Why is the Western New York Startup Community growing?

I spent today compiling a retrospective report that summarizes the past six months. I’m left in awe of all that you have done as a startup community.

We have grown and supported each through a pandemic, the beginning of a recession, and the current social unrest. Our community has been galvanized by these stressors. We will emerge even more robust than we entered due to your contributions.

I’m unable to thank you all personally. Nor, even begin to account the ways you have individually helped one another. However, I can share some growth and activity number that represent the tip of the iceberg.

Startup Community Growth

Since January 1st, 2020 — the WNY Startup Community Slack has grown from 306 members to 1,180. That’s 386% growth! That’s 100% due to the value that you all add through your original content and replies. Combined with your invitations to join and your openhearted welcoming of new members.

Buffalo Bridge has grown from 0 to 5,991 readers, again — all because of you. Jack does Jack things, Andy curates the content that you post to the slack, we package it up and send it out. If we’re being honest — 95% of the value comes from you.

Together, we’ve organized and attended over 58 Techstars supported events. These events wouldn’t exist if community members did not volunteer their time and expertise. Additionally, fewer people would offer up their time if it wasn’t for the hundreds of you who attend. Most importantly, this number completely ignores the dozens of other events that were organized, promoted, and executed by members of this community without Techstars direct support.

Why Should We Keep Growing?

All of this activity is leading to more Startups. Convincing first time founders to move from Idea Stage to building their startup. You’re making the difference, by proving that it’s possible and connecting the support networks that enable them.

When you read this, acknowledge the work that you’ve done to build a brighter economic future for our city. The work you’ve done to strengthen our community and develop genuine friendships.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the rapid and relentless change and disruption that we’ve seen in these past six months. But I know with certainty that we will emerge a stronger and more vibrant startup community. Because of you.

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.” If you can’t find any locally – start your own early stage pitch event.
    • 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.

Last Chance to Start 2019

"This is fine" Dog riding the S.S. Ship It!
Let’s do this!

With four weeks left in 2019 it’s time to start your new years goal setting. Unless you have a bias-for-action, which you should — if you’re a founder.

Four weeks is enough time to define and test some hypothesis around the business that you’ve been noodling since January 2019. Let’s get together and turn thoughts into deeds. I’m putting together a workshop series to drive your “idea stage” startup to “early stage” before January 1st, 2020.

As a group, we’ll help you determine the Who, What, and Why of your product and provide an operational plan and the tactics you need to validate your hypothesis before the end of the year. Register to attend each week individually.

The content will build over the course of the month, you will be assigned homework in advance and the in-person time will be a group review to ask and answer questions. The goal is to create a cohort of new founders who can peer mentor each other. I will bring different experts in to cover the content from the homeworks. Want to know more? Sign-up below.

Mornings (Free coffee and breakfast, in meatspace only):
Thursday 12/5 – 7:30 am – Register for Week 1
Friday 12/13 – 7:30 am – Register for Week 2
Thursday 12/19 – 7:30 am – Register for Week 3
Thursday 12/26 – 7:30 am Register for Week 4

Can’t make mornings? Stuck in the cubicle but want to give this a try? Hit me up, if there’s enough demand we’ll create a virtual lunch and learn series.

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.