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.

Scaling Operations: Simple but not Easy

Scaling Operations for your SaaS startup by Kat Carter from Squire. Focused on the foundational elements of scaling and highlighted Kat’s knowledge. The Q&A at the end goes deeper and shares her wisdom gained from time in the trenches.

TL;DR: The three lessons that she focuses on are:

  • Priorities matter
  • Tools are more than just software
  • Communication is the key to everything

Priorities Matter when Scaling

While Scaling Operations, executive leadership teams need to set clear the priorities for the company. Clearing your schedule, turning off e-mail, and work through a framework. Determine what the goals for the company are and how each team supports them.

Now that you have your priorities, you need to stick with them. You also need to communicate them repeatedly to all your employees. Every manager should know the company’s goals and use them as a guide for their decision making. The impact of each team’s work on the company’s goals should be reinforced during team meetings. The goals and how teams contribute to their success should published company wide.

Tools are more than just software

“There’s an app for that.” Its tempting to search for software to fix your scaling issues. But often what you need to do is collect data and review your processes. Then put together reports and controls that maintain the improvements.


Bits are cheap. When you build new functionality for your software, record relevant meta-data. Do this even if you don’t have a use for that meta-data currently. In the future an “Unknown Unknown” will pop-up. When it does you’ll be in a much better place to solve it if you can run analysis on historical data.

Communication is the key to operations

Your tools and communication plan allow you to effectively respond to novel situations. Kat shared a story about a severe issue that hit Squire while she was on PTO. The issue affected a large part of their customer base. But, the teams followed processes they built resolving prior issues. They communicated cross-functionally to identifying the issue. The team resolved it, and communicated the solution to over 100 customers within 24 hours. She found out about the event the day she returned during a retrospective briefing. The issue was already closed due to an empowered team who knew how to communicate.

Leverage the most effective communication tool for the task. By investing in training materials (such as an internal CRM), Squire reduced their new hire on-boarding time by 75%. Review the problem areas of your company and see if there’s a way you can improve communication.

Scaling Operations is simple but not easy

If you want to scale operations at your startup, focus on building good tools and frameworks. Record data and analyze it to see where the bottle necks exist. Build processes and tools to help you increase workflow. Communicate priorities and changes to employees in several different formats. Share the most important messages more than once.

What’s the difference between a hack, a project, or a business?

During my PTO, I was playing around with a side-project. About 8-12 hour in, I  realized I had made a classic mistake. I was focusing on building a thing, but I hadn’t spend enough time working through a design process.  It’s easy to do, building is fun, it’s exciting, it feels tangible – but it’s a time sink.

So where should I have started?  Problem Statement, Lean Canvas, Personas, User Stories.  Do you know what you’re building? Who you’re building for? Why?  Unless you answer these fundamental questions, you’re working on a hack — not a project, not a business. After working through the tools, I have a concise understanding of what is and isn’t part of the MVP.  

This clarity may have delayed building by 4-8 hours, but it cut 20+ hours of development time out of my scope.User stories in particular helped me understand my scope and architectural needs. 

If you haven’t created User Stories before, here’s a primer:  https://www.romanpichler.com/blog/10-tips-writing-good-user-stories/ 

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?

Premature Optimization is the Root of All Evil

"We should forget about small efficienceis, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil" - Donald Knuth
H/T: @lpolovets

Donald Knuth was specifically talking about algorithms in computer software, but the lesson applies broadly to product development, startups, and self-improvement.

Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

Wikipedias worth of man-hours have been spent building features that the customer never requested and rarely use. Companies have spent millions on inventory to achieve economies of scale on products that crater in the market. They should have shipped first and asked questions later.

Stop futzing around and ship it! Premature optimization is often procrastination in disguise. If you’re “making it better” before someone has used it, you’re letting fear of judgement keep you from learning.

Don’t worry about scaling, don’t worry about “nice to have”, just start! Start going to the gym, spearhead a new process at work, ask someone to buy your barely functional prototype. Even if you fail, you’ll be at the same place as if you were still planning; the only difference is, you’ll have a data point from the real world. Now you can adjust, incrementally better, then ship it again.

Questions of the Day

What aspect of your life should you be shipping instead of optimizing? Is there a feature in your product or startup that’s a good idea but you haven’t had a customer ask for it yet? Tell me about the time you sunk days of oyur life into solving a problem that didn’t exist.

Discipline is Freedom

Jocko Willink is my spirit animal.

Falling Victim to Entropy

Since 2009, I had made a series of choices to focus on my career and entrepreneurial ambitions instead of my health. I put on about 50 lbs of fat and atrophied significantly during that period. I had given up on taking care of myself in trade for trying to build my company and my city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. I kept telling myself that I’d get myself together later after I had found success.

When my first child was born in 2016, I need to determine if I was going to be a good Founder or a good Father. I left my operational role as CTO of my startup and I derisked my career a bit. But I wanted to be more than just present with my son, I needed to be a role model for him. I searched for role models for myself and found this great series of essays by Jocko Willink on Spotify.

Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual, Pt. 1

Finding Discipline

Through many iterations over the next 3 years, I began to rebuild my health. I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, stopped drinking alcohol regularly, started lifting weights (3x a week), and worked to refine my diet.

I made these changes one at a time, about three to six months a part. It takes about 90 days to lock in a new habit and it’s much harder to actively control more than one thing. So I focused on not making a new habit until I didn’t have to work to maintain the current habit I was developing. The most important part of this process was to figure out the failure modes in each new habit during that startup period and put controls in place to correct for them.

For example, I kept missing my weight lifting workouts because I would have meetings or family obligations. So to control for this, I found a time no one books me; 4:30 am. By taking ownership of my failures; I can’t blame anyone but myself for not getting to the gym before everyone is awake. Discipline is Freedom.

You only fail when you quit.

This process hasn’t been linear, it’s riddled with short term setbacks; mental, physical, business, etc. But all of these setbacks have proven to me that you never fail until you quit. I’ve missed lifting or training BJJ for months at a time (see graph above). The trick is to kill your ego and start training again. I am a human, I am fallible, but I refuse to quit.

Questions of the Day

What keeps you from making the changes in your life that will make you healthier? What controls do you use to help you maintain discipline? What did you think of Jocko’s essays?

How to Solve Ambiguous Problems with Simple Data Visualization

Visualization of data often yields better insights that just looking at the numbers.

I routinely encountered optimization problems and I struggled to solve them effectively until I developed this simple framework.

In this post, we’ll work through the example “Where should I live?”
Click here to access the example spreadsheet.

Optimizing for real-world problems is usually challenging because they tend to multivariate. They also tend to impact more than one stakeholder, which often means there are different priorities that should be considered. Additionally, variables can often inversely correlated, qualitative in nature, and/or unique solutions have wildly different values.

Whenever things get complicated in my life, I try to develop a process that I can tune as I gain more experience. Here’s my current approach for optimizing complex decisions.

Steps to Resolution:

  1. Determine Variables
  2. Weight Variables
  3. Collect Data
  4. Visualize Data
  5. Discuss quantified result

Determine Variables

Create a list of all meaningful values to consider when evaluating the problem. Then, ask other stakeholders about what factors they would consider when determining a solution.

As these conversations occur, you should document the entire list of concerns in a spreadsheet.

Example Variables for “Where should I live?”:

  • Proximity to Work, Family, Friends, Food, Activities
  • Rent/Mortgage
  • Pet/Child-Friendly (Booleans)
  • Cost of Living Adjustments
  • Additional Income Possibilities (Rental units, access to a better job market)

Weight Variables

Have each stakeholder (including yourself) put a weight on each variable privately. Then gather together to discuss the reasons for each weighting. Based on the discussions, work as a group to determine your final weightings. This socialization of concerns often helps me achieve a deeper understanding of my own goals, while also getting buy-in from people who will be impacted by the decision. Lastly, generating these “shared ideals” weightings allows you to focus on the most important aspects of the data when evaluating the visualization.

Collect Data

Aggregate your data in your spreadsheet. Sometimes it helps to normalize data if the options are very disparate in their values. One way to normalize is through the use of ratios between two of the variables from the same option.

In this example, we create a ratio of Total Cost of Residence / Take Home Income in order to normalize the Total Cost of Residence for different geographic areas.

Visualize Data

Use conditional formatting (tutorials: google sheets / excel ) to heatmap cells or simply turn cells red/green for boolean answers.

Implementing this visualization technique will usually highlight one or two prime candidates from your data.

While I’m building my visualizations, I also highlight the top three column headers, based on the outcomes of the variable weighting discussion. This additional step highlights the “deal breakers” that sometimes exist in candidates that otherwise look great on paper.

Spreadsheet showing highlighted cell that is a "dealbreaker"
In our example, “Middle of Nowhere” looks like the best candidate, until you realize that it’s the worst candidate in regards to our “shared ideal” distance to family.

Discuss quantified results

Last but not least, bring the visualized results back to the group. They provide a great starting point for discussion among stakeholders. Since you determined your “shared ideals” before you gathered/evaluated your data, it allows you to have a more candid discussion of the options.

One last thing, It’s important to remember that all tools have flaws and the winning result in the rubric isn’t always the best solution qualitatively. You’re not bound by the tool that you created, often the discussion it generates is worth more than the data it provides.

Question of the Day

Do you have a similar process? Where have you applied it in your life?