Entrepreneurship As A Calling

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, skmurphy, Startups, Video

A documentary on entrepreneurship as a calling that I found very compelling was “The Call of the Entrepreneur” produced by the Acton Institute. It addresses both practical and spiritual aspects of entrepreneurship from the point of view of three very different entrepreneurs:

  • Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer in Evart, Michigan who transforms a failing farm into a successful dairy and compost company.
  • Frank Hanna, a merchant banker in New York City who explains how entrepreneurship transforms the economy into a positive sum game.
  • Jimmy Lai who grew up in Communist China and then Hong Kong, emigrating to New York to found retail and media companies.

What Are You Throwing Away That You Could Be Selling?

I found Brad Morgan’s story to be the most interesting, as he says, “You put your butt in a corner, you would be surprised what you could achieve.” Certainly a familiar feeling for most bootstrapping entrepreneurs, sometimes more than once a month in the early going. The documentary stresses the creative problem solving aspects of entrepreneurship. When Morgan figures out he can convert an excess of cow manure into a compost–so that he can sell it instead of having to pay to have hauled away–it’s a light bulb moment. He is down to earth and pragmatic, and his story offers two lessons for bootstrappers of all sorts:

  • what are you throwing away that has value to someone?
  • What is someone else throwing away that you could recycle or re-purpose into something valuable?

Trailer For The Call Of The Entrepreneur

About The Acton Institute

The Mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty is named after the great English historian, Lord John Acton (1834-1902). He is best known for his famous remark: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Inspired by his work on the relation between liberty and morality, the Acton Institute seeks to articulate a vision of society that is both free and virtuous, the end of which is human flourishing. To clarify this relationship, the Institute holds seminars and publishes various books, monographs, periodicals, and articles.

Where To Buy DVD and Study Guide

Please note that these are not affiliate links, it’s just much cheaper to buy from the Acton Institute directly than Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Related Blog Posts And Articles

Tristan Kromer on Testing Customer and Value Hypotheses

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy

These are excerpts from  Episode 9 of Outlier on Air: Tristan Kromer, A Lean Approach to Business.  They are in the same sequence the took place in the interview but a number of stories and asides have been omitted to focus on what I felt were some extremely valuable insights from Tristan Kromer on clarifying and testing customer and value hypotheses.


Podcast is dedicated to Disruptors, Rule Breakers, and Big Thinkers

Melinda Yeamen (@melindayeaman): Today, we are going to talk about having a lean approach to your business. We’ve got Tristan Kromer. He is a freelance lean and Innovation coach, and he runs the Lean Startup Circle. This is a grass roots community based around lean startup principles, with Meet-Up groups worldwide. This is actually a follow-up interview to a written interview that “Outlier Magazine” did, Tristan, you are joining us from Silicon Valley, is that right?

Tristan Kromer (@TriKro  | blog):  That’s right. I’m sitting here in the SOMA area of San Francisco right now, and I have my offices in this area.

Tristan Kromer Started Like Everyone Else, Failing Repeatedly

Melinda: Before we go into Lean principles, I want to get to know more about you personally: what brought you up to Lean Startup coaching and what drives you to do it.

Tristan: How I got to Lean Startup is relatively straightforward. It’s the same way that most people get into it, which is that you try something new, whether that’s in a large company or a small startup of your own.

You start out with this wonderfully egotistical idea that you know what you’re doing, and that you alone can provide that vision, and tell the customers what they need, and then you fail repeatedly to deliver on that promise.

Then, after banging your head against the wall enough times you start to think, “Maybe I’m not so visionary. Maybe I’m not Steve Jobs 2.0, and it’s time to try something new.” Most of us who have become real Lean evangelists in the past few years have struggled desperately with our own projects and suddenly realized that there was perhaps a better way. A way that is more grounded in reality.

  • Test out those ideas on a small scale and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. I’ve worked with larger companies in the past. I worked in the IT security industry for five years in Germany and Taiwan and Vietnam and Switzerland. I worked in the music industry in the US before that for 10 years.
  • Identify the critical assumptions in your business–whether that business is a band, a restaurant, an IT company, or a high-tech company.
  • Test them, validate them, and then move on. Just that methodology has just proven more successful than the “Field of Dreams” — the “build it and they will come” approach.

That’s really how I got there –by failing repeatedly and–by trying to recognize the things that worked when I did succeed and the things that inevitably wound up bringing me to failure.

A Day In The Life Of A Lean Startup Coach

Melinda: Tell me a little bit what your life is like. What does your life look like as a Lean Startup coach?

Tristan: This morning I woke up at 6:00 AM to talk with a team at company I’m working with in Switzerland. They want to implement Lean Startup practices but in a large company they also have to worry brand, and political fallout from other teams. I am helping them do small-scale innovation in a large company environment?

Since then, I’ve been working a lot of the day on Lean Camp,  an unconference the weekend right before the Lean Startup conference. An unconference offers an open space format like BarCamp, this one will gather a lot of Lean Startup practitioners to discuss Lean methodologies, tactics, and tips and lessons learned. I’ve been spending all day with our massive volunteer team trying to get that organized.

Melinda: I ask you because our audience is specifically entrepreneurs and startups. We all have these major aspirations, and once we take that leap from the corporate world–or from college or wherever we’re from–we have to bust it. There is no longer a paycheck that’s coming no matter what. We have to earn every cent. We’re all doing it for a larger dream, too. I wanted to pull that out, plus I’m really interested in how you operate.

Tristan: I think that’s common for a lot of us. It’s no different from when you or I worked in a larger organization. We probably did the same thing. We were busting our asses at two in the morning. Eventually it becomes, “Why am I doing this for somebody else?”

Instead of dealing with the nitty-gritty of some mechanical policy that’s not allowing me to innovate, why don’t I do that for myself, and really try and solve other people’s problems in a more direct fashion?

We Have This Drive To Create

Melinda: I love that you use the word innovate, because I think a lot of entrepreneurship, of course, we have our own “why” as to why we’re doing it, but one big commonality that we all have is we’re innovating. That is what we want to be doing all the time. We have this drive to create, and that’s what we have in common there.

Tristan: There are a lot of people out there who I would consider entrepreneurs, who consider themselves entrepreneurs, who are innovating on a small scale.

I know a lot of people in Silicon Valley who look down on people who are just creating yet another brick and mortar business, or yet another restaurant, or even an e-commerce site or a blog. Personally, I think these are all levels of innovation.

People have a lot of different reasons why they go into entrepreneurship: I think they are all valid. Being an entrepreneur is not a question of scale but the drive and self-imposed desire to solve problems. That’s what I think really qualifies it.

Melinda: What is the bottom line for you personally? What really drives you to do all of this?

Tristan: I’m rather introverted; given no agenda for the day I would most likely curl up into a little ball with a television. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing the end result of my labor and seeing people actually make progress against their goals. It’s like listening to a good song.

When I played in a band and worked with other bands as a producer, those jobs offered immediate satisfaction. When there is too much distance from the impact of what you are building, which can happen in a large company, even if you’re working for a phenomenal company.

If you don’t actually get to interact with those customers, and see the satisfaction on their faces when they buy or use your product, I think that can become very demotivating. For me, the satisfaction of genuinely helping somebody is the end-all be-all. If you don’t have that, I don’t know what you’re doing.

Whether you want to call it business model innovation, or Lean Startup, or Lean Canvas, or Business Model Canvas, or any of those individual methodologies doesn’t really make a difference. The question is: are you actually helping people enable their own creativity and problem solving?

What is Waste?

Melinda: Can we talk about Lean Startup principles? Many in our audience have read the book; I found it to be excellent. Many, many things hit home for me. One was that failure is a good thing: we need to fail fast and pick ourselves up, eliminating waste and not repeating the same failures so you can efficiently move along.

I want to get your perspective on failure: how do you accept yourself and love yourself through the failure, but eliminate waste and not fail any more than you have to.

Tristan: Eliminating waste is the original lean: what Taiichi Ohno and the crew at Toyota first created as “just in time manufacturing” and later  became known as lean manufacturing.

The idea was to eliminate waste in terms of resources being used to create one physical product. I think it gets confusing, because a lot of people have a different sense of waste. The definition of what waste is and what the product is that you are trying to build changes the way you approach things.

If you are trying to build the product, even an insubstantial product, there are a lot of things that could be waste. There’s code and automated testing that might be considered waste even though it helps you maintain quality. Ultimately, the thing that Lean Startup identified is if you don’t know what product to build in the first place, then, it is all waste.

Failure of a Hypothesis is Not Failure of Your Startup

If you don’t know what the product is that the market wants, then everything you build is waste. The only thing that you can focus on is producing a business model that capture the knowledge and know-how in your company of what the customer wants and how to deliver that. Waste is really anything that you do that is not directly focused on learning about your business.

You might run a test and you put up a landing page and you put up a value proposition and nobody bought it. Some people might say that is failure, but it is not. You have to look at it in terms of, “Did we produce any units of knowledge? Did we learn anything?” A failed test teaches you something if you invalidated a hypothesis. For example, you have successfully discovered that nobody wanted that value proposition; therefore you don’t have to build that product. Failure of a hypothesis is not failure of your startup.

Melinda: A lot of us have things that we want to build, some are tech related and some are not. When you should actually start building that product? Should you always be explicit about your concept sand prove the desire for it in the market first? What is your strategy on that?

Tristan: Focus on what is the riskiest thing about your business model. Sometimes it may be a technical risk–can we make this piece work–and sometimes it may be an aspect of market risk–will people pay for this?

A Lean Startup Starts With You Admitting Your Ignorance

Melinda:  So when we want to create a product, evaluating just how obvious the problem is in the market is the first step. How much do we really need to test? What are the fundamental steps Lean Startup recommends?

Tristan: A Lean Startup for me is first and foremost the willingness to admit your ignorance. It’s recognizing that we don’t  know all of the answers. That’s step number one.

If you think that you know everything, that you have a perfect product, that you have a crystal ball that lets you make a spreadsheet for  how much revenue you’ll have five years into the future, Lean Startup is irrelevant for you.

But for those of us who are willing to start with that premise that “I don’t know,” then our first step is identifying the blanks and asking, “How do I go about learning more?”

Other Perspectives Are Critical to Uncovering Your Ignorance

The second step for me is getting perspective. We can identify some of the gaps in our knowledge but we may still have blind spots, where we don’t know that we don’t know. What Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns.”  It’s at this point that you should really take the advantage of other  perspectives on your problem:

  • From colleagues: Ask them for their opinion on your business model. Ask them to question you, to challenge you,  to force you to validate key assumptions for them.
  • From potential customers: Do they really have the problem that you think they have?

Getting other perspectives is a critical part of Lean Startup. It’s not talked about as much in the canon, but nobody can identify all of their own assumptions: it’s like trying to stare at your own eyeball without a mirror.

You need a second pari of eyes. Then, and only then, can you really do what Eric Ries talks about in his book, which is that “Build, measure, learn” loop. Until you’ve identified those assumptions, you can’t go about building something, measuring it and learning from that, because you don’t know what you’re trying to learn.

You Can Adjust Your Product Or Your Market Focus

Melinda: What I’m hearing is that it’s important to approach your business in a humble way and say, “Even if I know exactly what I want to create, I need to listen to colleagues and potential customers–and later on actual customers–so that I understand my customer base and adjust my product as I’m building it.”

Tristan: Absolutely. Or adjust your market focus. What you’re striving for is product-market fit. Not only can you adjust your product all you want, you can also adjust your market focus.

I personally prefer to stick with the market because I am normally motivated by empathy for a certain group or niche and I want to solve their problem. So I will continue to adjust the product. But I know other entrepreneurs who start with an invention, who have discovered a technology and are searching somebody who wants it and will pay for it.. It’s not my preferred approach, but entrepreneurs often do it.

It’s All a Matter of Opinion Until You Run the Experiment

Melinda: That’s interesting that some of us are motivated more by the market we’re talking to and others are more motivated to find a use for something they have invented. In my experience working at companies of different sizes and in my own startups I often see teams make decisions on opinions or what we like personally. This applies to feature selection, marketing decisions, all the way on down. Sometimes it can be hard to move forward when there are several conflicting opinions. How do you move past that?  When is it OK to use opinion and when do you absolutely say, “Look, the market has to tell this, not our opinions?”

Tristan: There’s no great rule of thumb, to be honest. It’s all a matter of opinion until you run the experiment. Whether it should be red button or green button, there’s no intellectual argument you can have that says what design will be more aesthetically pleasing and result in better click-throughs.

You might have some previous case studies or some analogs that you’re familiar with, but ultimately the market is the only one who can tell you for certain which one is best. But it only makes sense to test those things that you have a strong feeling will actually have an impact.

If you’re working on a brand-new product, testing the color of the button is probably not the first thing you should do. You should probably test that tag line you were talking about before. Can you explain the value proposition to somebody? Even before you determine whether or not anybody wants the value proposition, are you explaining it correctly? Can anybody understand what you’re talking about?

If your product is guaranteed to cure plantar fasciitis–which is a serious problem–and your tag line is “Cures plantar fasciitis instantly,”  that would be an extremely valuable proposition. But do many of your prospects know what plantar fasciitis is? Perhaps the better phrasing: “Do you have foot pain?” “Do you have a pain in your heel when you get up in the morning?”

The value proposition is far more important than what color is the button. It does take a certain amount of judgment to figure out what is the most important thing to test, right now. Is it going to be the line spacing or the font you’ve chosen or is it going to be the actual functionality of your product? It really depends on your target market and how severe the pain is. If it’s a very severe pain, the design is probably not an issue.

But if it’s only a weak pain point, something makes your prospect’s life just a tiny bit easier, than design is a huge factor:  the user experience has to be very fluid and friction-less.

Don’t Get “Stuck in Solution Land”

Melinda: When a client approaches you with a problem what techniques do you use? The Lean Startup book highlights “5 Whys” is that one that you use a lot? How do you kind of drill down to find a solution?

Tristan: Ignorance is my best technique. I never know about the person’s product. In fact, 90 percent of the time, I don’t want to know about the person’s product. It won’t help me and is likely to get me  “stuck in solution land” as my colleague Kate Rutter would say.

If I don’t know anything I  can adopt an outside perspective

  • I don’t know anything about the customers.
  • I don’t know anything about the value proposition.
  • I have the benefit of perspective and ignorance in that I don’t have any of the assumptions that the entrepreneur has.

The “5 Whys” vs. “5 Whos”

I can ask really stupid questions like, “OK, I understand your value proposition is to solve my plantar fasciitis, how many people are affected?”

You mentioned the “5 Whys” and I will use that for root cause analysis.  But normally I start with the basic: “who is your customer?” That’s the question that I usually wind up asking five times:

  • Who is your customer? Oh, it’s everyone.
  • Really, is it for my grandmother? Would my grandmother buy this product? Sure, she’d buy this product. She doesn’t have a computer. OK, maybe she won’t buy this product.
  • Would my six-year-old buy this product? No, probably not. Also not a big computer-user. Now we’re starting to narrow down the customer segment.

I ask “Who is your customer?” and “What is your value proposition?” repeatedly. It can help the team identify key assumptions that they didn’t realize that they were making and a better map of what they don’t know.  Both of these then need to be explored and tested.

Testing, Testing,…

Melinda:  What are some simple ways you can run a test? I think a lot of people just don’t do tests, because they think it has to be super scientific.

Tristan: I think that’s a common opinion but it’s actually a misunderstanding of what a truly scientific test is. To be scientific you need a theory–or a hypothesis–that can be disproved. You can substantiate it, but you never prove it, only disprove it with new data or observations.  So to keep it simple you look for ways to disprove your key hypotheses which are the your riskiest assumptions in your business model.

Melinda: Really, work on disproving rather than proving?

Tristan: Yeah. All tests should be designed so that you can actually fail them. Most people design tests and they’re looking for that 95 percent confidence rate: they haven’t set any fail condition. So that means that there is no condition under which they would stop doing what they’re doing.

For example, “I can get people to click on my adwords” vs.  “for my business to work I need to get at least a 20% click through rate.” The latter is a better test because it’s easier to disprove. With the former as long as someone clicks at least once at some point then you feel encouraged to continue.

My Product is For Everyone (That I Know)

The most common theory of a first time entrepreneur is that everybody wants the product.

Melinda: Does it worry you when you hear someone say, “My product is for everyone.”

Tristan: Yes, but if you actually ask, “Tell me more about your customer” they actually refine it quite rapidly. Most people don’t actually even believe that it’s for everyone because they haven’t even thought about that, yet. Sometimes when they say everyone they mean “everyone in Silicon Valley” because that’s what has shaped their worldview. But it can happen anytime the members of a  startup team are very similar and only hang out with people like themselves. Getting a little diversity in your worldview is a quick cure for that.

How to Advise Entrepreneurs About Their Business Idea

Melinda: Do you have some simple tips for how our audience can become better at advising colleagues?

Tristan:  Yes, here are four  key things anyone can do to help:

  1. Don’t focus on someone’s idea for a solution.  You may find it absurd or very reasonable but either way you will have a bias.
  2. Ask: “What is the customer segment?” Is it well refined? Is it focused?
  3. Ask: “What is the value proposition? Is the proposition is comprehensible? Will the customer segment understand it?
  4. Ask: “How are you testing it?”  Can the test fail? If not, get them to reframe it to one that can.

Summary; Three Key Steps to Get Started

Melinda:  What do you want our audience to take away?

Tristan:  Whatever business idea you’re focused on right now, no matter how much you think you know something, say out loud, “I don’t know. I don’t know and I’m going to test this.” Then get somebody else’s perspective. Ask a fellow entrepreneur, “Please spend the next 20 minutes and challenge me on everything I’m saying. Don’t argue against me but just ask me questions.”

If you can have a conversation with somebody for 20 minutes, where they only ask you questions and you don’t defend your value proposition just explain it, you’re going to find that you have a lot of unanswered questions. That’s what you need to test. Just start with, “I don’t know.” Get a second set of eyes on whatever you’re doing. That’ll take you 90 percent of the way.

After that join a Lean Startup Circle group near you. There are groups all over the world. It’s just a group of fellow entrepreneurs who, just like you, are  there to learn and to challenge each other constructively.

Melinda: I want to thank you so much for spending this time and lending your expertise to us. Thank you so much, Tristan. I sure appreciate it.

Tristan: No, no. Thank you very much and I hope you all have a great day. Good luck to you and your businesses.

Melinda: Thank you. To learn more about the Outlier movement, visit OutlierMagazine.co.

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A Note on the Transcript

These excerpts represent about 50% of the raw transcript. They are in the same sequence the took place in the interview but a number of stories and asides have been omitted to focus on what I felt were some extremely valuable insights from Tristan Kromer. I have added subtitles and hyperlinks for easier scanning and context. I used CastingWords.com and supplied a copy of the raw transcript (which ran about 7300 words) to Melinda Yeaman of Outlier for their use.

Entrepreneurs Blend Passion and Prudent Risk Taking

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Design of Experiments, skmurphy

Successful entrepreneurs are fueled by a passion to change the world tempered by prudent risk taking. Many risks have to be managed on an ongoing basis cannot be eliminated once and for by careful planning or the achievement of a particular milestone:

  • managing cash flow and the risk of a downturn,
  • meeting your obligations to your family as well as your business,
  • continually developing new skills and connections to cope with evolving customer needs and new competitive threats.

Noam Wasserman had an article yesterday’s Wall Street Journal on “How an Entrepreneur’s Passion Can Destroy a Startup” that focused on entrepreneurial passion and prudent risk taking. He has some excellent advice with regards to a shared risk analysis with your spouse (and a plan how to decided when to quit before you are in the middle of the roller coaster ride) and identifying potential risks and problems with you plan (what Gary Klein has called a “pre-mortem” in other contexts is incredibly useful for a startup team to do periodically, not as a way of hanging crepe but of anticipating and preventing or mitigating foreseeable problems).

Here is a list of risks he identified

Wasserman Tests: Excess Entrepreneurial Passion

Wasserman Test: Do You … SKMurphy Commentary
Feel like you are on mission to change the world? This is a good thing.
I think this is probably a good thing. Doesn’t mean you should prepare to run your business. But if align your business with a higher purpose I think you are more likely to persevere.
Get insulted when someone points out legitimate flaws in your idea or product? This is a red flag, but it  may be as much about personal maturity as anything else.
Find it hard to come up with pitfalls you might face or to detail a worst case scenario for your venture? This is a red flag, but it may be less about passion and more a lack of knowledge about business or your industry. You need to do premortem’s periodically to prepare for problems and mitigate those you can.
Raise money from professional investors when your #1 goal is to “work for myself” or “to control my own destiny”? I think this is a low probability situation.
This can happen but normally entrepreneurs motivated by a desire for autonomy don’t seek professional investment and those that do are typically screened out as part of due diligence.
Hire friends and family whom you may not be able to fire if they underperform or circumstances change, because you are confident you won’t face those issues? I think this is a low probability situation.
If the business is not doing well typically friends and family want out, if it’s doing well you can often find people role that fits their talents if they worked with you in the beginning.
Neglect to run careful tests to assess consumer demand? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Large business fail at new product launches quite frequently as well, I think this is less a passion problem and more something that is very hard to do.
Assume you won’t need a financial cushion in case the venture takes longer than anticipated to generate income? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
Sometimes it’s the fact that a team is almost broke that forces them to make the necessary changes to succeed.
Resist talking honestly with your significant other about the money and the time you expect to commit to your venture, and about the potential pitfalls you face? This is a real risk. This is a hard conversation but one that has to happen frequently. You have to treat you spouse or significant other as a member of the board of directors. I don’t think this is a passion problem per se, but failure to make a joint decision and keep them informed is a real risk.
Figure you don’t need to address the holes in your skills or networks in advance of founding? This is an ongoing challenge not something you can ever fix or satisfy.
There are always holes in your skills, consumer demand changes require new skills, competitors attack you in unanticipated ways that require new expertise, your network is never broad enough. I don’t think you are ever prepared enough and you have to be learning and connecting on an ongoing basis

I was struck by one paragraph:

For instance, almost 800 founders took a predictive test that evaluated their startup ideas, and then received recommendations about the next steps they ought to take. Thomas Astebro and his colleagues found that a sizable percentage of founders who received a recommendation to halt progress on their startups because the idea wasn’t commercially viable kept going anyway—29% of this group kept spending money, and 51% kept spending time, developing their idea. On average, they doubled their losses before giving up on pursuing their idea.

It Does Not Help To Tell An Entrepreneur Their Idea is Not Viable

It’s not helpful to tell entrepreneurs that their idea is not commercially viable. All new ideas are not commercially viable when judged by “conventional wisdom” until conventional wisdom changes.  Entrepreneurs are probably even less inclined to take advice from college professors who have never started a company. If you could reliably predict the economic viability of new idea you would not be selling analytics you would be making  investments.  Here is Thomas Asterbo’s bio from Genesis Analytics

Tom Astebro is currently Associate Professor in Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. He has seven years of experience in scorecard development. Tom developed the Genesis algorithms and technology as part of research at the University of Waterloo that was sponsored by CIBC and Nortel and earned the distinction as the creator of one of the three “Most Promising Technologies” in a recent Canadian competition.

Tom has published 29 articles, made 49 presentations at conferences, obtained research funding from NSERC, SSHRC, MMO, Carnegie Mellon, Telia, Volvo, Handelsbanken, and the Sweden-America Foundation and won ten international/national research awards. His research has been mentioned in Business Week, the Financial Post, the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen. He has worked as a management consultant for banks, insurance and manufacturing companies in Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands and has taught at Universities in Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Australia. Tom holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.B.A and a M.Sc. from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden.

Encourage Prudent Risk Taking But Don’t Try and Blunt Passion

What is very helpful is to get entrepreneurs to test their key assumptions–”what else would have to be true for your business to work”–and get them to start testing critical aspects of a plan. When a peer entrepreneur is working on a idea that you don’t think is viable, it doesn’t help to tell them “I don’t think it will work” or even “Here is why I don’t think it would work.”

Instead,  think about framing it as

  • What risks are you worried about?
  • Here are three challenges I think you business has to overcome to be viable. Do you have evidence or results that indicate that this won’t be a problem?
  • What could you do to test or explore how to work around these problems before investing time and money in other activities that don’t attack the riskiest areas first.”

What Would Have To Be True For For Startup to Thrive?

This approach to helping an entrepreneur think  through their risks and challenges is something we try and do at a Bootstrapper Breakfast when someone says what they are working on and another attendees says something like “that’s a crappy idea or that will never work.”

We try and get them to think through “what would have to be true for it to work? What are the key challenges they have to manage to make it work?” Because entrepreneurs can always tell their friends with “real jobs” about what they are working on and either be told, “that’s not viable” or “that’s great” (meaning please stop talking about this) and not get useful feedback or critique.

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Customer Interviews: Spend an Hour to Save a Minute

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, Lean Startup, Rules of Thumb

For customer interviews we have a rule of thumb that if an hour or research saves a minute early in the conversation it’s a good investment.  When you look at the list of questions you have prepared to learn about the prospect’s business and their needs, it’s easy to say to yourself, “I am really busy I can just ask these at the start to ‘set the table.’” But there are significant risks with this approach.

Preparations Cuts Risk Of Customer Interviews Ending Prematurely

While the interview may be nominally scheduled for 15 minutes or a half-hour and may run an hour if it goes well the first six minute or so  are critical to communicating that you have done your homework on their situation and their needs. If you start to ask questions that are already published on-line you can appear lazy or unprepared. If you can do research on a prospect in advance, it’s worth spending an hour to save a minute in the conversation. You can even start the conversation by saying “when I prepared for this conversation here is what I learned about your firm” and give a brief summary of what you know about their situation.

It’s OK to say “I see on your website that you have hired four people in the last three months, how has that impacted …” or “I read a profile of your firm in the San Jose Business Journal Book of Lists, have you grown beyond the 12 people listed in February?” This shows that you have done your homework and don’t want to waste their time but need to confirm some of the key facts that may bear on their needs.

Information Sources To Consult Prior To Customer Interviews

  • Do a thorough review of the prospect’s website.
  • Search for any articles in the last two years at least to see what kind of press coverage they have received.
  • Review the Linkedin profiles for the firm, the person you are talking to, and anyone with similar titles or in the same department.
  • Review on-line postings in relevant forums for the industry.
  • See if they have a blog, a twitter account, a YouTube account, and similar social media sits that are often used for business purposes.

Six Questions That You Normally Have to Ask In The Conversation

  1. Prospect’s description of the problem in their own words. This is rarely more than a sentence or two and capturing the essence in their own words is key.
  2. High level description of current work process or work flow in their own words. This forms the basis for any delta comparison or differentiation of your solution.
  3. Any constraints they mention: if you hear the same ones multiple times you will more than likely have to satisfy them.
  4. How they will tell that a new solution will leave them better off: this is different from asking them to specify the solution, it’s asking for “future state” or the end result they would like to achieve.
  5. What else they have tried to do to solve the problem: probe for why they were not satisfactory.
  6. Key metrics or figures of merit they would use to evaluate a new outcome.

Closing Thoughts

“A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.”
F. H. Westheimer

Entrepreneurs seem to divide into two camps:

  • those who want to have a conversation immediately, and
  • those who are quite content to research for months as long as they don’t have to talk to strangers.

Striking a balance is the key to maximizing your learning from a customer interview. Effective research prior to the customer interview allows you to

  • Ask better questions
  • Provide evidence of your commitment to developing a mutually satisfactory business relationship
  • Detect when your prospect is leaving something out or perhaps coloring the situation too much. You are not a stenographer there to capture whatever they say without reflection, but if your only source of information is what they tell you then you risk “garbage in, garbage out” in your product plans and MVP.

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Minimum Viable Product: Enthusiastically Proceed Skeptically

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Customer Development, skmurphy

In a candid discussion about the challenges of managing your own expectations for a minimum viable product (MVP), Tristan Kromer observed, “It’s psychologically hard to enthusiastically proceed with skepticism.” And that is the challenge, we have to be enthusiastic about our product ideas to persevere to complete them and tell others about them, but we have to be skeptical enough to accept criticism and open to prospect perspectives on needs and constraints on solutions.

Strong Opinions Weakly Held

Bob Sutton blogged about this in 2006 as “Strong Opinions Weakly Held” as one of the differentiators between smart people and wise people. Both have strong opinions, but the wise can more easily allow revisions to theirs:

Perhaps the best description I’ve ever seen of how wise people act comes from the amazing folks at the Institute for the Future. A couple years ago, I was talking the Institute’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”  They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo.  Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

Early Adopters For Your MVP Are Often Very Normal

I think too many entrepreneurs conflate “early adopter” with “technically sophisticated’ or ‘geek hipster.’ Normal people are early adopters when they have a strong need for your product. The first two people to tell me about E-Bay, and who were genuinely excited about it, were two mothers who didn’t know each other but were collectors of different specialty handicraft items (teddy bears and glass angels) and they were shopping regularly there because they were not available in stores.

They were early adopters. I ignored their advice, of course, when I should have realized that neither used a computer for any other purpose than visiting E-Bay. They were early adopters. I should have realized that if E-Bay could create markets for these highly specialized products they could create and serve a lot of niche/specialty markets in a way that was winner take all.

Another example:  I think Pinterest looks a lot like the way that someone who creates scrapbooks or manages a physical bulletin board would want to author a website.

 

Q: How Do I Calculate Business Model Parameters For A Novel Product

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

Q: How can I go about calculating  Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC),  Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), and other business model parameters for a technology that I will use to attack an entirely new market with no historical data?

While there may be “new markets with no historical data” there are no new markets that cannot be benchmarked against existing markets by asking these two questions:

  • What do people stop paying for to pay for you offering?
  • What do people stop spending time on to spend time on your offering?

What do the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) Customer Lifetime Value (LTV) look like for these substitutes?

Elicit Symptoms From Prospects

Alternatively what symptoms will prospects admit to having? They won’t read articles or click on adwords or watch videos about problems that they don’t know they have or believe they may be affected by.  An effective approach in the early market  is to interview prospects to find unmet needs, persistent problems, and goals at risk.

We Measure the New By the Familiar

The reason why light bulbs were measured in candlepower and steam engines (and later internal combustion engines and then electric motors) were expressed as horsepower. Henry Ford observed in “My Life and Work“ that, “A horseless carriage was a common idea…ever since the steam engine was invented…” We call a horseless carriage a car.

Things that are genuinely new are mysteries and don’t become news until they can be expressed as part of a familiar context or by analogy to a familiar example. Alan Kay gave a great talk on this last point that was recently highlighted by Jim McGee, “Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation.

What Job Will Your Prospect Hire Your Product For?

What is the job that prospects will hire your app to do? The phonograph was probably one of the most discontinuous innovations of the last few centuries. Here are some examples that Thomas Edison offered for the phonograph to North American Review in June 1878:
  1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
  2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
  3. The teaching of elocution.
  4. Reproduction of music.
  5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
  6. Music-boxes and toys.
  7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
  8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
  9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanations made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
  10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.

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An Entrepreneur Is A Change Agent

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy, Video

I like this 2009 video by Grasshopper “Entrepreneurs Can Change The World” that portrays the entrepreneur as a change agent and celebrates the freedom and economic opportunities that America has traditionally offered immigrants.

Here is the transcript from the Grasshopper site with some observations interspersed

Do you remember when you were a kid and you thought you could do anything? You still can. Because a lot of what we consider impossible is easy to overcome. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we live in a place where one individual can make a difference.

Want proof? Just look at the people who built our country: our parents, grandparents, our aunts, uncles. They were immigrants, newcomers ready to make their mark. Maybe they came with very little, or perhaps they didn’t own anything except for a single brilliant idea.

These people were thinkers, doers, innovators until they came up with the name entrepreneurs. They change the way we think about what is possible. They have a clear vision of how life can be better for all of us, even when times are tough.

The ability to look at a situation with “newcomer’s eyes” is a key element to unlocking creativity. So is time pressure and limited resources.

Right now, it’s hard to see when our view is cluttered with obstacles, but turbulence creates opportunities for success, achievement and pushes us to discover new ways of doing things.

So what opportunities will you go after and why?

If you’re an entrepreneur, you know that risk isn’t the reward. No. The rewards are driving innovation, changing people’s lives, creating jobs, fueling growth, and making a better world.

Entrepreneurs are everywhere. They run small businesses that support our economy, design tools to help you stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues around the world, and they’re finding new ways of helping to solve society’s oldest problems.

Successful innovation results when entrepreneurs manage their own shortcomings,  find a  problem they care about, and approach it from different angles with small safe-to-fail experiments.

Do you know an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneurs can be anyone, even you. So seize the opportunity to create the job you always wanted. Help heal the economy. Make a difference. Take your business to new heights.

But most importantly, remember when you were a kid, when everything was within your reach, and then say to yourself quietly, but with determination: It still is.

I have come to the conclusion that most entrepreneurial careers are involuntary, undertaken by “mavericks, iconoclasts, dropouts, and misfits” to quote Sramana Mitra. The trick is to minimize the amount of wasted effort by doing less with less in a way that builds on existing relationships, knowledge, and successes.

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The soundtrack to the video is “Chain Reaction” by Carly Comando; she also composed  “Everyday” for Noah Kalina’s “Noah takes a photo of himself every day for 6 years.

 

Few Against Many Requires Focus and Perseverance

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

We Happy Few

The fewer men, the greater share of honour. [...]
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
Henry V in Act IV Scene iii 18–67. “St. Crispin’s Day speech”

A college kid in a dorm room starts assembling and selling person computers.. Two college dropouts–or recent graduates–start building hardware in a garage. A woman starts a software consulting business in her second bedroom, then creates a software product. Four men in a pie shop sketch a design for a personal computer. All startups by definition start small and attract founders who welcome the independence. Perhaps they have failed in a larger  firm or they have become disillusioned working in one, perhaps they have never worked a large company and have no idea what’s really involved.

These startups often face competition from established incumbents who have more people, better financial resources, and relationships with customers. Their success in a niche can attract the attention of larger players either intentionally through their messaging or when prospects they have approached turn to existing vendors to provide similar functionality.

Marathon Not a Sprint

First time entrepreneurs often romanticize the speed and power of working in a small team, but experienced entrepreneurs understand that established firms often fight back very effectively: no market of with any value is uncontested and it’s going to be a marathon not a sprint.

“History seems to indicate that breakthroughs are usually the result of a small group of capable people fending off a larger group of equally capable people with a stake in the status quo.”
George Heilmeier in “A Moveable Feast” [PDF] 2005 Kyoto Prize Lecture

The team has to set a sustainable pace from the beginning. This often means not only work/life balance–keeping all of the critical commitments you have made to friends and family in addition to your co-founders–but work/work balance: finding a way to generate revenue, to bootstrap, while you are exploring the market and building the first and sometimes subsequent version of your product. Not every new product is an immediate success.

Startups are incredibly hard work. They require that you maintain good relationships with your family and friends and continue to participate in the communities you are a member of so that you can get support and useful perspective when you need it. Very few real products are built in a (long) weekend or a week or even a month or two. Plan for at least nine to 18 months of hard work where there are a number of “sprints” that are a few days to a week of concentrated work. But the team has to be able to sustain creative problem solving for a period of probably two years before it’s clear you have traction, at which point the game gets much harder as your competitors start to go to school on your success.

Cameron Moll explores the challenges of a team of two or three competing with a team of twenty in “Things Take Time

The team of twenty has quantity on its side — more hands and specialists to execute the work. With that, of course, comes all the red tape, political baggage, and countless meetings that accompany such teams and the organizations that employ them. Quantity suffers at the hand of seemingly endless structure.

The team of two or three has independence on its side — they call the shots, whenever and however they choose. With that, of course, comes all the requisite components for supporting and maintaining the thing they’re creating. Customer support, billing, advertising, blogging, tweeting, client and customer acquisition, and the like. Time suffers at the hand of a seemingly endless to-do list.

The independent team soon realizes that speed isn’t a luxury; its currency is late nights and long weekends. For those who prefer to keep a semi-regular schedule and who have other things to care for outside of work, we eventually learn to accept that things just take longer than we hope they’d take. Problem solving takes time. Details take time. [...]

I’m learning, rather forcibly I suppose, to be okay with things taking time. I’m also learning that often you end up with a better product when you take your time to get all the big and small details just right. It’s time well-spent.

It’s OK to take this time if you are in direct communication with customers who are willing to pay for the product. It’s a mistake to spend all of your time in the workshop if you have not had a number of conversations with prospects and closed some opportunities.

Avoid The Strong Points Of Established Firms

A larger company can work a startup into the ground unless you are careful in your choice of product and niche market: a frontal assault is typically beaten back. Startups have to choose how they will compete very carefully. In the “Bootstraper Manifesto” Seth Godin lists five key leverage points that many established companies enjoy: distribution, access to capital, brand equity, customer relationships, and great employees. Here is a brief explanation of each and some approaches that a startup can use to counter these advantages.

  1. Distribution: they are able to get the product in front of the customer.
    Counter: Sell directly, or find partners unwilling to work with larger firms
  2. Access to Capital: they can borrow a lot of money.
    Counter: Frugality, be smart about which problems you tackle, leverage existing team expertise.
  3. Brand Equity: if the prospect already knows about the company and the product it substantially reduces their perception of risk in making a purchase.
    Counter: go to firms who are unattractive to larger firms or not well served by them.
  4. Customer Relationships: especially in B2B with approved vendor lists and existing contracts.
    Counter: chase smaller deals, chase deals where you bring enough advantage someone will fight to put you on the list.
  5. Great Employees: talented people with low tolerance for risk are delighted to work in established firms. Entrepreneurs greatly overestimate most people’s appetite for risk, especially as passengers in their race car.
    Counter: provide opportunities for folks with appropriate experience who may be less desirable to larger firms. Examples of this might be older engineers, women who want to work part time because they have small children, people with less experience but more enthusiasm for learning.

More generally you need to configure your business model so that you are either pursuing opportunities that are less attractive to larger firms or your product violates one or more key requirements for their business. This may mean:

  • Chasing smaller deals to get traction and establish your brand.
  • Not implementing some functionality that your competitors have that your prospect don’t find valuable, enabling you to get to market faster and at a lower price.
  • Providing additional services that a larger firm either doe not have the expertise for.
  • Providing additional services that won’t necessarily work at scale but allows you to further differentiate your offering for your target nice.
  • Configuring or customizing a version of your product more rapidly or more completely than your competition.

Focus and Perseverance Means Saying No

Fast Company called work/life balance “bunk” a decade ago because “hungry” labor was going to work us into the ground. If you are able to substitute working smarter or working more intimately with customers for working more cheaply you can likely avoid this fate. Successful bootstrappers remain open to possibilities–especially the possibility that they are mistaken in one or more of their business hypotheses–but maintain focus: they explore many options but say yes to only a few.

One of the reasons I am excited about Discovery Kanban as a model for not only larger firms but startups is that entrepreneurs, especially bootstrapping entrepreneurs, have to husband their resources but find a way to explore the market. This means being explicit about the amount of effort that will be invested in developing and exploring options, and being very crisp on commitments. Discovery Kanban offers a framework for managing risks, options, probes, and committed projects from a consistent  perspective: we can only focus on a few things at a time, what are they?

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Don’t Get Distracted Raising Venture Capital

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, skmurphy

It’s not a mistake to accept venture capital if your business merits and requires it for growth. Don’t get distracted seeking it until then.

“The seductive narrative of Silicon Valley stars a genius-hero who goes on a journey, overcomes myriad obstacles, has a flash of insight and is rewarded by wise and benevolent investors with Series A funding. This narrative is bullshit, but it’s everywhere.

Venture capital is not a rags to riches story. It’s the inspiring tale of redeploying resources from a lower- to a higher-performing asset class. There’s nothing wrong with that – I find it kind of magical – but let’s not pretend we’re doing something else. In particular, let’s not pretend that this is an engine for social justice. You need a separate corporate philanthropy branch for that.”

Rachel Chalmers “Five Reasons Not To Raise Venture Capital

Here are her five reasons

  1. You probably won’t get a fair hearing.
  2. Raising venture capital doesn’t make you a good person.
  3. Most companies won’t ever generate venture outcomes.
  4. When you raise venture, you narrow your options.
  5. Venture math is a harsh mistress.

I think she misses the real top five:

  1. It’s not saying no to a real term sheet that is a mistake, it’s wasting time seeking investment instead of learning about the market.
  2. Writing a business plan or business model canvas is not nearly as useful as writing your customer interview questions or a one page sales pitch. Getting feedback on either  from customers will tell you more than feedback from a VC on a business plan.
  3. Asking prospect for money for an MVP tells you much much more about the market than any feedback from a VC.
  4. What can sound like advice on direction from a VC is actually a no. For example:  “this is interesting but we think addressing problem X or Market Y is more promising, think about it and come back and talk to us again.”)
  5. If you think money will solve your problems, you don’t have a good handle on your problems.

Affluenza victims, regardless of their socioeconomic level, falsely believe that money can solve all their problems.
Jon Winokur

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Start With a List of Customers and Problems That Build on Your Experience and Relationships

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, Community of Practice

“Start building network, blog, educating 1 year before you make the leap.
Build community.
The first sales will always be to friends. Make those friends.”
Conor Neill in “Entrepreneur: Start a year before you Start

I think Conor Neill offers this is a great framing for the need to identify the things about your plan that are not likely to change–a problem area, a category of customer–and join communities that are already focused on these. Build on experience and relationships.

He advises “build community” and not “build new community” and I agree, I would build new only where you cannot find existing communities.  If it’s a real customer category or a real problem there is almost always one or more communities formed that are addressing it at least partially. There may be several each using different terminology and focused on a different aspect of the same set of problems, but this is a search you can start well advance in crafting a product.

I don’t know if your first sales come from “friends” but certainly from people that trust you, if you can start the trust building process in advance of the sales process by becoming a member in good standing of communities they are already a member of or by writing or speaking about topics that they are interested in, then you effectively start in advance of the direct sales process.

Build on Experience

Another way to look at this is to “always start in phase two of a five phase plan.” Look into your past experiences and projects for examples of problems solved and relationships that you can build on as you start your new venture. If you are going in to a new area and cannot identify aspects of prior experience or expertise that will have an impact then be careful: you may be attracted to the new new thing without a way to differentiate your offering.

It’s OK to start over from scratch but if you are effectively setting fire to ten or twenty years of experience you may want to look instead at problems and fields that are adjacent or can take advantage of your experience in preference to one where you don’t bring relevant experience. Green fields are seductive because you know the problems of the areas you are more familiar with and can fall victim to the “grass is greener” when speculating about how easy a new field may be.

“An early start beats fast running.”
Michael Bowen (@mdcbowen) “Cobb’s Rules

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Michael Ellsberg: Four Reasons Why Passive Income Is a Destructive Fantasy

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, skmurphy

I make a distinction between wanting to move beyond running a services business where you bill by the hour to either selling results or selling a product and entrepreneurs attracted to the passive income fantasies of the “Four Hour Work Week.” When an entrepreneur tells me that the “Four Hour Work Week” has been a strong influence on their thinking I worry that they are unfamiliar with what’s required to build a successful business.

You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively

I found Michael Ellsberg‘s critique “Four Reasons Why Passive Income is a Dangerous Fantasy” to be on point.

1. You Can’t Stay Ahead of Competition Passively: If your research really does determine that there is some amazing market niche that until now has miraculously gone unnoticed and unserved—dog owners who wish to help their dogs lose weight naturally, for example—sooner or later, word is going to get out that there’s money to be made there, and someone is going to create a better ebook or info course or product that serves that market’s needs better than yours does, and who markets it better to them than you do. You can’t manage this competition while sipping margaritas all day from your paradise restaurant on Fiji. You’ll soon see your market share go down the drain—just like all those Açai cleanses…

I had a conversation with an entrepreneur who had been bootstrapping for three years successfully who said, “I keep waiting for it to get easier. When in your experience does it get easier?” I said that I don’t think it ever does. We brainstormed two lists:

  • Why it stays hard
  • Why it gets easier  (at least in some ways)

Why It Stays Hard

  • Established technical expertise has to be renewed, this takes time away from sales/marketing, product development,
  • Competitors react to your success, either copying it or acting to nullify it if you have been winning business from them.
  • Customer needs change over time, in response to changes in environment and earlier success in satisfying them.
  • Growth requires you to place larger bets; not growing or staying small for the sake of staying small risks stagnation in other ways.
  • The business environment can change rapidly and unpredictably
    • New technologies can obsolete existing products and services, and put categories of expertise at risk
    • New competitors and new business models emerge
    • Markets you operate in become commoditized, sometimes without warning.

Why It Gets Easier (At Least In Some Ways)

  • Soft skills accumulate
  • Paying customers come back and buy again — assuming you have happy customers
    • There is also an opportunity or referrals from happy customers.
  • Partner relationships that are well established allow you take action more quickly
  • Reputation accumulates (this can also work against you).

You Cannot Maintain Customer Relationships Passively

2. You Can’t Maintain a Loyal Tribe of Customers Passively: As soon as your customers realize that you don’t care about them (which you don’t, if you’re trying to get away from them as fast as possible), they will eventually go elsewhere, to someone else who actually does care about them and their needs.

If you don’t engage with your customers, if you want to little to no contact with them, then it’s unlikely you are gong to be able to detect and anticipate emerging requirements, rectify shortcomings with your current offering, or respond to what competitors are telling them.

You Cannot Lead a Great Team Passively

3. You Can’t Lead Great Teams Passively: If you’re going to be building a large, scalable business, sooner or later you’re going to need employees and/or freelancers. You’re not going to attract great talent for the long run by indicating to them that you have no interest in being involved in the business whatsoever. Some people obsessed with “passive income” say, in response, “No problem, I’ll just hire a leader to do all that managing, motivating, and creating stuff!” What you’re essentially saying, then, is that you’re adding zero value to the equation. You’re not coming up with the ideas, you’re not implementing/executing the ideas, and your not leading anyone to implement or execute them.

Buying stock in a company is a great way to create passive income, but that cannot be confused with entrepreneurship.  If you are not going to be able to contribute to one or more of technical insights, product leadership, customer intimacy, operational excellence,  or revenue generation then you are not really adding value to the business. You should be a passive investor.

You Cannot Discover or Pursue Your Life Purpose  Purpose Passively

4. You Can’t Create Meaning, Passion, or Purpose in Your Life Passively: I’ve had several conversations recently with people in their twenties who have built up some semblance of moderate passive income.  These people are (for now) living the dream–they get to travel to Fiji or some other exotic location on a shoestring and hang out on the beach, funded by their little niche ebook or whatever.  Yet none of these people I’ve talked to who have this temporarily successful lifestyle seem very happy. They actually seem kind of restless and lost. I’ve had conversations with several of them to help them determine “what the purpose of their life is” now that they have some amount of money coming in from some little passive venture they don’t even care about that much. It all feels empty to them.

This lines up with Arthur Brooks’ “A Formula for Happiness” where he recounts research that identifies the key drivers for happiness

  1. Genetics
  2. Big life events
  3. Choices

The bad news is that first two account for about 88% of baseline happiness and are not under your control. So, what choices can you make that influence the remaining 12%? Brooks suggests:

  • Faith: thinking about the transcendental, the things that are not of this world, and incorporating them into your life.
  • Family: having solid family relationships; the things that cannot and should not go away.
  • Community: cultivating important friendships and being charitable toward others in your community.
  • Work: marrying our passions to our skills, empowering us to create value in our lives and in the lives of others.

Rewarding Work is Essential

Brooks’ key take-away is that rewarding work is essential:

“I learned that rewarding work is unbelievably important, and this is emphatically not about money. That’s what research suggests as well. Economists find that money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life — getting enough to eat, having a place to live, taking your kid to the doctor. But scholars like the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have found that once people reach a little beyond the average middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increases in happiness.

So relieving poverty brings big happiness, but income, per se, does not. Even after accounting for government transfers that support personal finances, unemployment proves catastrophic for happiness. Abstracted from money, joblessness seems to increase the rates of divorce and suicide, and the severity of disease.”
Arthur Brooks in  “A Formula for Happiness

Ellsberg concludes with an interview with Bryan Franklin who recommends a focus on leverage in a business you care about:

“Every time I’ve seen someone create a business, with the ultimate intention of getting away from that business and its customers as quickly as possible, instead of moving towards that business and its customers, it fails.”

“What makes business work is creating value. If you’re going into the business with the intention of not creating value, but of having it magically provide money for you, then you often make really bad choices. The business that you’re investing in or creating doesn’t tend to be creating value for its customers or for anyone. So it doesn’t tend to spit off the cash you’re hoping it will.

“If you make your choices based on, not ‘how can I get money for free?’ but on, ‘What challenge can I put in front of my face that’s going to have me step up to be the kind of person I’d rather be?’ you’re going to start to forget about wanting passive income, and you’re going to start to focus on what purpose you truly want to create the world.”
Bryan Franklin

See also


Update Aug 2-2-14: When I selected my “Ten Quotes for Bootstrappers from July 2014” I added this postscript to the Bryan Franklin quote that I thought I would append here as well:

I think the Four Hour Work Week has offered a mirage that has lured more bootstrappers onto the rocks than “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The belief that you don’t need to care about your customers and manage your business to succeed is at least as productive as “my product is so good I don’t need to learn how to market and sell it.”

Tools for Buzzword Compliant Business Models

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, skmurphy, Tools for Startups

A collection of humorous tools that generate buzzword compliant business models.

Web Economy Bullshit Generators

First there was Dack Ragus‘ (@dack)Web Economy Bullshit Generator.” He started with sketches (“Kinda like Da Vinci’s sketchbook, except for bullshit”): “I made this massive list of potential bullshit terms while sitting on Miami Beach in January, 2000. Add a little JavaScript and it turned into the Bullshit Generator.” The archives of dack.com are also worth a peek.

At about the same time 37Signals launched with a manifesto and the e-NORMICOM parody site of the dotcom branding process for naming, logos, and taglines.

Then Stavros the WonderChicken (@wonderchicken)–no I cannot find his real name–did the “Web 2.0 Bullshit Generator™” noting that “Profits for your Web 2.0 company are not guaranteed.” It’s funny how that has not changed with firms like Box and Dropbox competing in some oddly configured on-line potlatch designed to provided services at a loss in exchange for new investment at ever increasing valuations.

Andrew Wooldridge launched Web Two Point Oh! to help with naming as well.

Parodies of Web 2.0 Business Models

Stavros later lamented in “Lomans not Shamans” at what the Web had become: “My god, it’s full of ads!” Here I think his anxiety was misplaced: most new media is advertising supported; the original newspapers were simply classified ads that gradually added news items to differentiate themselves.  Stavros references “What Puts the ’2′ in Web 2.0” by Brandon Schauer who was inspired by “Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software(2005)” by Tim O’Reilly and John Batelle. They followed up in 2009 at the Web 2.0 Summit with  “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On” (see also the white paper: “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On” [PDF]).

Cloud Models

Next in 2010 the Lunatech Ventures team launches  PlanCruncher as an attempt to compress a business plan into a single page using a couple icons. From their About Page:

“Plan Cruncher creates a standard one-page summary of a business plan for a start-up company that is looking for external investment. You do this by choosing icons that represent some of the standard answers that a business plan must provide.

Why investors want entrepreneurs to use Plan Cruncher:  Plan Cruncher saves investors’ time. To investors, business plans all look more or less the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and they are always too long, which is. Before an investor decides to wade into your ten or twenty-page document, he wants straight answers to a few basic questions about your plan.

Plan Cruncher generates a standard one-page summary that investors can use to screen business plans and compare them to each other.”

I don’t believe Plan Cruncher is a parody site, I listed in in my roundup of Business Model Canvas tools.

And in 2012 Norman Clarke (@compay) has launched Bullshit 3.0: Bleeding Edge Bullshit Generation in the Cloud which embeds the ability to launch a Google search for your tagline to see if it’s already real.

Strategy Statement MadLibs

Alexander Fiore offers what may be either high value strategic consulting or unintentional parody in his HBR blog post “How To Execute a 15 Word Strategy” [Registration Required]

Once upon a time there was (insert a name who exemplifies your target customer/consumer) …. . Every day he/she (insert here his/her frustration or job to be done) …. . One day we developed (insert here the product/solution and what are actually the 2-3 things we offer or not) … . Until finally (insert here the end result for the customer/consumer compared to competition) … .

The most recent example is Simon Wardley’s “A Quick Route to Building a Strategy” which is purely a parody.

Our strategy is [..]. We will lead a [..] effort of the market through our use of [..] and [..]  to build a [..]. By being both [..] and [..], our [..] approach will drive [..] throughout the organisation. Synergies between our [..] and [..] will enable us to capture the upside by becoming [..] in a [..] world. These transformations combined with [..] due to our [..] will create a [..] through [..] and [..].

Wardley’s template has been implemented by Bill West as a web tool at http://strategy-madlibs.herokuapp.com/ Reload the page to get a new strategy. West  might be able to charge for a version of Fiore’s.

Clue Train is Not Bullshit

I still find the 1999 Clue Train Manifesto a useful guide to marketing: it’s argument for real conversation between individuals is as compelling now as it was 15 years ago. Business models have changed with the advent of new technologies and many of these sites are parodying two real needs that every entrepreneur must satisfy: a succinct and comprehensible explanation of their product benefits to customers and a compelling description of their business model to investors.

 

 

 

John Gardner: Leaders Detect and Act on the Weak Signals of the Future

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 5 Scaling Up Stage, checklist, skmurphy

Some excerpts with commentary from “On Leadership”  by John W. Gardner.  Gardner outlines how leaders detect and act on weak signals of the future by looking beyond the horizon and planing for renewal.

There is such a thing as the “visible future.” The seedlings of [future] life are sprouting all around us if we ahve the site to identify them. Most significant changes are preceded by a long train of premonitory events. Sometimes the events are readily observable.”
John W. Gardner “On Leadership”

Marcelo Rinesi advised “the future is an illusion, all change is happening now” and Peter Drucker told us to “systematically identify changes that have already occurred.” From an entrepreneurial perspective you can often transplant a solution from one industry to attack a similar problem in another: as William Gibson suggests, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” This model for innovation brokerage requires that you be open to new solutions to old but pressing problems and that you scan more broadly to find them. Gardner offers his own explanation for why opportunities are overlooked:

“…the future announces itself from afar. But most people are not listening. The noisy clatter of the present drowns out the tentative sound of things to come. The sound of the new does not fit old perceptual patterns and goes unnoticed by most people. And of the few who do perceive something coming, most lack the energy, initiative, courage or will to do anything about it. Leaders who have the wit to perceive and the courage to act will be credited with a gift of prophecy that they do not necessarily have.”
John W. Gardner “On Leadership”

There is always a value in closing the deals that are in front of you and making this month’s payroll. But there is a risk in getting caught in the treadmill of the urgent. Gardner offers a prescription for leaders and leader/managers to differentiate themselves from managers trapped in the immediate crisis.

  1. They think longer term—beyond the day’s crises, beyond the quarterly report, beyond the horizon.
  2. In thinking about the unit they are heading, they grasp its relationship to larger realities—the larger organization of which they are a part, conditions external to the organization, global trends.
  3. They reach and influence constituents beyond their jurisdictions, beyond boundaries. In an organization, leaders extend their reach across bureaucratic boundaries—often a distinct advantage in a world too complex and tumultuous to be handled “through channels.” Leaders’ capacity to rise above jurisdictions may enable them to bind together the fragmented constituencies that must work together to solve a problem
  4. They put heavy emphasis on the intangibles of vision, values, and motivation and understand intuitively the non-rational and unconscious elements in leader-constituent interaction.
  5. They have the political skill to cope with the conflicting requirements of multiple constituencies.
  6. They think in terms of renewal.

John W. Gardner “On Leadership”

I think this is a good list, even for bootstrappers who are worried about keeping the lights on this month. You have to devote 10-20% of your time to problems in the longer term, and connections and initiatives that may not bear fruit next week but perhaps in three months or a year or two. The last suggestion, to consider how to renew skills, relationships, and shared values, is also a critical one for the long term.


More on Drucker’s suggestion for sources for innovation:

“Innovation requires us to systematically identify changes that have already occurred in a business — in demographics, in values, in technology or science — and then to look at them as opportunities. It also requires something that is most difficult for existing companies to do: to abandon rather than defend yesterday. ”
Peter Drucker in “Flashes of Genius

Successful Bootstrappers Are Trustworthy Salespeople Committed to Customer Satisfaction

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Funding, Sales

If you want to be a succeed as a bootstrapper, start with what you’ve got: you have an insight into an opportunity, a marketing edge, a particular problem where you’re going to bring distinctive value.

Don’t wait to get started until an investor tells you there is a market and they will invest. An investor cannot validate whether there’s a market or not. Worse, the process of seeking investment rarely teaches you more about customer needs.

The converse is even more important: don’t be dissuaded if an investor does not believe that there is a market.

It’s OK to ask your friends if it’s a good idea. But sometimes they will tell you they like the idea just so that you will stop talking about it and get out of their living room or office.

And again, if they don’t think it’s a good idea you should weight their perspective by whether they are a prospect or not.

Which ultimately means that you have to build a minimum viable product and start selling.

When a prospect tells you that they have problem that you want to solve for them, that’s good. When they write a check or give you their credit card, that’s validation. Now you are a bootstrapper.

But just because they have quantified their love for your idea it doesn’t mean that you are done. You need to follow through and see that you delivered the benefits that you promised to them.

More bootstrappers go wrong by not conserving trust than not conserving cash. Cash is important, but if you don’t keep your promises you cannot bootstrap successfully.

It’s primarily about selling and customer satisfaction. There may be challenges in building the product or getting it to work reliably when it leaves your hands. But the primary challenge is building something that people will pay for and order again (or extend their subscription) because it delivered the value that you promised.

Many of the people who are attracted to startups are drawn to a technology or a craft or the idea of being their own boss. Those are great reasons to become a bootsrapper.  But success requires developing an empathy and rapport for your customers and delivering value.

The key differentiators are your ability to sell and ensure customer satisfaction.


Conor Neil has a great quote in “If You Can’t Explain what You do in a Paragraph, You’ve Got a Problem” (great title but he admits he cribbed it from Brad Feld)

“I believe the major risk of early stage startups is getting customers to buy, and showing that you can sell.”
Conor Neil

Ten Principles for Trust and Integrity from Adventures in Missions

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

I have come to believe that morale or esprit de corps is the critical resource for a bootstrapping team. With it they can persist, blending freelancing, consulting work, customer discovery, product development, sales, and customer support.

The simple view is that you can just focus on one thing at a time–develop a product, market it, refine it, scale up–and that a few iterations will get you there. The reality for most is that it’s much harder and requires perseverance as a team.

The teams that persevere bring complementary skills and shared values to a common effort sustained by trust, shared vision and joint accountability. The first ten principles from  Adventures in Missions focus on trust and integrity,  offering some useful guidelines for building and maintaining trust:

  1. Integrity in an organization is built by developing trust.
  2. Trust is the glue that enables a team to function well.
  3. Trust is built over time through competence, commitment, and care.
  4. Trust is built as we preserve and build the significance of others.
  5. Trust is built through bearing each others’ burdens.
  6. Trust is built through a rapid response to communication.
  7. Trust is built through humility.
  8. Trust is built through personal contact.
  9. Trust is diminished by sarcasm and criticism.
  10. Integrity means making and living up to commitments.

See also “Entrepreneurship is the Launching of Surprises” which explores George Gilder’s essay “Unleash the Mind” and contains this insight that I think I am building on in my focus on morale as the key resource in a startup:

“America’s wealth is not an inventory of goods; it is an organic entity, a fragile pulsing fabric of ideas, expectations, loyalties, moral commitments, visions.”
George Gilder

D. H. Lawrence’s “Escape” Offers a Vision of the Entrepreneur’s Journey

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage

Escape
by D. H. Lawrence

When we get out of the glass bottles of our own ego,
and when we escape like squirrels from turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forest again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.

The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence

Many will also die of cold in the forest, or look around and decide to go back and live in the cage.

Others will decide to build new cages and squirrel wheels.

Not everything that is old will fall down or whither.

But there is a sense of possibility and self-actualization and revolution in entrepreneurship that Lawrence captures evocatively.

Advice on Crowdfunding from Matt Oscamou, Mark Palaima, and Noah Dentzel

Written by Theresa Shafer. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, Crowdfunding, Startups

Here is some advice from a couple of founders that ran successful crowdfunding campaigns:

Matt Oscamou, CEO of Frontier Bites shared at a recent Bootstrappers Breakfast meeting that he ran a successful kickstarter campaign $30K for pay for new packaging artwork and initial order. He found it useful as a way friend and family could help support his effort but he had little donations from strangers.

Mark Palaima, Distinguished Engineer at Avagent, hit their funding goal in the first 5 hours. Most of their donations came in the first two days and spent a great deal of time on a marketing road trip hanging out at tech bars showing off the product. See more about their campaigns at Avegant Glyph Kickstarter Surpasses Stretch Goals Before They’re Made, Try the Glyph in a City Near You 

At a recent SV Hardware Startup to Scale meetup, Noah Dentzel, CEO of Nomad Goods emphasized the importance of getting the word out on your campaign.  He offered the tip of writing article for press and bloggers.  His goal is to make their job easier for them.  He also took advance of holes in press schedules – no shows or other delays. His biggest piece of advise is to go for it, ask, knock on the doors. His biggest surprise was learning all the logistics about shipping and delivering products oversea.  He knows that shipping to S and Russia cost $0.90-1.10.

 

Without A Revenue Hypothesis Your Business Model Is a List of User Activities

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, Customer Development

Q: I am building an app that helps people build nearby interest groups (e.g. local model railroaders, quilters in your town, etc…). I am trying to establish a baseline for my value hypothesis testing and am considering the following metrics:

  • Registration rate of those who come to landing page
  • Rate of registered users who join or create an interest group
  • Rate of interest group members who interact (post etc) in a group
  • Rate of interest group members who log in again after a month

Even if I estimate the each of these rates at 50% I cannot tell what this would mean in terms of validating my business. Also I cannot determine how to use these metrics to determine the features to put in my MVP.

Any advice for where to start in a minimum set of metrics and features for an MVP for this service?

A: For the sake of an initial model let’s accept your estimate of a 50% rate for those four metrics. There are two key sets of hypotheses that you are missing:

  1. What are your hypotheses for how you generate revenue? What will your customers pay for and why? 
  2. What are your hypotheses for the cost of acquiring and servicing a paying customer? How much will it cost to get them to the landing page and to maintain the service?

Your answers to these two sets of hypotheses interact to tell you how long you can stay in business.

Q: Those are great questions but I feel like they are related to growth, something I think I should explore once I have figured out the value testing.

A: Getting paid is proof of your value hypothesis. You need to map your path to revenue. Once you can do that then planning how to do it in a repeatable scalable way is your growth hypothesis. Given that you are zero revenue you need to grow to at least break even to keep running experiments.

Q: OK I understand the importance of the monetization strategy in the hypothesis testing, but I don’t think it’s relevant to my original question. Suppose I added a another metric:

  • Rate of interest group members who convert to a premium account (e.g. for unlimited messaging)

And I assume it costs me $1 to get new visitors to my landing page. So now I have six hypotheses:

  • It costs $1 to get a visitor to the landing page
  • 50% of visitors register
  • 50% of registered users join or create an interest group.
  • 50% of interest group members interact in a group.
  • 50% of interactive group members login after a month.
  • 50% of persistent interactive group members upgrade to a premium account

What does that tell me? I still cannot tell if I have a  good starting point.

A: I think it makes all of the difference in the world, now you are optimizing for revenue in your experiments. The others are all vanity metrics if you don’t have hypotheses for their relationship to revenue and impact on cost.

You can enter whatever you think your conversions will be a priori, and now you can construct a hypothetical business that is profitable.

Without that you don’t have a (profitable) hypothetical business, you have a list of activities that users are engaging in.

Q: Should I Persevere With My Product Or Get A Job?

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage

Q:  I can’t get people to use my service. For the last 9 months or so I been trying to get it going, trying to validate the idea, but I can’t get people to use it, and I’ve iterated and improved the product multiple times. I can get people to click on ads  and visit the service but no one will even sign up much less use the service.

A:  Whom have you talked to about the service? Have you talked to potential customers?

Q:  Up until now, I’ve only really gotten feedback from my family and friends. I thought that marketing would be enough to explain the idea and convert visitors into customers, but it’s not working, and I’ve tried different methods and messages.

A: How did you come up with the idea for the service?

Q: I got the idea from my Dad almost two years ago and developed the idea into what it is now. I have been into technology for as long as I can remember and I am constantly dreaming of tons of amazing ideas, but most of them are too complicated to create myself. When my Dad came along with the idea I saw it as a chance to start fulfilling my dreams. At the time I thought that idea was simple enough to develop into a product. But I was wrong; it was much much harder than I had anticipated.  

A: As Paul Saffo advises, “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” I can sympathize with the challenges of having too many ideas and ideas that are too complex to make viable. It doesn’t hurt to write them down and in the case of the more complex ones also try to break them into phases or steps and see if you can create a building block that might then enable a second step etc..  How long have you been working on this particular idea?

Q: I took me about a year to develop a minimum viable product. About halfway through I dropped out of college to focus on it full time. It has been rough but I have finished developing it. I don’t know what to do and I can’t keep wasting my time and money on something that’s not working. My parents were supportive at first, but now they are saying I need to get a job. What should I do?

A:  A year ago if your parents had said we will support you for a year but if you have no customers then you have to go back to college or get a job would you have agreed? If not, how much time would you have asked for?

You have to treat the friends and family who are supporting you just as you would an investor and give them visibility into your plans and results. It’s also not fair to ask for a blank check: you have to have a stopping rule.

Experienced investors, whether Angel or VC, will impose one on you. But friends and family may find it harder. That’s why you have to agree up front on the limit of investment you are asking for.

You don’t have to give up on your vision, but you need to either earn enough to become self-sufficient to pursue it on your own, or go back to college to finish your education. Here are a few questions you can use to measure your progress and navigate your way forward:

  • What have you learned in the last six months that’s made you more effective as an entrepreneur?
  • In the last three months?
  • What do you hope to learn in another three that will allow you to gain customers?
  • Before you start a new project you need to define your stopping rule or you risk going bankrupt or you force the people who are supporting you to define it for you–or you bankrupt them as well.

Here are “Three Questions to Ask Before Quitting” from pages 66-71 of Seth Godin’s “The Dip

  1. Am I Panicking? Decide in advance when you are going to quit.
  2. Who Am I Trying to Influence? A person or a market? Markets value persistence far more than an individual.
  3. What Sort of Measurable Progress am I Making?

Q: What do you think of the advice a friend gave me: “You’ll never fail if you don’t give up.”

Be very careful of this advice:  if you keep doing the same thing expecting different results you won’t succeed either. Take a long-term view for a moment. Looking back from 30 or 35 or 40 it’s unlikely you would regret finishing college and perhaps even working for five or ten years to get some real world experience before starting a company.

If your goal is to be an effective entrepreneur then you may learn faster in other situations than by continuing full time on your startup today. Despite what you read on TechCrunch and similar sites very little success is overnight.

Related

Feeling Lucky Is Not a Strategy

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, 2 Open for Business Stage, 3 Early Customer Stage, skmurphy

“Luck cannot be duplicated.” Richard Kostelanetz

Riffing on a Nov-2-2013 TechCrunch post by Cowboy VenturesAileen Lee (@aileenlee) “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups” Ryan Hoover suggests that you should “Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”[1][2]

“They didn’t talk to people. They didn’t do market research. They didn’t create a landing page to see if people would enter their email. They just built it. For the past year, they invested in the team and technology to prioritize speed of iteration with disregard to traditional methods of customer development and company building.”
Ryan Hoover in “Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”

This is not a methodology, it’s hoping to get lucky. The article cites several startups that may have gotten lucky as proof of…I am not sure, I guess that it’s possible to get lucky.

“Lean methodology and the startup community at large, espouses customer interviews, landing page tests, concierge experiments, and other tactics for testing hypotheses and measuring demand before building a product. In many cases, this is good advice but sometimes it’s a waste of time or worse, directs entrepreneurs away from something truly great.”
Ryan Hoover in “Forget What You Know: There is No Right Way to Start Up”

For every team that gets lucky I wonder how many thousands run through their savings in search of the truly great without talking to customers or testing their hypotheses. Perhaps a more careful and detailed analysis will uncover ways to duplicate the success of some of these startups but I worry that it may be like trying to select the winning lottery ticket: the fact that some people do it does not change the fact that on average it’s a terrible investment strategy.

“Diligence is the mother of good luck.” Benjamin Franklin


Ryan’s essay also appeared on LinkedIn and TheNextWeb:

I don’t think this “Forget What You Know” post is representative of the quality of Ryan’s insights. Here are three blog posts by him that I have found very useful and recommend reading:

 

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