How do you go from idea stage to having a startup?

The Idea Stage Startup Trap

I spend a lot of time talking to Idea Stage Founders about their fictional startups. Often they’re stuck thinking about their business instead of building it.

The key to initial forward momentum takes a less than 10 hours of work. In fact, I recommend you stop reading after these bullets and start right now.

  1. Fill out a Lean Canvas
  2. Build a Pitch Deck
  3. Pitch
    • To experienced Founders, just e-mail them and ask them if they’d help you with their pitch. You’ll be surprised at how accessible they are to other founders and how much help they will provide.
    • Search for early-stage pitch events. I host one called “Pitch-In.”
    • Seek out Angel Investors or Economic Development Agencies.
  4. Rinse & Repeat until your Company exits
    • No, Really. This never stops being part of your job as a Founder – unless you bootstrap.

Pitch your Idea Stage Startup

In gardening, you can’t contain the exuberant growth of a seed in a small pot for long. If it doesn’t have room to grow, it runs, distorts in unhealthy ways, gets root bound, then dies.

The exact same thing happens to startup ideas trapped in your head. Like our fictional plant hero, your startup idea requires transplanting. The freedom to grow despite adversity leads to healthy plants that bear fruit.

Pitching your idea in public is equal to planting it in the wild. During your pitch at least one of the following will happen:

  1. The audience will spot the gaps in your plan.
  2. You will feel embarrassed about something you said, despite audience barely noticing.
  3. An expert will tell you about an “Unknown Unknown“. That is to say, a risk that you don’t know about, nor do you know it’s potential impact on your business.

Challenges like these are required to go from Idea Stage to a functioning Startup. In fact, every time you adapt and overcome a challenge to one of your ideas, the startup gets stronger.

There is Magic in Public Accountability

Standing on stage presenting a slide deck takes the idea out of your mind and makes it tangible startup. It’s a promise to the audience. You’re not lying to them – this business is real. You have transfigured an idea to an early stage startup. The audience bears witness to the artifacts, proof-of-life, you are now a Founder.

The journey of 1,000 miles has started with these first steps. Now take the next step, and the next, and the next, until your arrive at your destination.

Remember to be mindful and enjoy the journey.

Equity: Three Mistakes Founders Make

Shareholders' Equity

The Equity Mistake They Make With Each Other:

If you’re founding a company with other people. All founders should vest in their stock over time. Typically, you should use a one-year cliff and 4 year vesting period. The one year cliff solves the problem where one founder drops out because of changing life conditions or lost interest. If you don’t vest into your own company, you often end up with a big chunk of equity you can’t sell or redistribute to other parties who are going to add value to the company. Secondly, they tend to split up the company equally, instead of based on people’s abilities to contribute and relative scarcity of the skill sets they provide. Fairness is setting percentage ownership based on the amount of lift each Founder provides to the company’s valuation, not splitting it equally per capita. If you’re too afraid to discuss how much value different activities, backgrounds, and networks, add to the company – you should reconsider your co-founder relationship; the conversations are only going to get harder from here.

The Equity Mistake They Make With Outsiders:

You’re not going to know everything about your business, your market, or your team. That’s OK, but you should seek out Mentors, not Advisors. Mentors give of their time and their talent freely, knowing that they will learn from their mentees. Advisors require an equity stake in the company. I’ve seen some insane term sheets offered to early-stage founders with advisory fees between 5-10% of common stock. That’s predatory, unless that’s contingent upon a huge investment, international brand recognition through celebrity influencers, or some other exception to the rule – I would run for the hills if I saw something like that. A reasonable advisory fee for an advisor/firm who is working unpaid for you in an early stage startup is somewhere between 0-1%. Founder’s Institute Founder / Advisor Standard Template lays out a great table to align close to market value.

The Ownership Mistake They Make With Insiders:

We all hear about how hard it is to be an early-stage founder. But what about the first few hires on the founding-team? They tend to get significantly less equity than founders and even later stage C-level hires, but they’re taking the risk with you because they believe in the company. You should treat your first employees like Angel Investors. They accept the biggest risks early on, so it’s only fair to provide them a multiplier on their ownership stake. They help to set and reinforce the culture of your organization and deal with all the chaos you create while thrashing around trying to find product/market fit and funding. Your first employees end up being friends and family, so treat them well.

What other distribution mistakes do you see repeatedly?

Let’s chat about it in the comments!

Employee Heatmap – The Simplest and Most Effective Tool in the Management Arsenal

One of the hardest things for senior managers to maintain Situational Awareness across their entire organization. Ego and averaging often obscure the reporting up through your hierarchy.

Mid-level managers don’t ask for help because they don’t see how their team’s problems are impacting the organization as a whole. This lack of reporting or “the blame game” can hide the root causes of cross-functional problems.

Whenever I face uncertainty, I collect and visualize data to gain a deeper understanding of the problem.

Capturing Data Efficiently

Every week, managers are required to report their individual team members “stress load” in a shared google sheet. In aggregate, over-time, this Employee Heatmap data becomes immensely valuable in understanding your teams’ performance.

This quick report (~2 minutes for a team of 5) allows both you and your managers to visually see changes in employees status across your entire organization. This insight allows you both to determine where to focus your analysis and assistance as leader.

The Employee Heat Map

Spreadsheet Heatmap of Employee Stress over time.
A quick review during the weekly management meeting visually helps you determine where you need to ask questions and assist.

Download the Employee Heatmap Example.xls

What is Stress Load?

The Employee Heatmap is built on a quantitative value that we call “Stress Load”. “Stress Load” is defined as Workload + Familyload.

As a Human-First leader, I view my employees capacity as the combination of two things. The 8-hours they spend on the clock and the issues they’re facing during the 16-hours a day that I don’t pay them for.

My managers collect these data points during their monthly 1-on-1s with their direct reports. They adjust the monthly self-reported “stress load” number based on their direct observation when reporting it in the management review weekly.

What is Workload?

Workload in the Employee Heatmap is quantified on a scale of 1-10. 1 being almost completely unsaturated to the point of boredom and 10 being complete saturation at an unsustainable pace. 4-6 is the Goldilocks Zone.

Depending on your team composition, you may regularly see 6-7 . Challenging workloads tend to keep Type-A employees more engaged and therefore might not be a negative indicator. Sustained values in the 8-10 range usually indicate an underlying issue that needs attention.

I encourage my managers to restate the number and ask “What does that mean to you?”. If the self-reported number is out of the Goldilocks Zone for that employee, I instruct them to ask “Why do you feel this way?” It’s important that the direct manager understands what is driving the stress level of their employee’s workload numbers.

Qualitative reasons often drive higher workload numbers. Employees doing work that they don’t enjoy or having to work with someone they dislike is more often the culprit than being overwhelmed by volume. Managers tend to be better at recognizing tasking issues than rooting out qualitative drivers.

My astute friend Mike Canzoneri solves this problem by breaking down his version of this process into 3 values: Workload Emotional, Workload Quantity, Family Load.

What is Family Load?

Family Load is also measured on a scale of 1-10. 1 being almost completely stress-free to the point of boredom and 10 being overwhelming stress that detracts from the employees quality of life.

We respect our employees’ privacy as a cultural value at my company. Managers are instructed to not ask for the “Why?” with this number. If their employees volunteer the information, they are told to keep it in confidence. This qualitative input can help the manager to bias the monthly number appropriately for the weekly reporting as the employees life-situation continues to develop.

Long Term Value of the Employee Heatmap

Trend Analysis of Employee Heat Map
The trend, leading, and trailing, indicators all provide valuable insights on your process and people.

If you graph the data in the Employee Heatmap, you can start to determine leading and trailing indicators as well as recurring trends in your team’s functioning.

I’ve used this data to make staffing plans, deconflict teams before they were in a negative feedback loop, and change how we schedule work. It’s pound-for-pound the most powerful tool in my personal management toolbox. I highly encourage you to try it, modify it, and share the results.

Questions of the Day

What’s your favorite tool for managing your employees? Do you have any other tricks for keeping a pulse on in-direct reports?