On Service: No one expects you to be perfect

Last week my mom got some flowers as a thank you gift. She was delighted by the gesture and when she went to open the flowers (which were delivered by a third party) she saw that a tulip was frozen, a rose was burnt brown by the cold and the water the flowers were in was practically freezing. Now my mom is a pretty nice lady and she is not the sort to make noise over little things, but in this case she decided the store ought to know that their flowers were arriving in this state.

When my mom called, the store listened, and perhaps more importantly, my mom felt listened too. They also took the next step and sent my mom a very nice arrangement of tulips, and that’s the most powerful part of this story. No one expects you to be perfect. I know my mom didn’t. She called and did not kick up a fuss, it was just an “FYI” as she knows these things happen. The store sent the second arrangement because it was the right thing to do, and that was an unexpected gesture on their part, and pretty much perfect.

On Mentors and Advisors: How to Find Them

Rob just left me a comment over:

Hi Mike. I read somewhere that being an entrepreneur can be the loneliest job in the world. I didn’t understand until I started my business. I think it’s great that you recognize the value of good advice. Do you currently mentor up and coming entrepreneurs?

I have long been convinced that mentors provide great value, and I because I am outspoken on the topic, I frequently get asked by other entrepreneurs if I know any mentors that could help them, or if I can help them myself. I don’t and I’m not able to presently, but here’s what makes a good mentor and how to discover a mentor for yourself.

Step 1 – Admit you don’t know everything and you need help. No mentor is interested in a know-it-all who is closed to the advice they bring. While this may sound obvious, many entrepreneurs are not open to mentors or their advice – it’s a shame.

Step 2 – Consider your personal network of family and friends- consider it long and hard. I’m willing to bet you already know someone with great business and management experience, or someone in your network who does. I recommend appealing retired business people and/or people who are a few years ahead of you in the same industry. If your network comes up dry, create one. Go to a conference, talk to the local chamber of commerce, reach out to your accountant, your lawyer, the local coffee shop owner – entrepreneurs know other entrepreneurs, and so do the professionals entrepreneurs rely on.

Step 3 – Reach out to your prospective mentor and ask if you can buy them a coffee, a donut, 15 minutes of their time. Do not make it a pain to spend time with you; fit yourself into their schedule (i.e. this is why lunch is a great option – everyone has to eat, and it’s during the workday so it does not cut into family time). Travel if you need to, a good mentor is worth the commute. Since it helps to establish a personal connection with a prospective mentor, don’t send an email asking if someone wants to be your mentor. Instead make a phone call, visit their office or send an email and say you are wondering if you could take them out to lunch and “bounce some questions” off of them because you are wrestling with some things as you grow your business. This will appeal to their vanity (they are human after all!) and it gives you the chance to “try before you buy” which is *always* a good idea. If they are not interested in meeting with you after you make this ask, then they may not be the right fit for you anyway. If you are sure they are, be persistent and follow up after a suitable period (measured in months).

Step 4 (key ingredient) – When you do finally meet, lay yourself bare. Wise people are drawn to less experienced people who are open about their areas of weakness and concern. Tell your mentor (or prospective mentor) your true state of affairs. Sugar coat nothing. This will foster trust and stir genuine desire to help in a prospective mention – it’s the un-written rule: mentors need to be needed.

I hope this helps.

Financing and Web Apps

Just spent some time with a young first time entrepreneur *full* of potential. He’s talking to VCs trying to get financing to build his idea. It’s a web app, so here’s the deal. IF you are building a web app DO NOT GO TO VCs…at least for a while. First you need to:

1) Build the app and release it live
2) Get some users
3) Interview and understand those users intimately

After you have done these three things, maybe you have a case to speak to a VC about what you are up to. Different rules apply to serial entrepreneurs who have established credibility to stand on, but first-time entrepreneurs need to prove themselves – keep in mind VCs are being flooded with business plans for websites…they are a dime a dozen like it’s 1999. And if it makes you feel any better, no one believed in FreshBooks when we started talking to people about financing in 2004…so don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Rules I Like

Behind successes there are usually cultures.  Cultures are often based on unwritten rules.  Here are a few I like:
Hat tip to Venture Beat:

Sequoia Capital’s $100 rule — If partners at the big-name venture capital firm arrive late to a meeting with an entrepreneur, even by a minute, they have to donate $100 to charity. Entrepreneur Noah Kagan confirms this with partner Michael Moritz.

I hear that the Tampa Bay Lightning have a their team logo printed on the floor of their dressing room. Anyone who walks on it has to pay $150 (or thereabouts)…I’m not sure where the money goes and I don’t really care.  It’s about respect.

I like these rules.

Bottom Up Financing

Last year I spent a lot of time talking about bottom up marketing.  Looks like we are starting to see a lot of bottom up financing too.  Consider my mesh partner Rob Hyndman – a technology lawyer who sees a lot of companies and ideas well before any VC.  So now he’s put out a call to Toronto angels, and with the fallout from the disintegration of the Toronto venture group, his timing couldn’t be better.

You know a smart VC really ought to partner with Rob.  In the meantime, bottom’s up.

Hey Entrepreneur, Reach Out for Help

I’ve talked about it before, but recognizing when you need guidance is vital – in my opinion this is especially true for entrepreneurs who frequently bear the responsibility of making decisions that affect the rest of the team.

Every few months I find myself wrestling with an important business decision – on what will have impacts long into the future. At times like these I find I am rarely standing on solid ground with respect to making an informed decision. When you think about it, this is not surprising. FreshBooks exists in a fast moving space…relatively speaking, technologies and markets turn on a dime on the web. I like that about what we do, but it also means that I find myself trying to solve problems that have either never been solved before, or have only been solved by a small number of people. Gaining access to those people so you can ask them questions about their experiences is priceless, but not always possible – that’s why I collect advisors and try to cultivate long standing relationships with other entrepreneurs.

If you surround yourself with great people, the trick then becomes swallowing your pride and laying yourself bare and revealing that you don’t know the answer. You may have some ideas, but really what you have are questions. If you have the courage to ask those questions, you’ll find that your advisors can steer you in the right direction. It’s been my experience that the best advisors won’t tell you where to go, but they will keep you from going in the wrong direction, and that’s at least half the battle.

So swallow that pride, and turn to someone you think might help – it might even be your competitor. I’m betting you’ll be amazed at how you will be received.