Category Archives: startups

The 3-Question Framework

I had a recent exchange reflecting on positive and negative CEO-Board of Director interactions.  So I mechanically responded with the “3-Question Framework” recommended by Priiva co-founder Gerry Sullivan.  As a board director, I use this framework before, during, and after every board meeting.  And I advise CEO’s to use this framework as well as they prep for board meetings and steer their board discussion for optimal impact.

3-Question Framework…
  1. Do we have the right CEO?
  2. Do we have the right strategy?
  3. Do we have the right governance?
In our exchange, we went deeper into a specific example.  A director was harping on the CEO about using a metric/KPI as part of their eCommerce initiative.  My assessment was that the director, based on the phrasing of the question, was behaving like the CEO’s operational adviser and not a director.  Specifically, the question was asked in this form…
  • Why don’t you use XYZ metric to measure our e-Commerce performance?
That form suggests the director is favorably predisposed to the XYZ metric and if the director were the CEO, that would be their choice.  A discussion involving two operators would be triggered during the board meeting while other board members tune out and check their phones.
Alternatively, a good director, in my opinion would rephrase as…
  • Why have you chosen to use ABC to measure e-Commerce performance, over XYZ or any other metric?

The rephrasing drives a higher order conversation which better informs each of the 3 questions in the framework…

  • can the CEO articulate a compelling answer or agree to revisit if there isn’t one?   That is, do we have the right CEO?
  • can the CEO articulate the metric’s link to overall strategy?  Or can the CEO contrast metrics that would be most important in alternative strategies?  That is, the CEO has thought about alternate strategies sufficiently.  And do we have the right strategy?
  • can the CEO describe the process that derives the data and its tie to standard reporting systems?  That is, do we have the right governance and oversight on processes and reporting?
There is a time and place for board directors to provide operating advise to CEOs.  But in board meetings proper, directors should be more thoughtful phrasing questions that will shine light on the “3-Question Framework”.
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Coming Up for Air in 2014

It is time to come up for air after having put my blog on sabbatical the last two years.  A sabbatical wasn’t really planned…it started out as a case of blogstipation which was followed by the all-consuming task of launching a new company RealWeld Systems, Inc.

Fast forward to today and I’m excited to join the board of Sitrion as the company executes on its multi-ecosystem strategy.  For over a decade while I was at Open Text, the company evolved from being entirely independent with no integration or major partnerships to having compelling integration and partnerships with SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle.   During that time, our sales and product evolved from the paraphrased positioning “we are the greatest” to “we are the greatest working with systems you’ve already bought”.

Creating win-win scenarios for the customer and partner, decision trade-offs on depth versus quantity of integration, and properly positioning added-value for all parties in a language familiar to the customer are just some of the strategic multi-ecosystem issues worth wrestling about.

In 2014, I will spend most of my time continuing to grow RealWeld, which has the opportunity to revolutionize manual welding training, credentialing, and quality assurance.  In addition to Sitrion, I’ll also spend board member time for Seen Digital Media, Inc who provides an application for visual marketing campaigns for leading brands.  Every time I’m in a deep discussion about one of these companies, I find myself writing an “ah-ha” reminder or action for one of the others.  Being a startup operator, I can relate better to Daniel and Brian as the CEO’s of Sitrion and Seen respectively.  And being a board member makes me a better operator of RealWeld.  It’s an awesome cycle of filtering on the best business ideas, practices, and people from a diverse set of companies.  It has already been a fun year!

Startup Weekend: Ten Lessons Learned

I’ve never been in town for a Columbus Startup Weekend and participating has been on my bucket-list since hearing of its inception.  It’s a great program underwritten nationally by the Kaufmann Foundation and carried out locally by sponsors, individual organizers, and participants who care about developing a startup culture and eco-system.   I finally got my chance last weekend February 17:19th hosted by TechColumbus.

Friday Night:  5pm to 11pm

Andy Sparks and Dan Rockwell kicked off the weekend and schooled everyone on the format.  Lesson One: F-bombs are culturally acceptable at this event!  Roughly half the audience were rookies like me but I was definitely the oldest of roughly 100 participants.  Seventy startup business ideas were pitched in one minute speeches without slides.  I didn’t attend to pitch an idea…rather, I wanted to contribute to the idea I was most intrigued by.  Some pitches were very amusing – like SwearWordsWithFriends.  Others wanted to advance healthcare using technology.  After the seventy pitches, an extremely low tech but very effective voting process ensued and the top eighteen ideas were deemed to be the startup projects for the weekend, and each of those individuals that pitched were suddenly cast as the team lead for their idea.  Lesson Two: Understand that if your idea is picked, you just became a Founder & CEO.   The CEO’s first task was to figure out who they needed and wanted on their team.   Instead of speed dating – its speed hiring.  And just like real life, not everyone gets hired.  I was most intrigued by “ShowShopper” and  found the CEO, an Ohio State senior, who had pitched that idea.  He asked about my skills. “Well, er ah, I’m sort of a technology guy and marketing guy”.  Lesson Three:  First impressions are imprinted in five seconds.  With that stellar interview performance, I didn’t think I was going to be picked and was reminded of a life of being the shortest person on the court when fifteen people vie to be chosen for two five-person pickup basketball teams.   Then suddenly, someone bailed for another team and I made the cut.  Lesson Four:  Its all about people – knowing the skills needed to build out your idea is more important than the idea itself.   Our team of three Ohio State students and the “old guy” adjourned to our assigned conference room and we immediately started a spirited discussion on the feature set of our solution.  Massive confusion ensued as everyone was using different terminology.  Lesson Five:  Never underestimate the power of naming to support higher bandwidth conversations.

Saturday:  9am – 11pm

We made progress defining the end user experience and hand sketching what that would look like.  Our solution had some technical complexity but was fraught with commercial complexity as our solution required interfaces to three large and established stakeholder groups:  product placement advertisers like Old Spice, television and movie producers like Modern Family, and streaming media delivery channels like Netflix.

We got a handle on the end user experience but we really didn’t yet understand who our (economic) customer was, how we would charge, how much to charge, and how a startup company could credibly get to market with such large and established companies.   No one on our team had advertising experience and we struggled to understand if our solution was more about enabling product placement advertising or ad-serving technology.  Lesson Six:  The product is the business, not the product features.

We needed to quickly get smarter  about the market so we gravitated to using Mindmeister to capture initial research nuggets.  Mindmeister is an awesome browser-based mind map tool where multiple users author a common mind map.   Lesson Seven: Use tools like Mindmeister that are super easy to consume – you don’t have time to learn a new tool and do the job.

Sunday:  10am – 9pm

We arrived to a revised schedule.  Presentations by each of the eighteen teams would start at 6pm and each would last only five minutes (instead of seven) followed by two minutes of Q&A from a distinguished panel.  Judging criteria was reiterated.  Presentations were due at 4pm.  At the start of the day, we had nothing in presentation format nor had we developed any positioning language that was crisp.  Lesson Eight:  As Mark Twain and other greats have said, if I had more time I would have written a shorter story.

One of the team members was a wiz in Adobe InDesign and mocked up very realistic visualizations of the end user experience.  Another team mate was a wiz in Prezi, which is like PowerPoint with animation on steroids.   The judging criteria aligned to Lean Canvass methodology so we used an lean canvass tool by Dan Khan to structure our current thinking, understand remaining unanswered questions, and develop experiments to test our assumptions.  We dress rehearsed.  We role played hard questions from panelists.  Our presentation and business plan started to gel!

Just before the judging finale, we made that proverbial one last change and inadvertently dropped two slides from our presentation which wasn’t discovered until onstage presenting.  My team mate recovered nicely.  Lesson Nine: Dancing on your feet is a lifelong skill…get used to it.

We didn’t win but we were proud of our work product.  During the finale, the energy level in the room was a mix of exhaustion, exhilaration, and accomplishment.  Startup Weekend is an amazing vehicle to develop business skills and build relationships and was a great opportunity to be reminded of these important lessons.  Lesson Ten:  There is no substitute for experience.