Entrepreneurship is hard

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Entrepreneur Steve Blank fixed electronic warfare equipment in Vietnam — which was a great job, from his 19-year-old perspective:

One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians — some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”

We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party — it was more like a funeral.  The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia.  And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.

While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back — their average age was 22.

Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.

I still remember that exact moment — standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners — when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop — like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job — and ours — was.

That day I began to think about the nature of war, the doctrine of just war, risk, and the value of National Service.

Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.

Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.

For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.

Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.

How to Fail Less

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Derek Thompson interviews Steve Blank on the secrets of start-ups — or how to fail less:

Can you really teach entrepreneurship?

Many people say you can’t. They’re ignorant. But it was true that we didn’t know how to teach entrepreneurship for decades, because we didn’t understand how start-ups were different from large companies.

Large companies execute. Start-ups in their early stage don’t execute. They search. And for a long time, we had no tools for search. But in the last few years, we’ve started to build the equivalent of an execution plan for start-ups. We’ve cracked the code for early stage ventures. We can say that we know how to make start-ups fail less.

Tell me how you teach entrepreneurship. What does it mean to learn how to search?

The old entrepreneurship class was: Let’s write a business plan do a PowerPoint presentation for the investors. But that plan is a static item. It says, “Here’s my idea. Here’s the opportunity. Here’s the team. Here’s the forecast.” It has no learning. I teach at Stanford and Berkley. Let me tell you, the smartest kids in the world can put together a great plan with no bearing on reality.

So I came up with the idea of a “Lean Launchpad.” It’s been picked up by various universities and the US government. The Lean Launchpad says: We don’t care about your initial hypotheses. The hypothesis is just a thought. The safest bets are probably all wrong. Your initial guess about customer and price are going to be wrong. About 950 of the 1000 best start-ups don’t execute their first plan.

The old process — Does you hypothesis seem good? Here’s a grade. — is great for professors because we can grade it. In my class, you test these hypotheses. You talk to 15 customers a day. You’re doing constant iterations. Every once in a while, you come up against the facts just don’t match. That major change is called the pivot.

A pivot sounds terrifying for a team that put months and thousands of hours into executing what they thought was a great idea.

It is scary. But embracing the pivot is neat way to look at things. In the old days, we fired the VP of sales and the VP marketing if the plan didn’t work. Our thinking is, don’t fire the people first. Fire the plan first. Your first start-up ideas are just guesses you pulled out of somewhere. They’re probably wrong. The new way to teach is as hypothesis-testing.

Why Startups are Agile and Opportunistic

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model, Steve Blank says:

At a board meeting last week I watched as the young startup CEO delivered bad news. “Our current plan isn’t working. We can’t scale the company. Each sale requires us to handhold the customer and takes way too long to close. But I think I know how to fix it.” He took a deep breath, looked around the boardroom table and then proceeded to outline a radical reconfiguration of the product line (repackaging the products rather than reengineering them) and a change in sales strategy, focusing on a different customer segment. Some of the junior investors blew a gasket. “We invested in the plan you sold us on.” A few investors suggested he add new product features, others suggested firing the VP of Sales. I noticed that through all of this, the lead VC just sat back and listened.

Finally, when everyone else had their turn, the grey-haired VC turned to the founder and said, “If you do what we tell you to do and fail, we’ll fire you. And if you do what you think is right and you fail, we may also fire you. But at least you’d be executing your plan not ours. Go with your gut and do what you think the market is telling you. That’s why we invested in you.” He turned to the other VC’s and added, “That’s why we write the checks and entrepreneurs run the company.”

Death By Competitive Analysis

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Steve Blank warns startups of the dangers of death by competitive analysis:

In most startups the competitive analysis feature comparison ends up morphing into the Marketing Requirements Document that gets handed to engineering. The mandate becomes; “Our competitors have these features so our startup needs them too. Get to work and add all of these for first customer ship.”

Product development salutes and gets to work building the product. Only after the product ships does the company find out that customers couldn’t have cared less about most of the bells and whistles.

Instead of optimizing for a minimum feature set (that had been defined by customers) a competitive analysis drives a maximum feature set.

This is not good.

Here’s the problem: How did the founder know which features to choose on the competitive analysis table? When I was running marketing, the answer usually was, “We’ll put up whatever axes or feature comparisons that make us look best in this segment to potential investors. What else would you choose?”

At its best a competitive analysis assumes that you know why customers are going to buy your product. At its worst it exists to rationalize the founder’s assumptions about what they are building. This is a mistake — and it is a contributing factor (if not a root cause) of why most startups get their initial feature set wrong.

If you are building a competitive analysis table, do so only after you understand that the features you are listing matter to customers. Most marketers are happy to build feature comparisons. But customers don’t buy features, they usually buy something that solves a real or perceived need. That’s the comparison you and your investors should be looking at — what do customers say they need or want?

The answer to that question is almost never in your building.

Death By Revenue Plan

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Steve Blank describes Death By Revenue Plan:

We were at the board meeting of company building a radically new type of communication hardware. The company was going through some tough times. It had taken the company almost twice as long as planned to get their product out the door. But that wasn’t what the heat being generated at this board meeting was about. All discussion focused on “missing the revenue plan.”

Spread out in front of everyone around the conference table were the latest Income Statement, Balance Sheets and Cash Flow Statements. The VC’s were very concerned that the revenue the financial plan called for wasn’t being delivered by the sales team. They were also looking at the Cash Flow Statement and expressed their concern (i.e. raised their voices in a annoyed investor tone) that the headcount and its attendant burn rate combined with the lack of revenue meant the company would run out of money much sooner than anyone planned.

The VC’s concluded that the company needed to change direction and act aggressively to increase revenue so the company could “make the plan.” They told the CEO (who was the technical founder) that the sales team should focus on “other markets.” Another VC added that engineering should redesign the product to meet the price and performance of current users in an adjacent market.

The founder was doing his best to try to explain that his vision today was the same as when he pitched the company to the VC’s and when they funded the company. He said, “I told you it was going to take it least five years for the underlying industry infrastructure to mature, and that we had to convince OEMs to design in our product. All this takes time.” But the VC’s kept coming back to the lack of adoption of the product, the floundering sales force, the burn rate — and “the plan.”

Given the tongue-lashing the VC’s were giving the CEO and the VP of Sales, you would have thought that selling the product was something any high-school kid could have done.

What went wrong?

What went wrong was that the founder had built a product for a New Market and the VC’s allowed him to execute, hire and burn cash like he was in an Existing Market.

Giant, Sophisticated, Disposable

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Growing up, I had always assumed that spy satellites were chock-full of sophisticated electronics — including, of course, television cameras. This probably was true by the time I was aware of spy satellites, but the first spy satellites carried Kodak film, which they had to return to earth from orbit. They were giant, sophisticated, disposable cameras, produced by something called the Corona project:

When the Corona satellites were launched the CIA used a “cover” story. They called the Corona satellites the “Discoverer” program and claimed it was an experimental program to develop and test satellite subsystems and explore environmental conditions in space. The film recovery capsule was described as a “biomedical capsule” for the recovery of biological specimens sent into space as an early test of how humans would react to manned spaceflight.

The Corona project was run like a startup — a small team, minimum bureaucracy, focussed on a goal and tightly integrated with customer needs. Starting in February 1959, only 12 months after the program began the Air Force launched the first Corona reconnaissance satellite from the military’s secret spaceport on the California coast at Vandenberg Air Force Base. But the first 13 missions were failures. Yet the program was deemed so important to national security the CIA and the Air Force persevered. And when the first images were received they transformed technical intelligence forever. Objects as small as 6 feet (some claim 3 feet) could be seen from space over millions of miles of a formally closed country.
While Corona had a number of technological breakthroughs, including the first photoreconnaissance satellite, the first recovery of an object from space, etc. it was Corona imagery in 1961 that told the intelligence community and the new Kennedy administration that the “missile gap” (the supposed Soviet lead in ICBMs) was illusory. By fall of 1961 Soviet Union had a total of six deployed ICBMs — we had ten times as many. In truth, it was the U.S. that had the lead in missiles.

Corona was just the beginning. Overhead reconnaissance would become an integral part of the U.S. intelligence community. Hidden in plain sight, Lockheed and the U.S. intelligence community were just getting started in Silicon Valley.

The Elves Leave Middle Earth – Sodas Are No Longer Free

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Steve Blank’s latest headline did its job and pulled me in — The Elves Leave Middle Earth – Sodas Are No Longer Free:

Last week as a favor to a friend, I sat in on a board meeting of a fairly successful 3½ year-old startup. Given all that could go wrong in this economy, they were doing well. Their business had just crossed cash flow breakeven, had grown past 50 employees, just raised a substantive follow-on round of financing and had recently hired a Chief Financial Officer. It was an impressive performance.

Then the new CFO got up to give her presentation — all kind of expected; Sarbanes Oxley compliance, a new accounting system, beef up IT and security, Section 409A (valuation) compliance, etc. Then she dropped the other shoe.

“Do you know how much our company is spending on free sodas and snacks?” And to answer her own question she presented the spreadsheet totaling it all up.

There were some experienced VC’s in the room and I was waiting for them to “educate” her about startup culture. But my jaw dropped when the board agreed that the “free stuff” had to go.

“We’re too big for that now” was the shared opinion. But we’ll sell them soda “cheap.”

I had lived through this same conversation four times in my career, and each time it ended as an example of unintended consequences. No one on the board or the executive staff was trying to be stupid. But to save $10,000 or so, they unintentionally launched an exodus of their best engineers.

This company had grown from the founders, who hired an early team of superstars, many now managing their own teams. All these engineers were still heads-down, working their tails off, just as they had been doing since the first few months of the company. Too busy working, most were oblivious to the changes that success and growth had brought to the company.

One day the engineering team was clustered in the snack room looking at the soda machine. The sign said, “Soda now 50 cents.” The uproar began. Engineers started complaining about the price of the soda. Someone noticed that instead of the informal reimbursement system for dinners when they were working late, there was now a formal expense report system. Some had already been irritated when “professional” managers had been hired over their teams with reportedly more stock than the early engineers had. Lots of email was exchanged about “how things were changing for the worse.” A few engineers went to the see the CEO.

But the damage had been done. The most talented and senior engineers looked up from their desks and noticed the company was no longer the one they loved. It had changed. And not in a way they were happy with.

The best engineers quietly put the word out that they were available, and in less than month the best and the brightest began to drift away.

Learn, Discover, Iterate, and Execute

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Steve Blank tells the tale of the second, more serious, time someone stole his startup idea:

We were starting Epiphany, my last company. I was out and about in Silicon Valley doing what I would now call Customer Discovery trying to understand how marketing departments in large corporations worked. The initial hypothesis for Epiphany (from my much smarter partner Ben) was that as departments in the enterprise (manufacturing, finance, customer support sales) became automated, the marketing department would eventually get its turn.

I remember presenting our ideas for Marketing Automation to one VP of Marketing in a large Silicon Valley company. His enthusiastic response was, “This will revolutionize marketing departments!” He continued: “I’d like to convince my boss so our company can be your first customer.” I should have been suspicious when he said, “I’d like to take a copy of your presentation to show him.” Caught up in the enthusiasm of hearing what a great idea we had, I violated one of my cardinal rules, and left him a hard copy.

Fast forward nine months. After talking to tons of customers and almost as many VC’s, we got Epiphany funded as a company that was going to automate Marketing Departments. After a ton of unreturned phone calls, I had written off the enthusiastic VP of Marketing who wanted to show my slides to his boss and moved on with building our company.

By now we had found a few customers and learned a lot more about the market from them and other prospects. Our business model changed as we realized that to become a large company, we needed to automate more than just a few marketers. As we were out looking for our Series B round, our company had gotten the attention of “name of big VC firm here” who wanted a play in enterprise software.

During the due-diligence process, I sat down with one of the partners who pulled out a set of slides and asked me: ”Have you seen these?” I quickly leafed through them and replied, “Sure they’re our original slides. Why?” He said, “Look again.” They had all my words from a year ago, but hey wait a minute, there’s someone else’s logo on my slides?! What’s going on? He said, “That’s what we’re trying to figure out. These guys just got funded, and they sound a lot like you guys.” Luckily I had the original slides and could prove who came first. Still the fact was a competitor had raised money using our idea and our slide deck.

And who was this competitor? The VP of Marketing who a year earlier had wanted a hard copy of our slides. He was now CEO of a new company in our market.

I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach.

There’s a happy ending though:

Our competitor was executing on hypotheses we had developed 9 months ago, and their strategy remained static. We on the other hand, had moved on. We had discovered detailed information about what customers really needed and wanted and turned our original hypotheses into facts. We had validated our new assumptions by a set of orders, and we had pivoted on our business model. Our original idea had been nothing more than an untested set of hypotheses. Truth be told, we were no longer the company in those stolen slides.

While the common wisdom said that our success was going to be determined by which company executed better, the common wisdom was wrong. In a startup success isn’t about just execution, it’s how well we could take our original hypothesis and learn, discover, iterate and execute.

Are Those My Initials?

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Someone stole Steve Blank’s ideas on two occasions:

Once it almost mattered. This is about the time it didn’t.
The first time was at Rocket Science Games. I was positioning the company as the second coming of the video games businesses at the intersection of “Hollywood Meets Silicon Valley.” This was a great positioning, it helped us raise lots of money and get tons of press. I had a wonderful set of slides that illustrated (to me) this inevitable trend. At the end of the presentation was one “uber” chart I had labored over for months which laid out all the converging trends in the industry. I used it in all presentations and gave it at industry conferences.

Are those my initials on the slide?

Fast forward nine months. My co-founder, head of business development and I were in Japan raising money. We were sitting in the conference room of a large well-respected media firm when their CEO breezed in to give us an overview of who they were and how forward thinking their firm was. I thought highly of this firm and was in awe of their content and films so I was a bit blown away when the CEO got to the finale of their presentation. It was, as he explained, the sum of their strategy and strategic thinking for online media. And the slide was…

My slide.

Not a summary of my slide, or a Japanese copy of my slide, but my actual slide. I stood up from my seat, and walked around the boardroom table to get closer to the screen just to be sure. The CEO was beaming at my interest in the details of the slide. Examining the slide, I pointed to the bottom right and said to our translator, “Tell him my initials are still on the bottom.” The interpreter’s face went white, and after a lot of “I can’t tell him that,” he did.

We weren’t sure if we should feel insulted or complimented, but after a few deep breaths (and a lot of kicking under the table by my head of business development) my smart VP of business development used it as an opportunity to point out how honored we were that there was an obvious strategic alignment between the two companies. (I sat there smiling tightly.) Given the potential for a cross-cultural meltdown all parties behaved politely. The CEO turned out to be a very nice guy and rented a big bus to take his staff and all of us sightseeing, dinner and drinking around Tokyo. (I’m sure when he got back to the office he was handing out a personalized knife to the executive on his staff who had borrowed my slide.)

In the end, the CEO couldn’t get his board to give us the cash in exchange for the Japanese distribution rights and some equity. We ended up raising money from Sega.

I heard later that the slide disappeared from his presentation.

Lean Startups aren’t Cheap Startups

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Lean Startups aren’t Cheap Startups, Steve Blank explains:

A Lean Startup is not about the total amount of money you may spend over the life of your startup. It is about when in the life of your company you do the spending.

If venture capital is flowing, you can make mistakes and just get more funding — but when times are tight, you have to avoid an out-of-control burn rate, because you won’t get any do-overs:

The key contributors to an out-of-control burn rate is 1) hiring a sales force too early, 2) turning on the demand creation activities too early, 3) developing something other than the minimum feature set for first customer ship.

Sales people cost money, and when they’re not bringing in revenue, their wandering in the woods is time consuming, cash-draining and demoralizing. Marketing demand creation programs (Search Engine Marketing, Public Relations, Advertising, Lead Generation, Trade Shows, etc.) are all expensive and potentially fatal distractions if done before you have found product-market fit and a repeatable sales model. And most startup code and features end up on the floor as customers never really wanted them.

Blank recommends the Customer Development process:

In Customer Development your goal is not to avoid spending money but to preserve your cash as you search for a repeatable and scalable sales model and then spend like there is no tomorrow when you find one.

Get Out of My Building

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Steve Blank was an experienced marketer when he learned how little he knew:

Engineering was discussing how sophisticated the graphics portion of our computer should be, debating cost and time-to-market tradeoffs of arcane details such as double-buffering, 24 versus 32-bits of color, alpha channels, etc. I was pleased with myself that not only did I understand the issues, but I also had an opinion about what we should build. All of a sudden I decided that I hadn’t heard the sound of my own voice in a while so I piped up: “I think our customers will want 24-bits of double-buffered graphics.”

Silence descended across the conference table. The CEO turned to me and asked “What did you say?” Thinking he was impressed with my mastery of the subject as well as my brilliant observation, I repeated myself and embellished my initial observation with all the additional reasons why I thought our customers would want this feature. I was about to get an education that would last a lifetime.

Picture the scene: the entire company (all 15 of us) are present. For this startup we had assembled some of the best and brightest hardware and software engineers in the computer industry. My boss, the CEO, had just come from a string of successes at Convergent Technologies, Intel and Digital Equipment, names that at that time carried a lot of weight. Some of us had worked together in previous companies; some of us had just started working together for the first time.

I thought I was bright, aggressive and could do no wrong as a marketer. I loved my job and I was convinced I was god’s gift to marketing. Now in a voice so quiet it could be barely heard across the conference table our CEO turns to me and says, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.” It was the last sentence I heard before my career trajectory as a marketer was permanently changed.

At the top of his lungs he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need! You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.” I was mortified with the dressing down in front of my friends as well as new employees I barely knew. Later my friends told me my face went pale.

He continued yelling, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that has more knowledge of scientific customers and scientific computers than any other startup has ever had. They’ve been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to have an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession and have made a fool of yourself and will continue to do so every time you open your mouth. Get out of this conference room, get out of this building and get out of my company; you are wasting all of our time.”
As I got up to leave the room, the CEO said, “I want you out of the building talking to customers; find out who they are, how they work, and what we need to do to sell them lots of these new computers.” Motioning to our VP of Sales, he ordered: “Go with him and get him in front of customers, and both of you don’t come back until you can tell us something we don’t know.”

And he was smiling.

My career as marketer had just begun.

The End of Innocence

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Steve Blank, prompted by a tale of PR companies posting positive reviews for their clients’ apps, shares an anecdote that illustrates the end of innocence:

When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.” (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment — drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors. His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style — anti-war, anti-government, anti-establishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on — ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.

He’s Only in Field Service

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Steve Blank has found that the most important early customers for your startup usually turn out to be quite different from who you think they’re going to be:

When I was at Zilog, the Z8000 peripheral chips included the new “Serial Communications Controller” (SCC). As the (very junior) product marketing manager I got a call from our local salesman that someone at Apple wanted more technical information than just the spec sheets about our new (not yet shipping) chip. I vividly remember the sales guy saying, “It’s only some kid in field service. I’m too busy so why don’t you drive over there and talk to him.” (My guess is that our salesman was busy trying to sell into the “official” projects of Apple, the Lisa and the Apple III.)

Zilog was also in Cupertino near Apple, and I remember driving to a small non-descript Apple building at the intersection of Stevens Creek and Sunnyvale/Saratoga. I had a pleasant meeting and was as convincing as a marketing type could be to a very earnest and quirky field service guy, mostly promising the moon for a versatile but then very buggy piece of silicon. We talked about some simple design rules and I remember him thanking me for coming, saying we were the only chip company who cared enough to call on him (little did he know.)

I thought nothing about the meeting until years later. Long gone from Zilog I saw the picture of the original Macintosh design team. The field service guy I had sold the chip to was Burrell Smith who had designed the Mac hardware.

The SCC had been designed into the Mac and became the hardware which drove all the serial communications as well as the AppleTalk network which allowed Macs to share printers and files.

Some sales guy who was too busy to take the meeting was probably retired in Maui on the commissions.

Ask and It Shall be Given

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

Ask, and it shall be given. That was Steve Blank’s experience:

Our small training department had been without a manager for months and finding a replacement didn’t seem to be high on the VP of Sales list. We four instructors would grumble and complain to one another about our lack of leadership.

Then it hit me — no one else wanted to be manager — what was the worst that could happen? I walked into the VP of Sales’ office and with my knees trembling, I politely asked for the job. I still remember him chuckling as I nervously babbled on what I good job I would do, what I would change for the better in the department, why I was qualified, etc.

He said, “you know I figured it would be you to come in here and ask for the job. I was wondering how long it would take you.” I was now manager of Training and Education at Zilog.

All I had to do was ask.

He learned to keep asking:

One day I heard there was an opening in the marketing department for a product marketing manager for the Z-8000 peripheral chips. The department had hired a recruiter and was interviewing candidates from other chip companies. I looked at the job spec and under “candidate requirements” it listed everything I didn’t have: MBA, 5–10 years product marketing experience, blah, blah.

I asked for the job.

The response was at first less than enthusiastic. I certainly didn’t fit their profile. However, I pointed out that while I didn’t have any of the traditional qualifications I knew the product as well as anyone. I had been teaching Z8000 design to customers for the last year and a half. I also knew our customers. I understand how our products were being used and why we won design-in’s over Intel or Motorola. And finally, I had a great working relationship with our engineers who designed the chips. I pointed out it that it would take someone else 6 months to a year to learn what I already knew — and I was already in the building.

A week later Zilog had a new product marketing manager, and I had my first job in marketing.

Now all I needed to do was to learn what a marketeer was supposed to do.

He came up with a heuristic:

In a technology company it’s usually better to train a domain expert to become a marketer than to train an MBA to become a domain expert. While MBA’s have a ton of useful skills, what they don’t have is what most marketing departments lack — customer insight. I found that having a senior marketer responsible for business strategy surrounded by ex-engineers and domain experts makes one heck of a powerful marketing department.

Tapped on the shoulder by the VC gods

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

To an entrepreneur, Steve Blank says, being asked to join a venture firm with an Entrepreneur-in-Residence title means you have been tapped on the shoulder by the VC gods:

It means you get to sit at a venture capital firm (some even pay you for the privilege) and stay until you have come up with an idea for your next company or have joined a company you’ve met as they passed through the VC’s offices. Depending on the size of the venture firm they may have one to three EIR’s who stay an average of a year or so. It really means that the VC’s would like to own a piece of you.

To a VC it’s a cheap investment, and if they somehow don’t bind you to their firm, someone else will. In reality an EIR is a set of wonderful golden handcuffs. Of course no VC firm will come right out and say, “If you’re an EIR for us you can’t do your next deal with any other firm.” Hmm… You’ve taken their money, eaten their food, sat in their meetings and you are going to take money from someone else? They have your soul. It sounded like a great deal. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and would get paid to think about it? How could it go wrong? Little did I know.

Read the whole story, but I’ll skip to his lessons learned:

  • Your level of due diligence should be commensurate with your position in the company and proportional to the reality distortion field of the presenter
  • Never join (or start) a company whose business model you can’t draw
  • Subjects in which you are not a domain expert always sound exciting
  • Sleep on any major decision