actionable steps to consider as you look at debt as a financing option. 

    1. Figure out If you can support debt 

    For many pure startups, debt financing is not going to be an option.  Debt providers are in the business of figuring out how they can get their money repaid.  Thus, they typically look to things like operating history, a proven ability to generate positive cash flow, or hard assets as sources of repayment.  The caveat to these traditional measures is high growth companies that have raised material amounts of institutional equity capital.  Venture lenders will often look at the probability of a company raising additional equity as a source of repayment.  It’s all part of the implicit contract between lenders and VCs. 

    When considering whether your company can support debt and at what levels, it’s important to think like a lender. 

    • What will you be using the funds for and what will be the sources of repayment?  As a general rule, debt providers are willing to provide debt up to a certain fraction of the total equity (25-50%) for companies that are still burning cash but backed by high quality investors.   
    • If you’ve raised equity and want to layer in debt to extend runway to the next round, what are the milestones that you will need to accomplish to get there
    • If you’re hoping to manage a working capital gap, who are your vendors and what is their credit worthiness? For true working capital financing needs there will likely be many options from banks, specialty finance groups and other short term lenders but the cost and administrative overhead will be dependent upon the fundamentals of the business as well as the types of customers and contracts.
    • How much cash do you have in the bank and how much is your burn?  What’s your worst case number of months of runway (because this is how a lender has to think). 
    • If you’re generating positive cash flow, what level of comfort do you have with leverage against your annual free cash flow?  Debt can be much less costly than equity but comes with certain strings attached, namely a first position security interest in the company. 

    As a final point, the best time to raise debt is exactly when you don’t need it, particularly right after a round of equity financing.  This is when you’re likely to get the best terms and it usually makes sense to think about debt and get a structure in place before you absolutely need the funds. 

    2. Be prepared with the right materials  

    Different lenders will have differing needs in terms of diligence materials but below is a list of items that are fairly standard: 

    • Annual audited financials for the 2-3 most recent years: Lenders will ask for company prepared materials if you haven’t yet performed an audit (but will require an audit going forward).  In addition to verifying numbers, lenders will often use the audit to understand the revenue recognition dynamics of the business as well as any notes related to the balance sheet. 
    • A financial model for the next 12 months: Lenders love to see detail, so to the extent that you have a model which breaks out revenues and expenses by month (or quarterly) that is a plus.  Experienced venture lenders are used to looking at models and hair-cutting based on our experiences (we know they are often collections of guesses) but it’s imperative to understand what expectations are for the company.  
    • Cap Table:  Lenders will want to know who the equity holders are and how much skin they have in the game, especially if they are looking at additional equity as a meaningful piece of the risk equation.
    • A recent Accounts receivable and Accounts payable aging: Especially if you’re looking for a true working capital line of credit. 
    • A crisp powerpoint deck which highlights what the company is doing is a plus.  Most likely this is the deck you used to raise equity.  It can help with underwriting and with getting internal decision makers aligned with who you are - and thus able to better structure a facility which meets your needs. 

    3. Get feedback from multiple lenders

    While I would of course love for all entrepreneurs to only come to my favorite venture lender (and employer!) Square 1 Bank, it just makes sense to get multiple looks.  In particular, it’s important to focus not just on price but the following: 

    • Ablility for the lender to understand your business and structure a loan facility that makes sense.  Does the borrowing availability allow you to gain real leverage?  
    • Ask the lender for some references from other entrepreneurs who they’ve worked with and make a couple reference calls.  If you do, ask if the reference has ever been through a situation in which they tripped a covenant and see how the lender reacted.  You can also ask your venture investors of their experiences, as lenders tend to have multiple relationships with many firms. 
    • Communicate expectations and desires up front. To the extent you can be transparent about your desires from a facility, it will allow the lender to be equally transparent and get to an efficient outcome for everyone.  This is especially important when you get into docs and negotiate the finer points of the legalese - starting from a foundation of openness helps to make this much less painful. 

    In summary, take a holistic look at your company and it’s needs and figure out if debt is appropriate.  Once you do, you can go ahead and get the majority of your diligence materials together ahead of time.  Then, through transparent communication with multiple lenders you can set yourself up for a easy close and capital to grow your company. 

    Postscript: As is inevitable in any summary such as this, there are exceptions to every rule and it goes without saying that each deal is different, both from the lender and company side.  With that said, I think this represents a general framework for how to go about raising venture debt. 

  5. Ringing the Bell: The Square 1 IPO

    Last Thursday, March 27th I had the great honor and privilege of standing alongside about 40 of my colleagues as Square 1 Financial was officially listed publicly on NASDAQ.  To say this was a highlight of my professional career is an understatement.  Quite simply, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life to date. 

    To properly put things in perspective you’d have to rewind to January 29, 2007.  It was on that day that I walked into the doors at 406 Blackwell Street for my first day as a Square 1 Bank employee.  I’ve written before about how I got to Square 1 and how thankful I am to have had the chance to play a small part in shaping who we are today. 

    From Day 1 I have always been drawn to the Bank’s mission to be “Entrepreneurs Serving Entrepreneurs”.  We aid as capital partners and valued members of the ecosystem for the companies we serve while also getting to build a business of our own.  We went through the ups and downs of raising private capital, of navigating the economic downturn of 2008-2010, of thinking about how to compete and win for our shareholders.  

    I’m not a founder of Square 1 but was here pretty early.  And I can tell you that while we’ve grown quite substantially since 2007, it has not been a smooth “up and to the right” experience in the day to day. Any entrepreneur will tell you that the road to growth is messy, and our story is no different.  

    Which is what makes a milestone like last week’s IPO all the sweeter.  

    We were able to celebrate where we’ve come from and also raise capital for the future.  The actual experience of opening up NASDAQ was surreal.  We filed into NASDAQ studios around 8:30am and were given great instruction by the entire team.  We took approximately 6 million photos and while our cheeks hurt from smiling I don’t think anyone could stop if they tried. 

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    Before we knew it the markets were opening, we were clapping and screaming, confetti flew around us, and Square 1 Bank was public.  

    imageTwo minutes later we were outside in the freezing cold for more pictures and right behind us for all of Manhattan to see was…us…lighting up the NASDAQ tower.  

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    We then filed into the building and waited until just after 11:15am for the first official trade.  When it finally hit there was a chance for a few members of the team to share some great memories of the path and people who led us to the day.  It was a special time that none of us will forget. 

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    What a day.  But just a milestone of the journey that started for Square 1 Bank they day they officially opened doors on August 5, 2005.  Time to go back to work! 

  6. Being critical without being a hater

    I have the great privilege of meeting with early stage entrepreneurs almost every single day.  Often these meetings consist of a short overview of what the entrepreneur is trying to build.  Then I try and ask a variety of questions to get a better handle on the vision.  Because most of these ideas are nascent and the execution is still to be done, there are often many unanswerable questions.  Or questions that will need to be answered but can’t be answered yet.  

    There is a delicate balance at this stage.  On one hand, an entrepreneur is looking for feedback which they can use to shape their business.  But the balance is making sure that this critical feedback is given in a way that is not too critical.  

    I’m sensitive to this nuance because it’s a line that I have to tread carefully - erring too far on either side isn’t good for anyone.  Because I have seen a lot of companies and know how incredibly hard they are to build, I feel it’s my responsibility to be honest and straightforward with entrepreneurs.  Sometimes my coworkers hear me on the phone and give me a hard time afterwards because it sounds like i’m only trying to shatter dreams.  They’re joking in most cases but there’s an element of truth to what they’re warning against - I don’t want to turn into a hater. 

    Things are already hard enough for entrepreneurs and there’s already enough haters in the world.  Haters can’t see anything besides what they want to see.  They’re the 490+ people who down vote a video like this on YouTube which seems positively un-hateable. 

    I want to be honest and direct without being a hater.  I want to point out the areas from my experiences with other companies that an entrepreneur will want to focus on.  But at the end of the day, I want entrepreneurs to know that I admire and respect the world of anyone who is trying to make something out of nothing.  For every question that may seem critical is coming from a desire to see more great companies built.  There is nothing that gives me more of a thrill in my professional life than to see an entrepreneur succeed in seeing his vision turn into a business.  

    So if we meet to talk about a startup, know that I value honesty and candor but above all else I value entrepreneurs.  I may come across as critical at times (which can, of course, be a critically needed thing), but I’ll do my best not to be a hater. 

    Postscript: I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks. But this post by James Avery gave me the kick in the pants I needed to go ahead and write it.  Go read that post too if you haven’t already, it’s great. 

  7. How FilterEasy turned a mistake into a chance for fandom

    A few months ago, I met the FilterEasy guys at a conference and really loved what they were doing and how they were doing it.  The idea is simple -  a subscription service for residential HVAC filters.  You sign up for the size and type of filters that you have in your house and a recurring schedule (every month, 3 months, etc).  Then they just show up.  Filter.  Easy. 

    While the service is simple enough, I loved it because it solves a pain point for me. I’m constantly forgetting when I last changed my filters and even when I do, it takes me a week or more to go by a home improvement store to pick up more.  Getting on a regular schedule - set it and forget it - makes a ton of sense.   And the two founders, Thad and Kevin, are young, hungry and relentless (in a good way) at closing the sale.  

    So I signed up but I had just actually changed my filters and thus set up to receive my first batch 3 months later.  Fast forward to last week, when  a box showed up on my front porch. 

    Unfortunately, when I opened the box, only one of the filters was the right size.  I figured it was dumb user error on my part, but when I logged into my account I saw that I had indeed entered the right sizes.  There must have been a mistake in the fulfillment process. 

    This was a little frustrating, of course. First experience with a new service, and the very simple task of putting two air filters into a box had not gone as planned.  It’s certainly not the first impression Thad and Kevin would have wanted. 

    But what happened next changed everything. 

    I went on their website and saw a live chat option.  I opened a chat and within 2 minutes had a resolution to my issue.  An agent named Heather promised to refund me for the filter that was sent erroneously and then sent the correct one free of charge.  She was smart, efficient, and apologetic.  A day later I got a personal follow up email from Heather and a couple days later my right-sized filter was on my front porch. 

    For E-commerce businesses (and especially subscription e-commerce), customer lifetime value is paramount.  In a case like this, it would have been easy for me to lose confidence and cancel after 1 month.  Yet, the ease of solving my issue and the commitment to not only send a new one but offer a credit has turned a potentially damaging situation into a positive one.  The FilterEasy team was able to take a potential “churn” moment and turn me into a raving fan. 

    The most interesting part is that these guys are just getting off the ground and building the scale in their workforce.  I’m not even sure Heather is a full time employee (she may be but couldn’t find anything online to suggest so).  They’ve found a way to implement technology (the chat app run by Olark) to provide the service level of a large company while still keeping costs lean and focusing on building the business.  

    Keep up the good work FilterEasy.  Love what you’re doing and the commitment to getting it right even if it doesn’t go right the first time. 

    Disclosure: I’ve met the team and love what they’re doing but they are not a client, so no conflicts in giving this rousing endorsement.

  8. Who can you be real with?

    Startups are a mess.  They’re frustrating and exhilarating and stressful and full of problems that need to be solved.  The exhilaration of a startup is getting to actually solve these problems in new ways.  In your ways.  The stress comes from the fact that there are so many problems.  So. Many. Problems.  And not every problem has an answer readily available.  They take time.  And if there’s one thing startups don’t have enough of, it’s time. 

    We hear often that startups are a people business.  For all the great ideas and all the big markets it really comes down to people.  Who is going to lead these ideas into these big markets to create a new business?  Who is going to lead this living, breathing always-complicated-with-all-the-questions-and-not-enough-answers thing?  

    People do.  

    We call them entrepreneurs.  They dive headlong into this challenge and along the way they are compelled to see the vision of what “up and to the right” could be even while yo-yo-ing around between agony and ecstasy on a daily (or hourly) basis.  They sell this vision to investors, giving up a piece of their cap table in exchange for the fuel to make these dreams a reality.  In selling this vision they focus on what might be - on the ecstasy - and it’s exhilarating.  They sell this vision to employees - look what we can create! - and they build a team that can go out and execute to make vision into a reality. 

    Often this is how we see entrepreneurs. The public versions of them and their visions and the way they sell the world on how this dream can and will be a reality.  But it’s not how entrepreneurs, in their true moments of clarity, see themselves.   

    In these moments, they will tell you about the time when they weren’t quite sure if an invoice would come in from a client in time to make payroll.  Or when they knew they needed to cut a few heads to control burn.  Except those heads belong to real people and real families and real kids whose mommy or daddy won’t have a job on Monday.  They will tell you about the time when they weren’t quite sure if their company - their dream - would exist the following month.  

    Being an entrepreneur can be lonely.  While building a company that will live or die based on the efforts of the people, how many entrepreneurs take the time to find the right person who they can be completely, utterly 100% real with?  Someone who is close enough to understand the intricacies of the dynamics at play but who is not on the cap table or the payroll or otherwise directly affected by the decisions at hand.  As humans we have an innate desire to be fully known and fully loved - despite any character flaws or failings or missteps along the way.  Who, as an entrepreneur, can you go to and say, “I really screwed this up”?  

    Can you say it to your investor?  Your executive team?  Even your spouse?  

    It’s an important question to ask - who can you be real with?  Answering this question may very well mean the difference between living in the agony or living much closer to the ecstasy of entrepreneurial life, regardless of the business or financial outcome of your startup.  

  9. Getting Smarter by Asking Dumb Questions

    Like many others, I spent some time around the New Year thinking through resolutions and things I’d like to do differently in 2014.  Professionally, I’ve been experimenting with a new system for keeping track of tasks, notes, and planning.  We’re only a couple weeks in but I’m digging this new system I learned from a Thomas Tunguz blog post

    I’ve also done some self reflection with the goal of figuring out how I can better serve entrepreneurs and the community.  As a result, I’m resolving to do a better job of asking dumb questions.  

    In the startup world there are so many incredibly smart people who are pushing the envelope and doing new things within their specific industries.  When you combine the fact that these people are both very smart to begin with and also doing a deep dive in their chosen field, it can sometimes seem like you’re constantly surrounded by people who understand everything better than you do.  At it’s best, this can be extremely invigorating as you can constantly learn through osmosis and surrounding yourself with super smart people. 

    Yet, there can be an intimidating aspect to this as well - no one wants to feel like the dumbest guy in the room.  When I was earlier in my career I found that I would very often “fake it ‘til I make it” by giving off the impression that I understood much more about the intricacies of a technology or business value chain than I really did.  This is a dangerously slippery slope; I’m a huge proponent of using this strategy selectively, as it causes you to grow.  But all too often I relied too heavily on this simply because I wasn’t comfortable enough to admit what I didn’t know.  As a result, I actually hindered my ability to understand the big picture. 

    I see this at play in the ecosystem all the time from all different types of players.  There are investors who want to act like the experts in every technical domain and as the arbiters of which companies will definitely succeed or fail.  I see it with founders (particularly technical ones) who get miffed with “business folks” keep asking questions about how a technology will be monetized to turn into a business.  

    The antidote to this style is to be inquisitive.  This will require, however, a personality that is OK with asking questions that very well may be “dumb questions”.  But in taking this risk of being seen as one who doesn’t already have all the answers, I think you gain very valuable insights into the inner workings of the way people are thinking about the answers.  Because that’s the thing with startups - there are an almost infinite number of questions and very few hard answers. 

    So if we meet in person and in talking about your company I ask you something which is completely elementary, bear with me.  I’m just trying to get smarter by asking the dumb questions. 

  10. Startup Team Building and Service

    This post also ran at  Square 1 Insights


    It’s no secret that building a company is hard work. While entrepreneurial ventures can be full of excitement and energizing in many respects, they are still work and run the risk that the strain could burn out employees. Well known (and well funded!) startups will experiment with various perks like ping pong tables, catered lunches and flexible work hours in an attempt to keep employees happy while providing attachments above and beyond a paycheck. Happy teams lead to happy customers!

    At Square 1, we have been intentional and fortunate in creating a superb culture over our eight year history. Our sleek, modern headquarters in the burgeoning Durham, NC American Tobacco Campus feels much more like a high tech firm’s digs than a stuffy bank branch. A variety of intracompany events and sharp Square 1 gear has helped everyone feel part of a special team that is building a great company. Yet, we’re always looking for new and different ways to build deeper bonds and a stronger team.

    Recently we stumbled upon a new activity which has reaped great dividends as it relates to team building. What’s most interesting is that we didn’t start out looking to do team building, but instead were hoping to meet a need in our community.

    Last year we learned that the Urban Ministries of Durham operates a daily community kitchen only a mile from our headquarters. Every day, this non-profit serves meals to hundreds of homeless and indigent Durham residents. With more than 125 employees (also known as Squares) in downtown Durham, we felt a responsibility as a corporate citizen and community steward to step up and serve some of those around us who are less fortunate.

    On the fourth Tuesday of each month, we send a team of Squares to the Urban Ministries kitchen at 7:00am to roll up their sleeves, don hairnets and make breakfast for hundreds of our neighbors. While cracking eggs and plating pastries with our comrades from other departments, we’re able to connect on a different and deeper level than can ever be achieved at the proverbial water cooler. This type of interaction is almost impossible to create at a formalized offsite meeting and is multiplied in effectiveness by the fact that it’s achieved by serving others.image

    For the 20+ Square 1 team members who have volunteered thus far, it’s been an interesting paradox to find that that by waking up earlier and doing hard work, we are more energized and mentally prepared to tackle the duties of our day to day. In this case, it truly has been better to give than to receive.