Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Holy Merger Batman...big news

Here is some big news (at least in my little world) that just hit the wire this morning (see press release below). Atlas Accelerator came to me in early April with the idea of merging our two companies, and last week we pulled the trigger on it. I’m very excited about it and think it will be a lot of fun working with these guys and running this company. The Athena name will slowly fade away but I’ll continue the business within Atlas Recruiting, and we’re also going to be offering something very cool by doing non-executive recruiting for mostly stock for companies that qualify for the investment.


Atlas Accelerator Expands through Merger with Athena Chiefs, Solves Staffing and Recruiting problem for Early Stage Companies via Atlas Recruiting.

May 6, 2008 - Atlas Accelerator, the largest venture-consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest has merged with Athena Chiefs, a four-year-old firm that provides interim executive management to early-stage and fast-growth companies throughout the Pacific Northwest. The two companies have also announced formation of a new company, Atlas Recruiting, and named Athena Chiefs founder Tom Ryan to be the new company’s CEO.

“Atlas Recruiting will solve the problem of finding great people for startups. Every growing company wants to find great people, not every company can afford the cash to pay a recruiter. We wanted to solve the problem by taking payment in part for stock for qualifying companies”, said Brant Williams, Managing Partner of Atlas Accelerator. “Tom Ryan has built a company of high value and integrity that taps into a network of nearly 100 C-level executives, and we will be adding to that a new non-executive recruiting offering that provides qualifying companies the ability to take advantage of the service using mostly stock instead of cash.”

Atlas Accelerator has helped start-up companies hit key milestones for over ten years by investing time and resources in critical roles within startup companies. Atlas Accelerator invested about $2 million in 2007, and will invest over $4 million in 2008. The new non-executive recruiting offering continues that unique approach of letting early stage companies pay for the majority of the search fee with resources they have – stock – and save the cash that is normally in tighter supply. Companies will need to qualify for the offer by pitching their company like they would to any angel investor.

“Atlas Accelerator is essentially where Angel Investing meets consulting, and Atlas Recruiting will be where Angel Investing meets recruiting”, said Tom Ryan, the new company’s CEO. “I’m thrilled to be running a sister company that is associated with such a high integrity and highly regarded team and to be joining the Atlas family.”

“Tom is a great connector for startup executives. From his ‘Birds of a Feather’ CEO group to his experience with Angel investing and philanthropy efforts, Tom is an asset to the startup communityand someone with whom we’reproud to be working”, said Mike Crill, Managing Director at Atlas Accelerator.

Both Atlas Recruiting and Atlas Accelerator will cater to companies in the greater Pacific Northwest, including Seattle, Boise, Portland and Vancouver, BC. For additional information on Atlas Accelerator and the merger, contact Brant Williams (brant@atlasaccelerator.com) or visit www.atlasaccelerator.com or www.athenachiefs.com.

ABOUT ATLAS ACCELERATOR - Atlas Accelerator is the largest venture-consulting firm in the Pacific Northwest focused on the needs of growing technology companies. Atlas fills critical roles in early stage companies so they can make stuff, sell stuff and operate themselves. Atlas Accelerator has helped over 100 startups get off the ground. Over 85% of their investments successfully moved to the next level.

We date before we get married in real life – why not in business life? Athena Chiefs provides interim CXO services to early stage and fast-growth companies that provide strategic expertise while mitigating risk in the hiring process.

Tom Ryan
PHONE: 425.241.7722

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's ourworld.com - we just live in it

If you have kids (or if you are a kid yourself, like me) you should check out the product of one of my "Birds of a Feather" CEO companies - www.ourworld.com. My kids love it and I'm trying to keep up with them. It's basically the next evolution of a clubpenguin.com only with much richer graphics, a youtube theatre with kid-friendly content, and much cooler games.
Highly recommended and run by a great guy and friend - Derrick Morton.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is that a YAPTA in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

The CEO "Birds of a Feather" group (up to around 25 startup CEO's now) had a big meeting and party the other night at the intergalactic headquarters of YAPTA - www.yapta.com. Tom Romary is a great guy and great host, and he also appears to be a great Founder and CEO, as this company has really been getting a lot of press and a lot of new customers.
YAPTA helps you find the cheapest flights, but their real secret sauce is that they track coupons you are entitled to if the price of your flight goes down after you purchase it. Did you know that you were entitled to such a coupon by government mandate? Me neither. I don't think I'd track this without a tool, and YAPTA is the only tool that does this. Very cool. The company received venture financing a while back and is tearing it up. Go Tom R!!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Mmmm...chocolate...and birds...

Something I formed as a beer-drinking society a few months back has really turned into a cool and fun group. I call it my "CEO Birds of a Feather" group and we are up to 16 CEO's now. We all just met at Theo Chocolate the other night and it was a great karma experience. Joe Whinny gave us a tour of the chocolate factory and we spent some time drinking and sharing our startup experiences. This started out as a group of CEO's that had brought me on their Board of Advisors and it's really turned out to be valuable. One company - Braincandy - found their Chairman of the Board via another one of the Birds who lives in Boise Idaho.

Sometimes if you give unto karma, karma pays you back.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Plato knew best

I'm up over 40 Chiefs now and seeing huge demand for revenue generators of all types, whether they be VP's of Sales, VP's of Marketing, VP's of BusDev, CEO's etc. etc. The world is your ticket if you can sell things today, but I came across this quote that gives us a little historical taste of humble pie I found amusing.

I always assumed that entrepreneurs are heroes and that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was the protector of heroes, so an appropriate monikor for my company. Appearently another Greek, Plato, felt differently:

"In well-ordered states, storekeepers and salesmen are commonly those who are weakest in bodily strength and, therefore, of little use for any other purpose"...Plato

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Spoils...coming to a testosterone laden male near you...

I'm on six board of advisors now - I know, that's way too many, and want to start featuring the progress of companies I've helped over the next few months. The first is Tenacious Games, whom I've been helping in fundraising for the past year and a half, and a company that has successfully raised two rounds of funding. In November they will be releasing their flagship product The Spoils, and the reviews are coming in very positive during their open beta.

Check this one out!

The buzz about this company and game is really building, and of course if the game is a success, it's like printing money. Could be one of the next successful Seattle startups, and I'm happy to be a part of it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Living the Customer Service Nightmare...and using the BBB for help!

When we moved into our new house last spring, I started taking note of how well certain companies were treating us with their customer service, and how poorly others were. I thought I would write a Blog article about it, though would wait until all the customer service issues were "resolved" until I wrote it. Big mistake.

It's taken many months to resolve some basic issues, and only after using the Better Business Bureau's assistance to finally resolve some of them. Rather than list them all, I thought I'd highlight a few of them, as I think entrepreneurs should realize that most prosumers are only really loyal to businesses that provide excellent customer service, and excellent customer service is very easy to provide (though sadly, bad customer service is even easier, which is why it's the norm).

I've been in and out of the call center and customer service business for over 14 years, and I think that so many companies today view customer service as a pure cost center and necessary evil rather than an opportunity to solidify relationships with their best customers. I've seen some amazingly good and some amazingly bad call and service center operations, and I've always thought that they provide a good reflection of what the CEO really thinks of his or her customers at the end of the day. Still, there is nothing quite like personal experience as a customer to bring home the happy surprises that make you loyal, and the horror stories that make you gasp. Here are a few Gold Stars and Black Onions of mine:

Black Onion: Protection One. I was a loyal customer of Protection One for seven years at our old house. Read that sentence again. I called to cancel our service in our old house, as I thought I'd start with new bids for our new house security. I figured they were like a utility that would stop service that day - wrong. They snippy lady at the end of the line told me that I needed to send in a written confirmation of my wanting to leave, and then 30 days after they received it they would end my service. I told them I would be out of my house in two weeks and that didn't make sense given I was going to have them bid on the next house. Ms. Snippy then went with sarcasm as her next strategy with "well maybe we should just bill you through your next yearly contract date next January - would you like that then, hmm?". Astonishing. I wrote my letter and sent it in. Then, amazingly enough, we do get a bill for 11 months of service we couldn't use through early 2006 for over $300! They said we were contractually obligated even though the old contract said it was for the first year only and we were customers over 7 years. Then, the thrice daily calls started coming demanding payment. I answered a couple and told them they wouldn't be getting payment from us for service they didn't provide and that we were not obligated to pay. I made one proactive call up the food chain of their customer service, and thought I had the issue resolved, only to start receiving calls again a few days later. Finally, I made a BBB complaint AND...presto. My first lesson that no one likes an open BBB complaint out against them, as they came back with a sappy letter to the BBB noting that I only would need to pay them for one month of service I never used. I paid it...and left the complaint against them open, as I don't think they should have billed me for service not provided in the first place. Needless to say, we decided NOT to use Protection One ever again...I hope you don't either.

Gold Star: Automated Home Solutions. I went a little bananas when moving into the new house buying all new HDTV, stereo and speaker systems. It's a Y chromosome thing. I ended up finding out about this little Redmond small business from a friend, and called and asked them about some speakers they re-sell. The first of several extremely friendly guys gave me good things to think about, and actually talked me into buying some cheaper speakers that ended up working perfectly for us. I also had questions about wiring everything together - when to use HDMI cables, when not to, etc. - and they actually had someone come out to my house to see my set-up. I ended up paying the guy for a couple of hours of his time to help set up a variety of things and check my work on others, after the unbelievable convenience of him custom selling me what I needed right out of his truck. Probably saved me ten trips back and forth from the store plus the aggrivation of plugging things in wrong myself. Now that's service! I'm a loyal customer for life, and pledge many of my future dollars to a business that treats me so well.

Black Onion: Vonage and Verizon. I'll start with the punch line - I paid two companies for two months of phone service that neither of them provided for me. The saga is too long and too amazing to relate here - I wrote it all out on Judy's Book, which is a Seattle company that provides a whole website for customer complaints and praise on various businesses - kind of an underground railroad BBB. Suffice it to say that Vonage dropped the ball...unless Verizon did. They blamed each other, and I am not sure what happened, but I learned that you don't make the switch to VOIP during a move lest you perhaps get caught with NO service for long periods of time (that of course, I needed to tell them about with many calls to customer care). I filled out BBB reports on both of them, and am at least pleased to say that Vonage just responded to with a credit of two months services (raising their grade from an F to a C - that's still a passing grade). Verizon was the only company I ever filed a BBB report on that completely ignored it. Nice.

Black Onion: Gold's Gym. I was a member of Gold's for 11 years (no need to re-read that sentence...you know what's coming). Decided to join the Bellevue Club to do a little more business networking and get the kids a cool place to swim. I figured Gold's would require 30 days notice - they all do. They exceeded my expectations though, by having me call an Arkansas company to cancel...which told me they needed it in writing...and also sent in CERTIFIED mail (couldn't just trust a fax)...and that they would bill out 30 days after they received it...which crossed the line of a 30 day pre-payment credit card charge...which meant that I actually got to pay for Gold's Gym for almost 60 days longer than I wanted to. A nice swift kick in the rear end on the way out. I actually might have joined another Gold's someday if I would have been treated nicely...but they don't want that repeat business appearantly.

The response from call center agents to these black onions (as well as several others not listed here) is almost always the same: an exasperated "but that's just our policy, sir!". People hide behind that cop-out all the time, ignoring the common sense that customers want to be treated with respect as they come and go from a business, that moving is a part of life, and as it turns out nobody but the lawyers that wrote them actually read the fine print.

My lessons learned and your take-away? Simple: Don't ever move.

Seriously, I did use the Better Business Bureau for the first time, and it won't be the last. Somebody has to take these bastards on, and it's a waste of energy to whine to some first-tier call center agent in Wichita, Kansas or Bangalore, India to try and change corporate culture. What I would hope instead is that all entrepreneurs out there would make sure and build good customer service that promotes lucrative and profitable customer loyalty in from day one...and not ever turn it over to others to make into a "cost center". You start treating customers as sources of costs and complaints, and they'll gladly take their money somewhere else and never come back.

Holy Blog Spam, Batman

Suddenly over the past week I've received many, many "comments" on my various Blog articles. The first one seemed like a legitimate compliment. The next 20 or so didn't. The other thing I've noticed is that they've multiplied like rabbits - got six of them last night. So...I'm turning off comments for now.

Friday, September 30, 2005

"I'm not dead yet...I'm feeling better...

...I feel happy" (obvious Monty Python and the Holy Grail reference)

Sigh...my blog break has lasted longer than planned. The problem is that I plan on writing about the many customer service issues we've had to deal with in moving into our new house - happy and sad endings - and there have been so many that it's become like writing a college thesis. I'm motivated to complete it and get back on track as I've received a few comments like "dude...you still in business? You haven't written a decent blog article in months." Business is actually going very well, so quite the opposite, but I have got this on my to-do list to do...soon.


Friday, June 03, 2005

Summer Break

I'll be taking some time away from Mr. Blog for a couple of months. Starting some new client engagements and also spending more time with Le Family

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Emerging trends in wireless

Excellent NWEN seminar last night with three excellent speakers. Presentation covered a lot of ground and you can get the meeting notes here:


I've been in wireless a long time, and while the evolution in cellular wireless is what a lot of people pay attention to, I think the real revolution in how wireless affects us all will be in the "smaller" radio frequency based technologies. I've spent some time with two of the the speaker's companies, A Dot (CEO Mark Philips) and Interrelativity (CEO Joe McCarthy) and both are doing some very interesting things. Check it out.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Bootstrapping Seminar

I help out with the Evening seminar committee for the Northwest Entrepreneur Network. Below is a write-up I put together on a great seminar on bootstrapping, along with some news about our next seminar on wireless technologies. Some good anecdotes to be had here:

“If you want something that costs a thousand dollars, wait until you have a thousand dollars and see if you still want it”…Frank Ryan

That little axiom was not part of the March 23 bootstrapping seminar, but it was stated by my grandfather on numerous occasions when my dad was growing up, and beaten in to my head as well. As an executive who’s bootstrapped a couple of companies myself, it’s always been good council to not spend money you don’t have, and it typical of the thinking of many entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly, we had a large turnout for Frank Crosetto’s evening seminar on bootstrapping – 100 people - and the crowd enjoyed hearing the anecdotes and experiences of a founder who never relied on other people’s money to build his business.

Frank is the founder of Ammex Corporation, which imports and distributes disposable gloves. While he gave a PowerPoint presentation, his informal style of speaking mixed with a lot of humor provided many memorable quotes that captured the fun and substance of the evening more than a structured recap. So here is a small list of them:

- “You learn from the bad things, not from the good things”
- “Never start a company with four people with equal say!”
- “Learn to sell. Every great CEO is a great salesperson.”
- “A vision is a dream with a plan”
- My personal favorite: “you grow your company incrementally, and every new person you bring on increases your problems exponentially”
- Always have 3 times your annual sales in cash on hand
- “2X rule: everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you think it will”
- Drive home the importance of “critical numbers” to align your staff. Fred’s company always has one focused number on the balance sheet and one on the P&L (e.g. “what is our gross profit per day?”)
- Have “huddles” each day – 5-10 minute standing meetings with all key executives to make sure everyone is on the same page
- “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid”
- “Send hand-written thank-you cards”
- Have attorneys and other consultants explain the consequences of actions, but you must make the final business decision
- Don’t allow non-essential attorneys to attend the meetings and don’t be afraid to ask “how much is this going to cost me?”
- Terminate poor performers – “the longest period in business is the time between when you lose faith in someone and the time you do something about it”

Frank also noted that reading a lot of business books is a great idea, not only for the knowledge, but for the hope they give you when others are discouraging you about your business. Some of his favorite books include “The Great Game of Business”, “Mastering Rockefeller’s Habits”, “A Stake in the Outcome”, and of course “Good to Great” (and he highlighted my favorite part of that book noting that “who is on the bus is more important than where the bus is going.”

Overall, a packed house and a terrific night. Next month we turn our attention back to new technologies that entrepreneurs might want to learn and potentially start new businesses around, this time in the world of Wireless technologies (with particular focus on non-cellular technologies, such as ZigBee, RFID, Wi-Max and other radio wireless networks. That will be on Tuesday, April 26 at the usual time and place (7:30pm at the BCC). Hope you can make it!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Crazy February

Sorry for the lack of posts lately, but business is booming and we also just sold our house and bought a new one (so business better stay booming!). Perhaps I'll take more time to reflect and craft a blog article or two when I'm spending time here with my family during the next several days. Bring on the warmth! Wahoo!!

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A view of Venture Capital from an Entrepreneur's seat

Loved this posting by Joel Spolsky on the Entrepreneur's view of the world vs. the Venture Capatalists, and how they often conflict when it comes to controlling the levers of running a company: http://www.changethis.com/pdf/11.03.FixingVC.pdf

Required reading!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"The Donald" is in trouble

Reality Bites - Apprentice wrap-up and Billionaire update

Let’s start this “Reality Check” week off with a nice summary (above) on Donald Trump’s recent bankruptcy from the best comedy satire newspaper and site ever created, The Onion.

Last week saw the end of a notably weaker Apprentice season (though I admit our Tivo grabbed every one and we sat through all of them). Kelly seemed like the obvious choice the whole time, though I thought the entire cast was a step back from the first season. As usual, Trump didn’t exactly wow me with his wisdom for entrepreneurs and seemed to govern like a casual viewer of the show who couldn’t make up his mind about anything. He seemed to make impulsive decisions in each boardroom, often based on how much someone fought in the boardroom as opposed to the results. As a result, the abrasive Jen made it to the end, out-yelling Sandy for the runner-up position.

Here’s what I wished Trump would have actually said to Kelly and Jen with the final verdict: “Kelly, you are quiet, organized and professional, qualities that I myself don’t really have or relate to, but you are an experienced entrepreneur who has shown the qualities of taking risks again and again, and that is what entrepreneurship and capitalism is all about. Jen, you are here because of your long flowing hair, and I fantasize about you being another trophy wife of mine (I, in fact, like people who imitate how I eat shrimp cocktail), but at the end of the day you are just a very well educated attorney, and while attorneys fill vital roles in the business world, they are inherently trained to NOT take risks, and ultimately paralyze companies if given too much control. I probably should have given Sandy the last shot at it since she actually had the moxie to start her own small business, but couldn’t help myself since you’re just so beeeoooouuuuuteeeffuuuul!”

Seriously – Kelly’s past history of starting three companies (at least one of which failed) was hinted at in the interviews but never explored much, which Jen going to Princeton and Harvard vs. Kelly going to West Point was covered again and again. Very East Coast. Very boorish. Donald – you’re fired.

The Rebel Billionaire has seemed to catch its stride recently, and has my attention in a much bigger way. The show isn’t as well produced, and had some dead weight contestants, but most of them our now off (with Candita’s last show last night). The leaders to me look like Gabe, Sara, Shawn and Erika, though Erika is being positioned as in cahoots with Nicole, who has clearly assumed the role of the vile spawn of Satan on this show. Nicole is also a attorney, probably for Al Qaeda, and also can be a bit of a looker in the right light, so look out. I think that Branson will have the sense to get rid of her, so Erika might be associating herself too much with Nicole.

Overall, the contests are more interesting than the Apprentice because they fly all around the world to do them – Morocco last week, Japan this week, etc. – being more subtle in their promotion of Virgin than Trump Water, for example, but overall showing the U.S. that resistance is futile toward the Virgin brand – it’s a huge force that’s coming this way. The contests are a little too promotion centric, but hopefully we’ll get a few more that really test business skills in the weeks ahead now that we’re down to the best contestants.

For an alternative view of Trump, and probably the best Apprentice de-briefs on the internet, tune in to my friend Martin Tobias’s excellent blog: Deep Green Crystals.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Holiday Book Recommendations!

I've spent some time putting together a list of business books and non-business books that I've read and would recommend. I'll be adding more from time to time, but if you are looking for some ideas this Christmas, you can go right into Amazon and order away from here (note that some pop-up blockers keep you from seeing the images for some reason, so if you can't see pictures of books below, you might want to disable your pop-up blocker via your personal firewall for a few minutes and re-load). You can also find some holiday discounts while shopping online via my entrepreneur shopping page.

First, the business books for entrepreneurs:

First of two required Jim Collins books. I like Good to Great better, but I think that you should read both of them.

The Tipping Point has been around for a few years, but is a good one.

This book, besides being a great baseball story, also got me thinking of how many other industries out there operate on hunches, and could be better if someone just focused on improving them with more objective measurements.

"Who is on the bus is more important that where the bus is going" - one of many great insights from this classic.

Great bit of recent history, and a well written overview of the Genetics industry. If, like me, you think this is going to be the "Biotech Century", this is a great place to get a baseline of information.

What do you mean you haven't read this one yet?! It's a classic, and required for high-tech startups especially.

A hopeful book about the potential marketplace and source of entrepreneurship that doesn't get enough attention.

Good analytical book based on a lot of research that offers a lot of insights on managing people.

Then, there are the non-business books I've enjoyed this year, just for fun:

The best and most insightful comedy on television these days. Great book as well.

I used to work on capital hill in D.C., and I've never read a better-written government document! Obviously an important topic, and the quality of writing makes it compelling.

This is the final chapter in Stephen King's Opus. 20 years in the making, and ties many of his books together. You'll have to read the first six books first though!

This is the first Dark Tower Book if you are looking to get started. It's also probably the worst of the group, so don't get discouraged if it's slow moving to you.

I usually don't like the "blockbuster" books, but I liked this one. Like most people, I couldn't stop for about a week or so until it was finished.

Chick book...but I liked it. Written by a guy who is actually my favorite sports authors, Mitch Albom, who I used to read religiously when I lived in Detroit, MI, for a few months.

I notice that a book called "The Plot Against America" is popular, and plan to read it. It's a story about an alternative outcome of history if Germany would have won WW2. Reminds me of this excellent book - "What If?". A few years old buy highly recommended for history buffs.

OK, full disclosure, I'm ABOUT to read this book. I've read Carl Hiaasen before and loved his comedic novels. I'd also recommend his book "Sick Puppy", though he's better known for "Striptease". He offers more proof that Florida is just hopeless.

This is basically "The Libertarian Bible" by any other name. If you want to know my political leanings, I'm part of the "radical middle" along with Stossel. Very compelling book - I'd challenge all believers of big government to read!
Those non-believers in government will nod your head a lot.

This almost belongs with the business books, but is a little more high level in terms of sociology.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Trump's Reality Bites. Branson better.

Seems like "the Donald" gets all the attention with regard to business reality shows these days, and The Apprentice is the first and certainly most popular. I find it interesting though that people find Donald Trump to be such an icon of business, when he's barely holding on to his empire, having recently gone through a bankrupcy deal that caused him to lose much of his stake in his own company. Everything I see and hear when I watch the Apprentice causes me to lose more and more respect for Donald's "manage through fear" approach, and I feel he's the last person entrepreneurs should be emulating when they are picking out their role models. Most of us don't inherit the fortune that Trump did, and most entrepreneurs I meet are much better and dealing with real life business problems...and certainly people...than he is.

On the other hand, I'm hopeful for the new Rebel Billionaire series, hosted by Richard Branson. I've never met a whole lot of great business people from the UK in general, but Branson is somebody I think truly worth respecting. I've enjoyed the show so far, though wish they would put more emphasis on business challenges rather than courage-daredevil challenges. I did love his first way of determining the "losers" of his competition. He dressed up like an old cabbie and drove the contestants to his mansion, and watched the way they treated him when they did not know he was important. Great test! I know a CEO who always interviewed people by taking them to lunch, and one of the important things he looked for was how nicely they treated the waiter or waitress. It's a great technique - one Richard Branson values because he values "kindness" as one of his core values - one Donald Trump just wouldn't get.

Overall, I think Richard Branson is the executive that today's entrepreneur's should look up to and emulate - he's built a fantastic brand from nothing, and has been a nice and fun guy during the process - something "The Donald" can only dream of doing. I'd highly recommend "Apprentice" fans to give Branson's show a look.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Product Marketing - consider hiring some outside perspective

Goodness me, sorry for the delay in posting! Lots of new clients and lots of activity going on. It certainly isn’t the quality of northwest football that’s keeping me distracted from this Blog, that’s for sure. So to make up for lost time, I thought I would write-up and interview between another interim provider that entrepreneurs can take advantage of – John Browne of Workpump – who provides product marketing strategy, typically for early stage companies. John is a terrific person who is always good for an insight and a laugh, and he’s someone I’d recommend entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out their product strategy to take a look at.

I started by asking John what are typical services you provide in an outsourced manner (i.e. how does it work)? His response:

“As an entry point, we typically work with the company to create or revise their marketing strategy and plans. Tech companies in particular typically can't answer the question, "What compelling, urgent, and unsolvable problem do you solve for your customers?" We help them do that. Creating a value proposition and message, that's the foundation of effective marketing. A lot of our work is marketing execution--building marketing communications like web sites, data sheets, white papers, direct response campaigns, and so forth. Additionally, we're doing a lot of web analysis these days--looking at search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) as well as mapping campaigns to bread crumb trails through a website.”

I asked what the advantages are to startups in outsourcing Marketing to a firm like Workpump. His response:

“Most of the companies I talk to are focused on their technical core, whether it's software or hardware. They think in terms of features, not customer benefits. We come in as a fresh set of eyes, totally focused on how to find the sweet spot in the market and get traction quickly. We think customer benefits, not product features. Ultimately more features won't sell product--solving customer problems will. Sadly, most startups can't afford the whole orchestra; they can only afford one or two musicians. Workpump provides a deep and wide bench of very experienced people who have done this many times before. By renting their talent instead of buying it, they can get better quality at an affordable price.”

Having a tight budget is something my clients face as well, and is often an objection to using an outsourced solution. John added “I think startups fall prey to the idea that they need to emulate bigger companies right from the start. So they want to hire every key position, not rely on service providers. Interestingly, this concept of "I have to do it all myself" is not at all part of more successful companies. Microsoft, for example, has systematically relied on outsourcing or bringing in service providers through its history. Another objection we run into concerns the degree to which people are willing to invest in growth. Everybody wants more customers, but how many startups are really committed to investing in marketing and sales? Again, this is something you see less and less of in successful companies. Think of any big, successful tech company, and go look at their SEC filings to get an idea of how much their total S&M investment is vs. their R&D budget. To use Microsoft again, their total S&M budget is approximately equal to R&D.”

With that in mind, how do clients convince themselves that outsourcing is the way to go with certain early-stage management roles?

“Our current clients are the best proof point for the first objection. In many cases Workpump has augmented the in-house capabilities of a company's marketing department; in some cases we've done it all. In both cases our clients love the results they get, so usually having a prospect talk to a current or past client is enough. In addition, we have always fully guaranteed our work, so we believe that takes the risk out of the equation. I have no use for service providers who take the line of "you pay your money and you take your chances." The gold standard for customer satisfaction is Nordstrom. The story (often repeated) of the guy who returned four tires and got his money back from a clothing store is priceless. At Workpump we strongly believe that we want zero unhappy customers. We've never had anyone ask us for the money back, so we must be doing something right."

With regard to the degree of investment, there's not much I can do about that. Certainly I've talked to CEOs who state very ambitious plans for growth but won't provide any resources to achieve it. I think people don't really understand that anybody can buy customers. The trick is to do it profitably. But no-investment means no-growth. It's as simple as that. Finally, I think technology companies fall into a mental trap that I call the "mousetrap myth." They believe the old adage that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Tech people translate this myth into thinking that if they just add enough features; somehow sales will take care of themselves. Well, anything's possible, but I can't think of many cases where this turned out to be true.”

I asked how John helps the startup company grow and not be dependent on you long term?

“Although we have some clients who really want to outsource their whole marketing function, most of the time we're involved as a transformational agent, not a replacement to doing it yourself. Sure, there are some key specialties that companies should always look to buy from outside until they have sufficient economic justification to bringing it in-house. I don't have a full time corporate attorney--I have an outside lawyer. I don't think of myself as being "dependent" on him. I think of him as a high-value resource that I can "rent" when I need that specialty. Even when companies grow to the point that they bring functions in-house, they still typically use outside service providers either for their fresh viewpoint or for overflow work. “

Any other parting thoughts, John?

“I'm deeply committed to entrepreneurship in the Northwest, and am troubled by the number of business failures in the tech community. Technology is one of the few areas in the world where we have the opportunity to actually improve people's lives, and for great ideas to fail due to poor management is painful to watch. Tech entrepreneurs are--as a class of people--incredibly smart, but they can also underestimate the difficulty or complexity of areas that they are unfamiliar with. Over and over I see companies struggling with the same problem set: lack of any clear value proposition, inability to focus the marketing effort, lack of understanding about appropriate sales strategies and channel development, inability to hit development milestones, lack of in-bound marketing/product management, weak or confusing customer communications and sales tools. Those same tech entrepreneurs all too frequently can't tell the difference between developing a product and running a business."

"Early stage companies should build out their core team with seasoned, committed individuals who share the entrepreneurial drive and spirit. But beyond that core team it is hard these days to attract superstars to young companies for all the other functions. The odds of your stock options really being worth some significant amount are pretty slim in this new post-bubble era. Acquisitions are still a viable liquidity event for tech companies, but at greatly reduced multiples relative to a few years ago. This new, tougher, economic climate makes it harder then ever to fill out your team with high-quality people. Outsourcing with companies like mine and Athena is a great way to solve that problem.”

Monday, September 06, 2004

Idaho Opportunities

I’ve just recently returned from the great state of Idaho and our annual summer vacation in McCall, Idaho. While most opportunities in Idaho are recreational related, I did have a chance to catch up with James Grunke, who works on economic development for the Boise Chamber of Commerce.

While Idaho has been a destination for many people from California and Washington to move to for many years, it’s never impressed me much from a start-up perspective, particularly high-tech start-ups (with the notable exception of companies that started with much of J.R. Simplot’s money, such as Micron). That may be changing, noted by many of James’ comments:

- “We are seeing significant growth in start-ups.”

- “Most of our trends are in spin-off from the existing tech companies, micron, hp, but also significant growth in the bio science field...both pharmaceuticals and bio-ag - interesting combination.”

- “Idaho continued to grow each year of the past five years and there has been significant activity this year.”

There has never been a lot of homegrown V.C. and Angel activity in Idaho, and I wondered what was being done to lure much-needed capital to the area. James’ response:

“For the first time, there are outside VC firms want to have a presence in Idaho. First, as deal flow tightened in the major markets, secondary markets such of Idaho have been getting a closer look, in particular due to the fact that growth continued while the rest of the country stagnated. Certainly though events like the Intermountain Venture Forum and the creation of the Boise Angel Alliance also raised the profile of the area.”

I’ve often thought that Idaho would be a perfect place to live if you could combine it with a fun group of entrepreneurs and some good company ideas. It’s so much cheaper to live and do business in, and overall offers a “simpler life” (though without any known appearances by Paris Hilton). I’ve always loved the somewhat “planning free” lifestyle you get, at least in towns like McCall. You rarely have to reserve restaurant times, golf tee times, and the like, - when you want to go ski, you wait for good weather and go ski, etc. It’s a very free way of living. The 300+ days of sunshine don’t suck either. I digress.

In addition to the mostly libertarian utopia living (at least when you’re not caught in the sprawling areas of Boise where traffic is piling up - Boise's downtown is charming but it's suburbs are very generic and sprawling in a fairly unplanned fashion) and cheap costs, James sites “proactive government, overall cost of doing business, low workers comp and unemployment insurance, cheap utility costs, and favorable tax structure and incentives” as other things for entrepreneurs to take advantage of.

I also gave James room to plug an upcoming V.C. Forum on October 6 and 7. Sounds like a lot of good V.C.’s will be there, and it might be a good opportunity for companies looking for money to get noticed. Said James: “The Intermountain Venture Forum is the preeminent event in the intermountain west. Over thirty VC firms, representing over $10 billion in investment will be sitting in the audience. If anyone wants to meet the investment capital players of the northwest, this is the place where they all will be. See http://www.ventureboise.org/ for complete background, speakers, bios and panels.”

Monday, August 16, 2004


It seems that "virtual everything" is all the rage in starting new companies these days. I'll continue to write about tools and companies that allow you to create virtual companies, as it's clear if done right the approach produces a great combination of low cost and flexibility.

One small thing I checked out over the weekend were some of the virtual hard-drive companies. With more and more large files out there to store and share, having a virtual file-server makes a lot of sense. I looked at a few companies - many of which offer some sort of free trial or amount of storage (e.g. Yahoo Briefcase offers 30MB of virtual storage for free...though that's not very much space to be useful). I settled on trying X-Drive, which offers 5 GB for FREE for two weeks. I started using this as a tool to move some files I had on my home PC to my work PC that were larger than a CD-ROM or even DVD drive could hold.

Overall, it was a positive experience, though when moving some particularly large files, the upload times would take a few hours, even with cable broadband. One particular huge file was problematic because of a stupid cat. Yes, you read that right.

I had let the copying go on all of Saturday night, and woke up and saw it was 95% complete. Then the power went out! Oh, cruel fate! As it turns out, a cat had walked into a power transformer in our neighborhood, gotten zapped, and took the whole power grid in north Kirkland down for a few hours.

Actually, I don't know for sure that it was a cat, but it was reported that a "domestic animal" did the job. I can't bear to think of a dog doing that - that would be a tragedy. A cat dying in such an accident...is one less cat. Besides, what do they say about curiosity doing to cats? Once again, I digress.

Anyway, power outages aside, I've found that having a virtual hard-drive can be a very useful tool to let you transfer files between computers, or just share them between different team members (as many mail servers block files over certain sizes). Just keep the cats away.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Friction Free Capitalism in HTML?

I recently submitted the following article to the Northwest Venture Voice Blogsite: http://www.nwventurevoice.com/. It is the first official Athena Chiefs blog article, and I hope to continue to post more in the months ahead...Tom.

“I’m not sure if this Internet thing is ever going to be big enough to care about”.

In 1995, I proposed that we build a call center help system using new web internet technologies to an Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) Partner, and this quote above was what I heard in response. It was several weeks before the Netscape IPO, and to me, it was the last time I remember hearing the Internet being “under-hyped” for many, many years.

In the months and years that followed, we heard much about the internet being the catalyst for “friction-free capitalism”, the entity that would break down cultural and economic barriers, and the perfect place to buy dog toys of all types. As it turned out, the American media might have “over-hyped” the internet a bit. Imagine that. Naturally, a backlash against the internet occurred, complete with dot-bomb failures of all types, and it was not that long ago that a British business colleague was giving me his views on my fellow “silly Americans and your mad internet ideas.”

So it was with some pleasant surprise that I found some pretty cool internet tools that made starting up my new business easier, and that I actually found delivering much of the promise of the late ‘90’s hype of the internet. I’m chronicling some of what I found here for others that are looking for help in getting many of the basic marketing materials of a brand new business in place for a low cost. I also think many of you who are just looking for a few new cool ideas might find my experiences interesting.

I started a company in April to provide interim and project-based management to early stage and fast growth companies. I named it “Athena Chiefs” after the Greek goddess Athena, primarily to make my Mom, a full-blooded Greek, a happy lady. I started thinking I needed to hire someone to create a logo, business cards and a website for me, and figured I’d spend a few thousand dollars doing so with some local artists and web folks. It was then that one of the smartest people in the world I know, Mike Moskowitz of Jetstream Software, suggested checking out a website called Design Outpost.

Design Outpost is basically a community of graphic artists all over the world that have, ahem, “extra time” on their hands to help clients with needs for various graphic designs. You can get just about anything designed for you there by running “contests” and letting the various graphic artists duke it out. So I decided to start with a $100 contest for my new logo, and see if I could get any good ideas. I paid the $100 and a 10% fee via PayPal, and then wrote a few things about my company (and what I knew of the goddess Athena) on a message-board site that I now had access to. I set the contest up for seven days, told them what I could (including mentioning my mom), and then sat back and waited for results. The whole process took 10 minutes at $110.

The next seven days were a great combination of 1. Entertaining, and 2. Productive! There were owl logos. There were helmet logos. There were colors and fonts of every combination, and from every continent on the planet. The artists encourage your comments, which were easy for me to make, and we gradually all zeroed in on a design. Because it was a public site, I was able to get friends, and yes, even my mom, to make comments on which designs they did and didn’t like. It was the epitome of a creative process, as minds from all over the world were on the problem. It was, in a word…”fun”. OK, a second word comes to mind, “cheap”. Well, OK, maybe I should just some it up as…”good”. I digress.

In any case, perhaps because it was suspiciously close to the release of the movie “Troy”, a Spartan war helmet won out, I contacted the winning artist in Venezuela to make the final touches, and I had two logo alternatives in all possible graphic format. We were instant-messaging as we refined the design, and I asked about business cards. “Uh, how about 50 American dollars?” was his reply, and given that I’d spent over $1000 for a logo and card design at my last company, I quickly agreed. More instant messages followed, and I had my business card design delivered to Kinko’s that night, and my cards when I woke up the next day.

I should also mention that, during the creative process with my Venezuelan artist Alex, we both had our internet cameras on and could see each other (we even tried Voice over IP for a while, but preferred text). I found out why he had fled his native country of Russia - “as it turns out, Russia is not a very nice country to Jewish people”, Alex remarked (and I dropped the subject). I asked why he had moved to Venezuela of all countries, and then realized it was a dumb question. For those of you who don’t know, men move to different places for one of three reasons: 1% of the time to get away from their fathers, 1% of the time to take a fantastic job, and 98% of the time because of a girl. A few seconds went by and then Alex replied “it was because of a girl”. Silly me. In any case Design Outpost (and, yes, the internet) not only gave Alex a chance to make a living near his love-life, it also introduced me to a very interesting person from two different countries.

A few days later, I decided to take a weekend and hammer out a website. Armed with the book “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies”, Microsoft FrontPage, and Alex’s IM address, I went to work. Alex asked that I use another very cool internet tool, ikobo.com, to wire him the couple of hundred dollars he would charge me to build my web template. I did that with a credit card, paid a $5 fee, iKobo converted the dollars to Bolivars, and Alex then picked up the cash a few minutes later from an ATM machine near his house! As Homer Simpson might say: “Mmmm…Global Economomee.”

The result? Less than $400 total spent and the following website (with similar business cards) to show for it: http://www.athenachiefs.com/. If you don’t like the site, it’s probably because of my crass and un-imaginative writing, not the cool and dynamic graphics. The only real argument Alex and I had was that he thought he needed to illustrate the various people rather than use pictures, proving that the Jerry Seinfeld “only 4%-6% of the population is actually attractive” rule is alive and well in the other hemispheres of our world, not just our own.

Feel free to contact me at tom@athenachiefs.com if you ever want additional details, Alex’s IM address, or just to comment on my crass and un-imaginative writing. Feel free to contact Mike Moskowitz at mikem@jetsoft.com if you want other smart ideas, or some of the best .Net developers on the planet (I’ve used them too – you don’t always have to go overseas!). Finally, feel free to look up “Friction-free Capitalism” on one of the internet’s many translation websites. I’ve found that it translates into, among other things, Venezuelan, Russian, and, finally, HTML.

Here is the Design Outpost site if you'd like to use it yourself: