Just Be Excellent

“Hi, my name is Julia, and I used to be a Grey’s Anatomy fan.”

I stopped watching the show sometime after season 4 or 5, but there was a scene in an early episode that has stuck with me ever since (and if someone can find the clip, I’ll buy them a fine dinner!). One of the female characters – Yang or Grey, I think – was feeling the classic pressure of needing to do more to succeed than just be a surgeon. She was stepping out of her comfort zone because she thought that’s what she needed to do to excel in her career. In this case, she was vying for an administrative type of role that required lots of paperwork, scheduling and managing staff – all non-surgical skills. While she was learning new things and stretching herself, she was not loving or doing well at this new type of work. In the memorable clip, one of this woman’s mentors lays it on the line with her and tells her to stop trying to be something she’s not or do something she doesn’t love and to just “be excellent”.

I often reflect on this scene when I coach leaders of early stage growth companies who are striving to grow professionally. keep-calm-and-be-excellent-8Sometimes it’s a salesperson who has become a CEO or a programmer who is now a VP of Engineering. Often, when one starts a new company, they are still doing their day job (sales, programming, market analysis…) not just because there’s no one else but them to do it, but because it’s their passion and the reason they started their business to begin with. The catch 22 of a successful startup can be that the job you loved and got you this far is a job you no longer have time to do. You are meeting with investors, managing people, closing deals, looking for space or just paying the bills. In many cases, there’s great satisfaction in learning how to run a company and domain experts become great leaders across and outside of their organizations. They are being excellent! Sometimes, however, they are being anything but excellent. They are poor people managers or suck at managing investors and they find themselves in a role that makes them miserable. This can have a negative impact on everything from the happiness of their customers, employees and the overall bottom line to their personal self-worth and esteem.

I have taken pleasure in seeing some great founding CEOs and CTOs step down from their roles early into their company’s success to go back to their true passion. Whether it was programming, a business development or sales role, they chose to be excellent so that they can make an impact on their company and found someone with the right skills and experience to do the job they did not want or were good at doing. So, when I am advising leaders in early stage growth companies about scaling their organization, I walk them through an exercise that forecasts what their company might look like in 12, 18 and/or 24 months. Then, I ask them a series of questions that include some of the following:

  • Do you feel prepared to manage an organization at that size?
  • What tools do you think you are missing in your toolbox to be good at that role?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you willing or eager to give up?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you loathe to give up?
  • What criteria will you use to know when you need to delegate something to a new or existing team member?
  • What criteria will you use to decide if you are still happy in your role?

Even with the best planning, most leaders have no idea what their companies will look or feel like at scale, never mind how they will feel about their own roles. However, being self aware and having some ideas in mind of what one will do at that juncture can be vital to their success. Lining up advisors and/or coaches who can help add those tools to your toolbox or to find the right people to delegate to, or perhaps hand the reins to, can be critical to the overall success of the company.

A good leader/founder is not a failure for admitting they suck at their job or that they can’t do it all. The best leaders are those who acknowledge what needs to be done and by whom and they make it happen. They know they need to just be excellent.

Have you stepped down from a leadership role so you can be excellent or know someone who has?  Please share your story in the comments!

Author’s note: After posting, I realized I should have called out that this mindset is applicable for ANY role. If you’re a great programmer, be an excellent programmer. If you’re a great designer, be an excellent designer, etc…

So what IS a Startup Foundry, anyway?

When I pulBlade's offices on Fort Point Channelled the trigger this summer and decided it was time to head back to work full-time after a year-long hiatus, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful and interesting.  I had just finished a stint as an EIR at TechStars Boston. I loved working closely with the founders and key members of early stage companies to help them strategize on their businesses, hone their messages and prepare for Demo Day where they would hopefully garner interest from prominent investors.  I made some great connections along the way and even invested in a few of these companies myself as a first-time Angel.  But it wasn’t enough.  I knew I liked the dynamic nature of working with different startups and building relationships with various founders and their teams.  However, I also yearned to go deeper with companies; to roll up my sleeves and dig into technical work and business strategy as well as help develop operations including the companies’ employee culture.  My challenge was to find the right home that wasn’t just a C–level position at one particular startup.  As I explored options, I found there was a new type of opportunity unlike those offered by accelerators and incubators.  There are Foundries, like newly created Blade Boston.

So, what makes Blade different than an accelerator or incubator? TechStars (or Y Combinator, MassChallenge here in Boston, and others) is a national start-up accelerator that offers a wonderful opportunity for early stage companies to get skilled on how to do everything from bootstrap and solidify their MVP to raising seed capital.  Like most other accelerators out there, it’s a fairly well defined program with a specific set of activities offered over a defined set of weeks that culminates into a demo day or some other type of grand finale.  Accelerators take a fair amount of equity in a company (average 5%) in exchange for their offering and most startups that take this route consider this reasonable given the fine tuning and exposure they receive in these programs.  Accelerator organizations enlist the support of a broad array of local, seasoned mentors who spend time with each class offering advice and their valuable network of resources.  Often, these mentors are also Angel investors and VCs who end up on the cap table and/or boards of these companies.  These programs are terrific, don’t get me wrong, but as someone itching to go deep, they didn’t offer what I was looking for as my next gig.

Incubators are somewhat different.  There are two flavors – those that come up with their ideas themselves and then find CEOs to execute (e.g., Redstar Ventures) and there are those that offer a facility and resources of like-minded people, as well funding to develop their products (e.g., Bolt* or Greentown Labs).  There are less programatic features to incubators, but they can be invaluable to companies who need a space to work with amenities and skilled resources and mentors available to help them along the way.  I love hanging out at these places and can see the value they offer to the companies I work with – several of whom had already “graduated” from TechStars and MassChallenge – but again, these were not places where I could get the right level of engagement.

Then along came Blade.

Brian Kalma and Petr Kaplunovich, Blade's UX pros

As I discussed what I was looking to do next with my Personal Board of Advisors, several of my board members said “Talk to Paul English, he’s doing something that may be perfect for you.”  Paul and I had met only a couple of times before and I knew he was building Blade, but I wasn’t really clear about what Blade actually was.  I knew Paul had an excellent reputation as a startup founder and all around good guy and I had heard he, along with his co-founders Bill O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk, had attracted some amazing talent (e.g., Brian Kalma, a nationally recognized top designer with whom I had worked at TechStars) to get Blade off the ground.  So, I reached out to Paul to learn more.  What I found was a startup Foundry and the perfect fit for my next gig.

As a startup Foundry, Blade offers something uniquely different from accelerators and incubators.  We attract very early stage companies with great founders and a hard problem to solve. At Blade, we care less at first about how the entrepreneurs are solving the problem, because we assume that the right team is on the right problem and they will figure out, tweak, and eThe Blade team hard at work.volve the solution until perfect. We don’t want to be heavy handed on defining the solution. We trust the founders to do that. We are just very, very active helpers. This is what makes us a Foundry. We have hired a lean, but extremely talented team of designers, engineers and product people that are assigned to work with our intentionally small set of companies we invest in at a time (3-4, max). We set no specific timeline on how long each company can hang out at Blade, but our goal is to help each company launch successfully with a solid team and a healthy series A. Because Blade can assign significant industry talent on a startup, as well as Blade management assistance, Blade takes some co-founder equity in the venture; the amount varies per deal.

So, it’s been a few months now and I am happy to report that life at Blade is pretty amazing. The team I get to work with every day is some of the most talented I have had the opportunity to work with in my career.   Not only are they a wealth of expertise, but they are also exceptional humans – kind, compassionate and extremely fun.  The companies we’ve invested in (three so far: Wigo, Classy and one stealthy one I can’t write about….yet!) are thriving.  Blade is a startup itself, so we’re also continuing to develop what we do and how we do it, but so far so good!  Look for future blog posts on progress at Blade – including lessons learned, tips and tricks for startups and their mentors.

Have more insight into the various accelerators, incubators and foundries out there? Please reply in the comments below!

*While I’ve categorized Bolt as a startup Incubator, Ben Einstein, Managing Director of Bolt, says “Bolt is technically a venture fund, so we use ‘extremely hands-on seed VC'”.  Hm, perhaps Bolt is a Foundry too!