Category Archives: Entrepreneurship


A humbling reminder about the role of a mentor

It was exciting for sure – being announced as the top rated mentor in the eastern US for Founder Institute at the Founder Showcase in Mountain View, CA.

On my flight back from San Francisco that night I was struck with the reality (and weight) of what it really means to be a mentor to these upstart ventures and an advisor to growing companies.

Only mentors and advisors understand the joy and pressure of playing this role. On one hand you get to be a “know it all” telling someone else what to do. Who doesn’t love that?!

On the other hand, you’re giving advice and guidance that could have a significant impact on an entrepreneur’s decision/direction – and thereby the success/failure of their venture and potentially millions of dollars of economic impact created (or not realized).

That’s a massive responsibility when you really think about it. And it should never be taken lightly. When we screen and onboard new advisors into our certified partner program, the #1 thing we look for in someone is a heart for service. We look for people who genuinely and authentically want to serve the entrepreneur first – make money second.

I’ll be first to admit that in the past I’ve mentored or advised with an ulterior motive – to make money. It was all about me – and how I could benefit. The results I got as an advisor/mentor were very average. Sure, businesses still grew – but they didn’t have hockey-stick growth. Of course the client was still “satisfied” but they weren’t fanatical.

If you’re an advisor, consultant or coach, I just want to encourage you to focus on impact and results rather than income. That may be hard to do when you’re just getting started – or struggling to pay the bills. But that is the best time to build this culture into your practice. Anyone can become missional when they are rich. That’s easy.

What’s hard (and infinitely more authentic) is to be missional when you’re starving. Trust me when I say, your prospects will turn into customers when they see that. You’ll be better equipped to serve your customers. You’ll grow the broad shoulders on which clients will be able to lean when they need it most.

The role of an advisor/mentor is hard work. It carries mind-bending responsibility. It should not be looked at as an easy path to lifestyle-friendly income. It is an opportunity to impact lives and change the world in the process. It is often hard work with no pay or short-term return. But in the long-term, there is absolutely nothing else like it! I was certainly reminded of that this week.

I’m thankful to the founders participating in Founder Institute for trusting me in serving them – and for the reminder of why the role of a mentor is mission critical work.


The dark side of Innovator DNA

Our data shows that 18% of BOSI Assessment takers show Innovator “I” as their Primary DNA.

It’s wired into these individuals to be mad scientists. Highly creative people who care much more about changing the world than making a ton of money.

They tend to be fairly introverted, overly trusting and make horrible business operators.

Yes. I said it. Horrible business operators.

Here’s why…

What drives Innovator behavior is a desire to change the world with their product/service. No sooner do they have the epiphany of the discovery – than they activate this behavioral preset. Once active, this DNA measures success based on the impact a product/service is having on the marketplace.

Picture a chef with high Innovator DNA watching with baited breath as patrons take their first bite into his latest creation. Picture an inventor listening to a customer in tears describe how the invention has changed their life. Most creatives have this DNA in Primary or Secondary form. When I study founders of most social entrepreneurship ventures and non profits, Innovator is the primary behavioral profile.

What all these individuals have in common is a burning desire for their creation to result in people saying – “That made a huge difference in my life”.

But when that desire drives decisions inside a business – bad things can happen.

Enter the dark side of Innovator DNA.

When changing the world is what it’s all about…

- Revenue and profits take a back seat. Product development and “changing lives” becomes the focus
- Finances are funneled to make product better (or change lives) – not necessarily to build a sustainable or scalable venture
- People are hired (and roles assigned) based on their passion/excitement for the mission – not necessarily their business acumen or capacity
- Sound business strategy takes a back seat to what feels good/right

It’s not uncommon for an Innovator to have a massive vision – but struggle to make that vision a reality.

See, it’s about the mission to change the world – not the mission to build a profitable, scalable and sustainable business. It’s about R&D not distribution. It’s about happy people, not shareholder value.

The dark side of Innovator DNA kicks in when an entrepreneur with this Primary DNA steps into the role of CEO of their company – and holds onto the steering wheel with a kung-fu death grip. They make decisions that foster harmony, impact and innovation – decisions that often conflict with what the business really needs.

So what’s the fix?

- Every Innovator MUST (at least) have a business advisor/mentor with Builder DNA – and DO what they are advised to do. An Innovator who tells a Builder “how it should be” when it comes to running a business is the equivalent of your 4 year old telling you what they should eat for dinner every night.
- The Innovator should step out of the role of CEO and have someone with Builder (or Specialist-Builder) DNA run the organization (especially finance, strategy and team).
- The Innovator should be responsible for product development, brand, messaging and brand evangelism. Every minute spent outside those key roles is counter-productive.

Take it from me, an “I” who has gladly handed off the reins of my company to someone better equipped to run it. Your mission is safer in their hands than your own. Your vision is more likely to become a reality with you out of the CEO role. Your customer is more likely to be reached and impacted than doing it the old-school way.

And after all, isn’t that what you’re in this for? Impact? Changed Lives?

Then do what is best for your organization – and step out of your weakness – into your strength.

You’ll be glad you did!

Will Chambers become relevant again?

I’m here sitting at the airport in Louisville, KY waiting to head back home to Chicago.

Earlier today I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of Chamber execs attending the ACCE (American Chamber of Commerce Executives) Annual Convention. For years, I have been warning chamber execs that they need to reinvent or become obsolete.

During our session this morning, I taught the execs about the BOSI Quadrant – and what I had learned through my research about entrepreneurial behavior – especially as it relates to chambers.

Here was my main point to chambers (which would be the same point I make to any business-to-entrepreneur organization).

“If you continue to treat all business owners as the same – and feed them one-size-fits-all marketing, sales, products and services, you won’t meet their real needs  - and you’ll become obsolete over time”

The fact is, how an entrepreneur is wired has everything to do with their needs, wants and frustrations. When b-2-b ventures (like chambers) understand that core behavior – and learn how to decode each entrepreneur’s behavior during the prospecting phase, several good things happen.

  1. They end up targeting their “ideal” customer better – rather than trying to be all things to all people
  2. They end up messaging themselves to their ideal customer in more effective ways
  3. They are able to deploy sales processes that speak to the buying style of their ideal customer
  4. They build products/services to meet the very specific needs of their ideal customer

Here was another key point I made to the chamber execs…

To be relevant as a service provider today, you have to discover who your real customer is – and build your chamber around them.

After all…

  • Opportunists join chambers with the intent to get a ton of leads fast (and they expect for the chamber to be a never-ending source of warm bodies)
  • Specialists join chambers to network, get referrals and learn about how to better market their business
  • Builders will only see value in a chamber if the chamber can help their employees dramatically boost performance
  • Innovators only see value in a chamber that can help them get their IP to market
The question to the group this morning was – Who is your customer? Which of these four groups can you deliver outstanding value to over and over again. Every chamber should have a different answer depending on their community, culture and own capacity.

I was very encouraged to see so many chamber execs from across the country show a genuine interest in learning more about their customer, the entrepreneur. I was even more encouraged to see many of them step forward to ask for help in further defining who their customer was – and how to message to that customer in more meaningful ways.

As brands get more sophisticated and focused on segmentation and messaging, chambers must follow suit. If not, entrepreneurs will hear chambers talk – but all they’ll hear is – blah, blah, waa, wa, blah, join our chamber, blah, blah, waa wa.

Will chambers become relevant again?

I have hope that the ones that change with these rapidly changing times – and rapidly changing customer needs will.

But it is time for some pruning of the ones that expect us entrepreneurs to keep paying them an annual fee for providing what we perceive as meaningless and “available elsewhere”.



Incubator Case Study

In 2010 a group of former NCAA Football players saw an opportunity.

These athletes realized that in the history of football footwear, cleats had never been designed for specific positions on the field. Despite the different positions and needs of players on the field, everyone still wore the same replacement cleats.

When you think about it, at the snap of the ball a wide receiver running a streak requires a cohesive mesh of speed and agility to beat a cornerback. A defensive tackle fighting for every inch of space requires explosive power and balanced footwork. A tight end that is both a blocker and a receiver needs all of these elements to be the best at his position.

A little research showed that replaceable cleats had not seen any innovation in over 80 years. So Position Tech was born.


The Before: (What the company had when we met them)

  • A proven product with market traction
  • Patented innovation
  • A passionate team of founders willing to out-work anyone
  • Traction! Proven sales at the grass roots and national retailer level
  • A successful friends and family funding round

What they needed:

  • Guidance on how to take their company from a local phenomenon to a nationally recognized brand
  • A scalable business model that wouldn’t break as the company grew
  • Access to growth capital (they figured they needed around $500k)
  • Help figuring out the roles, responsibilities and operating plan for the four founders – especially given their diverse BOSI Profiles
  • Confidence that their company was going to be a big brand someday

What we did:

We invited the PositionTech founders into the BOSI Accelerator. From legal and accounting to business model and investor deck we tore the company down to its most functional parts and infused healthy growth DNA in.

We helped them rebuild their financial model. We helped them design their investor deck. We helped them identify pitfalls in their current investor structure – and why their capital structure needed to be restructured to attract new capital. We also helped them establish exactly how much money they needed to raise – and why. We took them through pitch training and invited potential investors in to hear their pitch.

After the intensive 2-days of intervention, we decided to invite this company into our 18-month incubator program. Andy Parker from our team went to work in the role of advisor and business catalyst- helping install growth systems and processes in the business.

The Results:

  1. The company started receiving offers for investment and is well on its way to raising $1,500,000 in growth capital
  2. The company walked into one of the top sporting goods retailers and with confidence asked for a larger order. The retailer took them from 20 to over 225 stores nationwide
  3. The company’s business model was redesigned for scalable growth
  4. The partners went from running the company by committee to a robust management structure where decisions and execution were scalable
  5. The company is on pace to do 10x the revenue of 2011 and have a handsome exit within a few years

We love working with driven founders who are coachable. The Position Tech founders fit that mold beautifully. We can’t wait to guide them to their big acquisition.

You can check out this rockin company at


2012 is shaping up nicely!

I was at a meeting yesterday with some of my favorite business allies in the Chicago area and I walked away enthused about the news I heard.

Harriet Parker who runs the #1 Small Business Development Center in the state of IL (in # of startups) kicked off the meeting by talking about how busy she has been since the start of the year. She has seen seventy (70) clients since 1/1/12 and is booked solid through march. (That’s a very good sign!) considering there were tumbleweeds rolling through her office 18 months ago. She talked about how a mass of new clients were coming to the table with viable businesses and a strong commitment to get them launched. Some of her past clients were coming back with a renewed focus on growing their business and making investments to get the growth kicked off.

Austin Dempsey (third generation leader of Batavia Enterprises) joined us a few minutes later and while loosening his tie he said “Man! if the first 6 weeks of 2012 are any indication of how the year is going to go, this is going to be one banner year!”. He went on to explain that he has seen a significant (double digit) uptick in businesses taking on new office space and existing clients expanding facilities.

“Business owners seem to be fed up of waiting. They’re pulling the trigger and making their growth initiatives a reality”.

That’s really, really good news.

This has nothing to do with politics. Personally, I don’t think real entrepreneurs let Washington DC control any of their decisions. This has everything to do with the economy and the future of our country.

We hear is said all over the place – “Small business owners and startups are the key to economic recovery”. Unfortunately, 2009-11 was all about small business owners recovering from the 2008 crash while reinventing themselves, restructuring financing and geting healthy again. Reports like the ones I heard from Harriet and Austin combined with what I am experiencing with entrepreneurs we come in contact with suggest we [entrepreneurs] are making our move.

The politicians on both sides of the aisle will try to take credit for the recovery I believe is starting. We as entrepreneurs will know where the recovery really came from. It will come from the same place it always comes – entrepreneurs! We don’t do it for the politics or the press or the accolades. We do it to provide a better quality of life for our families, our employees, our customers and our community…period!

I wonder if others feel the same way about this whole notion of  - “there’s something different about 2012″

Build the people…

You’ve probably heard the saying “Build the people, and the people will build the business” (if you hadn’t hear that before, I’d like to take credit for it :-) ).

I was reflecting today on the people I’ve had a chance to work with in companies I have run. There’s a consistent thread of people-building that took place across every brand. It’s interesting to look back on the collective as well as the individuals and see where they are today. It has been a real a-ha moment for me. I realize now that being an entrepreneur (and building companies) is much more than business models and funding sourced; jobs created and/or retained. Being an entrepreneur is (potentially) about building a legacy of success.

I say “potentially” because for a majority of entrepreneurs, “people building” isn’t even on the radar. Either they don’t feel qualified or flat out don’t care. The reality is, people building doesn’t happen in 80% of businesses. (Yet the C-suite wonders why the company is stagnant in areas like growth, innovation and corporate culture).

The next 15% of companies are engaged in people building, but it’s a human resources effort (not a CEO effort). There’s a BIG, BIG difference between those two efforts. When people building is a human resources effort, it ends up being me-too stuff. Me-too books, seminars, consultants and in-house programs. There’s much more that can be said about this, but that’s a rabbit trail someone else can chase.

In 5% of companies, people building is a CEO-driven initiative. It isn’t a perk or checkmark on the “how to build a great corporate culture” checklist. It is the ethos of the brand. it is who the CEO really is – someone passionate about seeing people become better (and more successful).

You know why only 5% of companies are true people-builders? The answer is counter-intuitive.

If you actually succeed in building people, you’ll eventually lose them. They’ll outgrow you (and your company). That’s the whole point of building people. You’re not building them to make you more money, you’re building them for the purpose of their personal success.

As I reflect on a tech startup I was recruited to run in 1999, I realize now we were all about building people. The two graphic designers we had on staff now run a multi-million dollar a year credit education company they started up while working for us. Our top biz dev guy (and his wife) are now top money earners in a direct sales company (they probably cleared a million dollars in total compensation last year year). A teenager we hired to answer phones and do tech support is now CEO of his father-in-law’s water purification company. The guy we hired and trained to be our media buyer was a law school dropout/ambulance EMT when we met him. Today he is VP of Marketing for one of the top insurance quote websites in the world. The list goes on and on – and it crosses all the companies I’ve had the opportunity to build.

Here’s the point.

If you truly want the best for people, you’ll create an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship in your company. You’ll encourage fresh ideas and breakthrough thought. You’ll give people opportunities to take risks, fail and grow in the process. You’ll hand them the keys to the car and walk back in the house (rather than get in the passenger seat). In the process of authentically doing those things, you’ll build a breakthrough company.

You know what got me thinking and reflecting on this topic?

Just today, our lead engineer got featured in TechCrunch. He took some of his downtime over the holidays and on his own entrepreneurial muscle did something really incredible. He did that because he felt comfortable (and encouraged) to do it. As I look across our current (and growing) staff, I see the same people-building trend emerging – and I’m excited about it.

Build the people – let them be entrepreneurial – and your business will grow as a result.

The entrepreneur’s perspective on economic uncertainty

Here’s a segment from my roundtable chat with Craig Wortmann (CEO of Sales Engine and business school professor) and Eric Plantenberg (CEO of Freedom Personal Development).

My takeaways from this session:

- There will always be an excuse NOT to start your business. If you ask, people will be glad to give you all the reasons not to launch. Talk to real entrepreneurs though, and they’ll tell you now is the best time ever!

- Economic uncertainty has a way of weeding out those who are unprepared. If you have the right strategy, the right team and the right advisors, you can weather almost any storm. As I sit here and watch this video, I am reminded that these guys on the video have seen economic uncertainty in their businesses before. From the 2008 crash to the dot com crash and more. What allowed them to survive (and thrive), was the fact that they were prepared. They modified their strategy and executed with confidence.

- The best predictor of the future is one’s attitude today. If you’re feeling like the sky is going to fall, chances are, it will. The saying is so true – “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, either way, you’re right!”

Eric Plantenberg’s company
Craig Wortmann’s company

The REBEL Alliance is forming…

We all like to belong don’t we? None of us like to be the odd man out – standing on a soapbox ranting and raving to change the world – only to find oneself on a deserted island with a couple of sea gulls staring intently.

For the last couple of years, I’ve felt that way as I was digging into my study of entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial eco-system. As my frustration about “the way things work today” grew, so did my desire to start beating a new drum.

But then the fear kicked in…

“What if I’m the only lunatic who feels entrepreneurship is broken in many places?”

“How will the established leaders of the eco-system respond when I start throwing hand grenades at the way things are?”

“Will I be the only guy out there?”

But then, to my absolute pleasure arrived the REBEL Alliance. A group of high-output CEOs, educators and researchers – all with a common mission to give old-school entrepreneurship a much needed “reinstall and reboot”.

It happened quite by accident. It started with Dr. Suresh Kumar (Inc 5000 CEO and educator) and Dr. Norris Krueger (Startup Weekend fanatic and world-renown researcher) sharing some of their thought leadership articles (we call em hand grenades) with each other. Then Tim Conway (entrepreneur and adjunct professor) joined the crew and put it on my radar as well. It wasn’t long before Gary Schoeniger (founder of the breakthrough course in entrepreneurship The Ice House) jumped in. And that was just the beginning.

The informal mission? To create a more fertile ground for entrepreneurship in the US and around the world while ridding the eco-system of mindsets and processes that simply don’t work. There is an old guard in the halls of power who are clinging dearly to archaic approaches to entrepreneurship. For example, the old guard is convinced that classroom teaching/reading books is what builds great entrepreneurs. We’re convinced that a 3-day or 3-month immersion experience does way more to foster entrepreneurship and create jobs.

I certainly found that to be true when I ran my startup incubator from 2005 to 2009. More sophisticated and recognized incubators like Startup Weekend, Excelerate Labs and Techstars further proved that point. Entrepreneurship is all about experiential learning. I was reading one of Dr. Krueger’s recent white papers where he claimed entrepreneurship is a verb.

I couldn’t agree more!

All that to say, it’s nice to belong. I can’t wait to see what the group comes up with for 2012 and how many new REBELs join our force.

There’s plenty of room on this bus…(or spaceship – depending on your level of geekness).