Hi there, glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for catching that error!
Here’s the correct link: https://medium.com/design-startups/1ce490dc5c2f
"Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula." - Bill Bernbach
From the lean startup methodology, which describes a system for testing and validating business models, to activities like unit testing and TDD, which describe a system for testing and validating a codebase, startups love a good process.
And who among us doesn’t love clear systems and repeatable processes? But while process is important as a framework and guide, we should remember that process is not itself an end.
Good process produces good results, sure, but great results come when an idea transcends the confines of the process, using it as a springboard into something both novel and meaningful.
Consider the art of Salvador Dalí, who was deeply familiar with the technical aspects of painting handed down form the Renaissance masters, knew the tools, knew the techniques, but who greatly diverged from classical considerations to develop his own voice. Most would agree he’s one of the most unique and memorable artists from the past century, not because he followed rules, but because he knew the rules intimately enough that he could effectively break them.
The truth is that most people like the idea of developing effective systems and processes because of the sense of control and predictability they afford those within the system.
But systems are by their definition tools of measurement and control, usually enacted as an organization grows and as a result needs to impose structures to ensure consistency of word an action, not tools of creation.
Again, consistency, clarity, control, and the like aren’t inherently bad things. But we must remember that systems and processes are based on the past and used to predicability shape the future. As Bernbach so wisely quipped, “the memorable never emerged from a formula,” and only when the boundaries of the rules are tested will inspiration reveal itself.
We can all follow the steps to epiphany and ascribe to lean startup methodologies, and probably be stronger for it, but when everyone builds according to the same instruction manual, we ought not be surprised when we witness a dearth of creative thinking in the tech community.
If you’re in the business of solving big problems with creative solutions, process matters, but understanding when to push beyond the process matters more. Allowing yourself and your team to push the limits of your systems just might lead to a discovery—in design, product, code, or whatever—that delights your users and further differentiates from the competition.
My friend and coworker @gabemartin recently shared with me an account from his senior year in art school. As a fine artist with a painting concentration, he spent most of his waking hours (and some of his sleeping hours) in his studio, perfecting his final oil painting projects.
The studios around him were filled with other painters—mostly oil, some acrylics—except for one studio that housed not a painter, but a sculptor.
See, painting is a pretty reflective and somewhat private act, so each painter was assigned an individual workspace complete with its very own door.
The sculpture studio on the other side of campus, by contrast, was a large open room with workbenches, welding tanks, pottery wheels, and other semi-industrial tools of the trade, and lots of activity. In the sculpture studio, artists regularly interacted with other more experienced sculptors. The novice sculptors learned to avoid the beginner mistakes, how to identify pitfalls and, discover workarounds.
At its core, sculpting is a technical art that’s largely about problem solving. It’s about identifying and executing the right technique for a desired finish, or doing the math on how that huge iron elephant is going to be supported only by its trunk.
The lone sculptor in the painter’s studio, however, had no access to the collective knowledge of the group, and labored away in isolation until the time came to present his final project: a clay representation of a water droplet impacting a pool.
The most technical part—they droplet barely touching the pool—was supposed to look something like this:
As the sculptor sanded away at the material, a mere 24 hours before the final review, the structure continued to weaken, to the point where, in a final moment of calamity, the clay droplet toppled to the ground, shattering beneath its own weight.
The sculptor’s environment was his downfall. His isolation his demise.
Sure, the door on the studio was nice to have when a little concentration was needed, and the painters were all nice folks, but he chose the wrong community for expanding his skills.
Most any trade—sculpture, web design, coding, whatever—is passed-along in this communal fashion, in which the veterans foster the skill of the novices. Individuals benefit from the knowledge and experience of the collective, as a rising tide lifts all boats.
In isolation, you’ll find yourself spinning your wheels on problems a group could help you resolve in a matter of minutes. More importantly, going it alone means there’s no one to call BS on a faulty model or a generally bad idea.
It can be difficult to choose the most beneficial communities in which to focus your time, but doing so is crucial to continued personal and professional development.
Are you in the right studio?
"I have a really awesome idea, I just need to find a technical cofounder to build it."
I’ll have Naive Things “Business Guys” Say for a thousand, Alex.
But as silly as the sentiment seems, it’s also commonly held.
In fact, after “How do I get involved in startups?” which is a good question, “Where do I find a technical cofounder?” is probably the most common question I’m asked.
Thing is, developers are doing pretty okay these days, so it’s funny to think that they’re just sitting at Starbucks pining away about the startup life, listlessly hoping someone will task them with building the Next Big Thing.
Recruiting great people is a never-ending task for a startup founder, and the ability to attract the best is crucial to success, so finding a cofounder represents the minimum hustle a nontechnical person should possess.
If an aspiring founder can’t inspire someone to partner with them in bringing their vision to life, they’ll have a seriously difficult time starting and building a successful company.
This dose of reality is useful in separating the wannabes, who like the idea of doing a startup, from the ones who actually have the hustle to get things done.
According to TripIt, I’ve travelled a little more than 8,300 miles since March of this year telling the a>m ventures story in cities around the South.
As we formulate our plans for expanding our portfolio outside of Tennessee, we’ve identified Austin, along with Raleigh-Durham, as an ideal location for building our network of founders, investors, and ecosystem leaders.
Austin Startup Week, which I recently attended, confirmed my suspicions that a relationship between ATX and a>m ventures would be beneficial both for us and Austin’s startup ecosystem.
As I’ve reflected on my positive experience with Austin Startup Week, three elements emerge as consistently wonderful things about what’s been going on in ATX.
ASW presented an unparalleled opportunity to connect with dozens of founders in a very compressed timeframe, which is great for a non-Austinite looking to make the most of a trip to town.
Between ASW Demo Day and the Startup Bazaar, I think I saw around 28 pitches, and between those events plus the Startup Crawl, I had well over a hundred meaningful conversations with founders, investors, and other members of the ecosystem.
And I was in town for fewer than three full days.
I kind of hate to do it, but it’s hard not to make comparison to south-by and Startup Week, mostly as a function of location and emphasis on tech. They’re ultimately two very different events with different purposes and attendee profile, but while SXSW does a great job of showcasing thought leaders from around the world (side note: our presentation was officially accepted for 2013!), I’ve had a less-than-stellar time meeting lots of new folks.
There are a number of reasons for that, but suffice it to say that where south-by is all about sensory overload, ASW’s strength, at least for my purposes, is in providing a framework for making dozens of highly meaningful connections within a very condensed timeframe.
It’s hard to enunciate why, but some startup ecosystems feel very inaccessible. It might be because they’re not great at communicating with folks outside of their geographies, or because they’re simply not interested in connecting with out-of-towners. Investors are usually the worst about this, and I’ve often found that the later their stage, the cooler they get (and not the good kind of cool, but I digress).
In Austin, though, I’ve received warm welcomes from all areas of the ecosystem, a level of friendliness the likes of which I’ve found only on my home turf of Memphis.
Ecosystem leaders like the Capital Factory’s Bill Boebel carved-out time in their busy schedules to catch-up in-person and even make some great intros to founders and investors.
We like working with nice people. And people who are successful. In Austin, there’s plenty of overlap .
I make this point only partially in jest, but where I come from, donuts and muffins are staple event breakfast foods, while cheese-and-cracker and fruit plates makeup the standard “snack” offering for later-in-the-day events. Kind of boring.
Not so in Austin, where breakfast tacos are to be expected, and your experience with various kinds of salsa will only be limited by the number of startups you visit during the Startup Crawl.
While Austin has tons of really great non-Tex-Mex establishments, obviously, I do believe it can be helpful do view taste and smell as crucial elements of an ecosystem’s brand experience, especially when it’s important to attract out-of-towners to advise and invest (and that’s always important).
Great developers do not a great startup community make.
It’s the after-hours hangouts, the conversations over great food and drink, and happenstance run-ins at coffee shops and food trucks. It’s all the other “stuff” that folks remember and fall in love with, and it’s those things that give a community its flavor, in the metaphorical sense, and keep people coming back.
And Austin’s got flavor. Plenty of it. And a lot of talented, friendly people, too.
So thanks again, Austin! I’ll be back soon.
I love helping our portfolio companies refine their positioning and nail-down their messaging, and one commonality I’ve noticed among founders of all stripes is a tendency to lean toward straightforward feature-focused messaging.
You’re probably thinking, “Don’t people want me to just get to the point and tell them what we do?”
Sort of. But humans are emotional and a little complex, and while holding up a big sign with a bulleted list of features would accurately convey information, it wouldn’t work very hard at connecting on an emotional level (which is where the exciting stuff happens).
As an illustration, I am totally capable of snapping a picture of a tree on my iPhone. I might even use Camera+ to make sure the lighting’s good and it’s cropped nicely.
And anyone who viewed the photo would understand that it is indeed a picture of a tree. The viewer would get a sense for the size of the tree and learn a little about its context.
If Ansel Adams were to take a picture of that same tree, though, the outcome would be something entirely different. It too would communicate the key information, but it would communicate on a different level as well.
To illustrate further, compare the two images below of Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
The first is by a Flickr user, and is a pretty good photo. The Adams photo, though, is something else entirely, and is one of only 115 photographs included in Voyager’s Golden Record.
An Ansel Adams photo evokes feeling and emotion, as well as a certain sense of belief about nature and life. It makes you feel something.
That’s what a solid brand platform can do for a company. Brand isn’t some false layer of marketing-speak, but rather a compelling presentation of your company’s point-of-view, which you most certainly have, or else you wouldn’t be starting up.
It’s easy to go to market as a set of features: “We help you solve A, B, and C.” This is super straightforward and right to the point. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might even be good. But this kind of self understanding can never be great.
See, I know your startup is doing awesome things, but it’s almost 100% certain that another startup is solving for the same set of problems. And they’re probably doing it with a very similar set of features.
If so, presenting yourself as a straightforward toolset will ensure you’re playing on the same plane with your competitors.
If your audience has a choice between 2 or 3 very similar offerings, how do they choose?
This is where brand becomes a serious differentiator, and eventually, a big competitive advantage. While your competitors remain positioned as a solution to a problem, your brand can rise above the competitive fray as a company with an actual point-of-view about your category and the issues important to it.
So what’s your thing? What’s the story behind and underneath the killer app with great features? Why are you here at all?
There’s more to messaging than describing what you do; it gives you the chance to talk about who you are and the way things should be.
Figure all that stuff out, make it the centerpiece of your messaging strategy, and become the thought leader in your category, the champion for the big-picture issues that have driven you to build the great things you’re telling the world about.
I never really loved the Boy Scouts.
That probably says more about me than about scouting, but in my particular troop, there was very little chemistry between me and the other kids, and I’d rather be back in my neighborhood playing with my real friends than hanging out with these kids from other schools.
But, I loved the pinewood derby.
I loved building something that I would see in action, and it was great spending time with my dad to build the derby car.
In a pinewood derby, all participants begin with the same raw materials, and at the end, the process culminates in the races. Winning the race is certainly nice, but the journey itself is the real reward.
Even though my car wasn’t the best looking or the fastest, it was my vision that came to life in it’s racing. My dad and I made something together, which was a pretty cool gift in itself.
To me, the pinewood derby is a perfect metaphor for a maker culture.
In startup world, the pinewood derby is a near perfect analog for a Startup Weekend-style event. You pick a problem, work like mad on neat solution, and present the working product at the end.
At the derby, teams didn’t spend a week perfecting their plans for a cool car and telling others how cool the car would eventually. Or designing a PowerPoint deck.
Many projects won’t live long past the demo day, and some will evolve a little in the weeks following and ultimately be forsaken by it’s creators.
But that’s okay.
What matters is that people came together and made something.
Makers don’t list out a bunch of nifty ideas or spend time setting up twitter accounts and work on their presentation slide deck. They make.
I’ve been to
five six seven demo days already this year in my travels for a>m ventures, and many more over the past 18 months. The following points are my observations on the good, bad, and nasty of startup accelerator demo days.
No one of these points will sink your demo day ship, but taken together, when done right, these elements will help to give your teams better odds of getting to that next step on and following the big day.
The idea is to reduce the variables involved in your event in order for you to craft a meaningful experience.
Your accelerator is a marathon, demo day is not
Relatedly, more pitches, less bravado, fewer speeches
Pitch quality matters
Venue size matters
How you use it matters, too
The little stuff is worth sweating
Community, i.e. the after party, is as important as what happens on stage
Coach your teams on after party interactions
Overall, remember that you and your team are the curators of the demo day experience, which is the culmination of much weeping, gnashing of teeth, and Red Bull. The excellence demonstrated over the course of the previous 90 days should shine through in your event.
Again, a well-produced demo day and after party won’t makeup for crappy teams and poor process, but when high quality teams are propped-up by a high quality event, you can be sure investors will make it a point to show up for your demo days as often as they happen.
There is a great debate among copywriters and ad agency creatives about the depth and kind of familiarity creatives should achieve with a client’s business.
One side recommends taking every opportunity to tour the factory, to ask deep questions about ingredients, processes, and distribution. The other side advises creatives to stay away from the factory, since that level familiarity impedes one’s ability to generate truly unique communications solutions.
In the first camp, Luke Sullivan, one of the top copywriters of all time, urges copywriters to read the material, tour the factory, and ask questions, quoting Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Don the hardhat and hit the factory floor.
On the other hand, Mark Fenske, another stellar writer, says, “Don’t ever give in to the temptation to take the factory tour. Resist. It makes you think like the client. What happens is you’ll start to come up with the same answers the client does.”
Fenske describes what Heath and Heath discuss in their book, Made to Stick, The Curse of Knowledge.
Both of these opinions take differing views on how ones should approach solving a communications problem. Should you understand how the sausage is made, or just know that it’s delicious?
I love these kinds of inside baseball debates, and I wonder what they mean for startups.
The sentiment that Sullivan et al debate is still relevant for startups, i.e it’s really important that you understand what you need to communicate, but I think the focus is different.
For startups, I think the question is less about the sausage and more about the people eating it (had enough sausage metaphor yet? me too).
I’d say forget the factory; go to the store. See the users. Understand how they flow through the space. Grab a clipboard and ask some questions.
Get to know the customers in the aisles and worry less about the robots back in the warehouse.
Unlike the factory/no factory debate, you’ll never go wrong getting familiar with your users. And best of all, there’s no hardhat required.