When Gordon Nuttall, CEO of Fort Collins' Couragent, Inc., began his presentation last Wednesday by pulling out his portable scanner, I groaned. "A scanner. Really?" I mumbled to myself. "Aren't scanners going the way of the fax machine?"
Plus, the market's already saturated, isn't it? There are numerous offerings in this class of device. So much so that when I did a quick smart-phone Google search on the keywords "portable scanner," the Flip Pal scanner did not come up until Page 3. The on-the-surface competitive devices are built by Brother, Fujitsu, VuPoint, and Gordon's former company, HP. 

However, on Slide 3 of Gordon's pitch, I began to understand. With its patented "flip-and-scan" technology that keeps photos safe in their album and its ability to stitch together multiple scans, the Flip Pal's market is a sizable niche: 17+ million scrapbookers. More recently, they've expanded to include genealogists, collectors, photographers and designers. Gordon and his team of talented 2008 cast-offs were astutely applying key lessons from Crossing the Chasm and Innovator's Solution. And they're demonstrating lean startup principles in their execution (e.g., The Lean Startup by Eric Ries).  So far, they're succeeding.

It's exciting to me when you see these concepts in action, making visible differences in the launch of a business. I thoroughly enjoyed Gordon's presentation and the insights gained from a company that has demonstrated a true learning orientation during its first two years of existence.

So, here are five of the many lessons from Couragent and its Flip Pal product that you can apply to your own business.

The last several years have seen the Front Range of Colorado bloom when it comes to a dynamic entrepreneurial community. A client recently asked me about networking and entrepreneurial learning opportunities of which I was aware, and I put together the following list.

For newcomers or those that have been living an insular corporate existence, these are excellent examples of the many Front Range venues available to learn new stuff, meet interesting people, and feel more invigorated.  And, if you are in the midst of a challenging situation for your small business, these may get you connected with folks that can help you close your gaps.

1)  Boulder StartUp Meetup - Coordinated by Brian Tsuchiya, this meets weekly on Wednesday evenings in Vim's 'cozy' offices in Boulder/Gunbarrel.  The topics cycle each week through the following themes: Funding, Entrepreneurship, Sales & Marketing, and Technology & Operations. There are usually a couple presenters each week with ample time for questions, feedback and general networking. Attendance is usually in the range of 30-50.

New companies I advise often bring up the prospects of bidding for federal or state contracts. They see Government Contract dollars as a way of bootstrapping themselves to achieve their vision without having to find investors to support their early developments, key demonstrations or growth.  While I understand the interest in such a path, I advise against it for most of my clients. 

Prior to Mind the Gap, LLC, I worked for 20+ years in companies that focused a majority of their efforts on bidding for and winning Government research and development (R&D) dollars. We were pretty good at it, winning a sizable percent of the jobs we bid. However, the problem with the Government Contracting path is that it generally ‘over damps’ critical market response and feedback for your technology or product. I like to say that the highs are lower, the lows are higher, and the time required to achieve success or failure is drawn out significantly. 

Of course, there are times when Government Contracting is the very best way, even the only way, to go for your business or product. So, how do you know when it’s right for your technology or product?

The following are 7 Questions I ask to determine whether or not Government Contracting is a wise path to pursue.  

The Peyton Manning Era was officially ushered in today at Bronco headquarters. For all intents and purposes, this has ended the Tim Tebow Era in Denver. Boy, it sure was fun while it lasted.

I started thinking about what Tim Tebow should do next. Of course, he has little leverage at this point and will go wherever he is traded. He may get waived, and in that case he has more options.

Tim Tebow is an unusual football talent with incredible leadership skills but, by nearly all accounts, is an under-performer in traditional quarterbacking skills. If you're a little warped like me, this should make you wonder:

How would Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution, advise Tim Tebow?

Tim Tebow will soon found out his fate now that his days in Denver are
Expect another run on Tebow jerseys.
Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School Professor
Clayton Christensen: czar of disruptive innovation
Christensen: "Hi, Tim. Sorry to hear about the developments in Denver. Of course, I could have easily predicted it if you had only asked."

Tebow: "Professor Christensen, thank you for your concern, sir. It is a pleasure and honor to talk with you. What do you recommend I do next?"

Christensen: "Well, Tim. I have several ideas drawn from my most famous books. Here are my four recommendations:"

  1. First, face it, you are bound to lose if you go head to head with the status quo. It will take years, if ever, for you to acquire the skills of a traditional quarterback. The NFL market is built on traditional skills.

    But, if you really get down to it, there's not a whole lot of innovation in the NFL. Skill difference within pretty narrow restrictions of offense and defense is what sets one team apart from the other.

    You need to embrace your unorthodox you. You should focus on satisfying the needs of a franchise or new segment of customers whose needs you know you can satisfy.

  2. Downselect to teams that have been traditionally under 0.500. Teams that have struggled pretty consistently over recent years are far easier to please. Their expectations are lower.

    The Broncos are obviously not that team. They have a winning Super-Bowl tradition. After entertaining your disruptive innovation for a half season, they decided to head down the traditional path. They added a big increment in capability with Peyton Manning in the hopes of leapfrogging their competition.

    Tim, think Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills.  And of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars.  No Super Bowls, rare playoff appearances, low expectations.

  3. Only entertain teams that will consider truly unusual offensive schemes. You need to be in an offense that will really change the structure of the game. Full-up wishbone offense? Maybe, but not innovative enough. How about extreme formations with only two guards and a center? What about a super shotgun formation where you're back 10-15 yards to buy more time and introduce more on-the-fly scrambling?  The team will struggle at first, but will then master the new structure and begin winning.

  4. Consider Rugby.  Limited passing skills are not a detriment here. You just need to be able to run with or lateral the ball. You do this in your sleep. I cannot imagine a Rugby team owner that would not love to get you and make money from the untapped US audience.

    The rub here is that the US team is currently ranked 17th in the world. Not quite good enough. You will need to consider one of the power countries like England, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. I recommend England to avoid the confusion the general US population has about the Southern Hemisphere.

    Dual citizenship will be required and you may need some help to make it happen. The next Rugby World Cup is in 2015, so you'll have plenty of time to hone skills. Rugby is also going to be an Olympic Sport in 2016. I think an Olympic Medal would make you even more marketable if and when you then return to the NFL.

Tebow: "Wow. That's a lot to think about."

Christensen: "Yes it is. But I've seen how these things work in the steel and disk drive industries."

Tebow: "Huh?"

Christensen: "Never mind.  Good luck."

Tebow: "Thank you.  And God Bless You."

March 21, 2012 Update: Tebow was traded to the NY Jets today. Based on the above, this will not go well.

The past few days, I've been thinking about the stark contrast in messages between a recent talk by Christian Vanek, co-founder of Boulder's SurveyGizmo, and Greg Smith's now infamous New York Times Op-Ed piece about his departure from Goldman Sachs. The difference in messages should serve as a lesson in the importance of customer service. The lesson is far from new, but is one that applies just as much today in a world swimming in internet startups as it did when Goldman Sachs was founded in 1869.  

I attended the Boulder Startup Meetup last week where Christian Vanek was the keynote speaker. About six years ago, Christian founded SurveyGizmo with Scott McDaniel. By most measures, SurveyGizmo is a success, now employing ~50 employees and turning a decent profit. Christian gave an entertaining presentation and walked through a series of myths and truths about starting a business. A major point Christian emphasized was the essential and critical role customer service has played in their success. To build their business, SurveyGizmo has relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth. Customer service is one of their key discriminators. They know it and, most importantly, embrace and nurture it.

"Treat your customers like royalty and your employees like volunteers."
- Christian Vanek, co-founder SurveyGizmo

Now, consider Goldman Sachs. I'm skeptical enough to believe that reality may not be as harsh as Greg Smith's portrayal would have us think. Even when I've worked in organizations numbering in the few tens, I've seen some pretty different views of the same events or decisions. Goldman Sachs posted their corporate response to Smith's piece the same day and included the proud claim that "89 percent of [employees] said that the firm provides exceptional service to [our clients]." 

What's interesting to me about Goldman Sachs' response is that it does not take on any specific assertions and is limited to an internal view rather than also including an external client view. Granted, most of Smith's grenades speak to deterioration of the internal culture. But each one of these, if true, ultimately damages the client-first mindset upon which Goldman-Sachs built its business. If the truth lies anywhere between what their website response contends and what Smith portrays, then I would say there's a pretty big issue needing serious attention.

Justin Fox's HBR blog essay digs deeper into what might be going on and has the benefit of being a bit more detached in its analysis. The article is worth a read. Fox puts forth several causes for a cultural change at Goldman Sachs including: the transition from partnership to publicly traded corporation in 1999; the excess profits to be made in the over-the-counter derivative markets; and the unintended and toxic consequences of creating a super-expert culture. 

Of course, it is orders of magnitude easier to shape and maintain culture when you are a 50 employee privately-held company than it is when you are a 30,000 employee publicly-traded corporation.

So, here are a couple unsolicited ideas for Goldman Sachs. First, assign a team to work with SurveyGizmo to create a targeted survey that will unlock new insights into how your employees and clients really view the organization. Then, and better yet, send some executives to SurveyGizmo's Boulder offices for a week and simply observe. It will be a refreshing, customer-oriented experience and may help you get back to your roots. 

My first article for LiDAR News came out this morning.  I am now an official contributing author.  Gene Roe (editor) noticed one of my February blog entries and thought I had a unique perspective to add to the mix.  This first article is the Spotlight article for the mid-March edition. 

The article is about LiDAR market disruption and two recent innovative product releases that have made big splashes this past year or so.  One is the Focus 3D sensor from FARO and the other is the very cool and very cheap non-traditional LiDAR that lives inside Microsoft's Kinect gaming system.

Read the full article here

I attended a very worthwhile Boulder Startup Meetup this past week. It was hosted by Brian Tsuchiya of Vim Inc., StartUP Guru, and it seems a few other concurrent adventures.  The focus of the meeting was the emerging, and soon to be tipping, Crowdfunding phenomenon that will hopefully clear critical legislative hurdles later this year.  Well, one of Brian's other adventures is EZOG.  EZOG stands for Entrepreneurial Zone of Genius. It is basically a targeted personality assessment that attempts to define your entrepreneurial style. The assessment (which is free) comprises a series of 25 questions and can be completed in about 15 minutes.  The four entrepreneurial styles are Visionary, Architect, Builder, and Cultivator. 

Over the years, I've taken my share of personality and thinking style profiles, including Myers-Briggs, Emergenetics, and Graves' Spiral Dynamics.  They each bring something a little different to the table and are useful for both improving your self awareness and figuring out the best way to build an effective, balanced team.  I think EZOG is a great addition to the mix and appears to be a useful tool to help as you engineer the gene pool of your next new-start project or venture. 

And by the way, I'm an Architect.  Check it out -- get your EZOG on!

I've long been interested in finding quantifiable data that determines whether a technology startup will succeed or not. There's certainly a wealth of subjective information and opinion out there, but remarkably little when it comes to hard core data. Yes, much of that opinion is well founded, based on personal experience and duly-earned battle scars. But I'm interested in real data beyond simple demographics and backward-looking financials. Can you actually predict success? Well, about a year ago, the Startup Genome Project was launched to attempt to turn the tide here. 

The Startup Genome Project has as its stated mission "to increase the success rate of startups and accelerate the pace of innovation globally." The Startup Genome Project is a collaboration of a group of entrepreneurs and academics from UC Berkeley and Stanford University. They have developed a tool called the Startup Genome Compass. It is a benchmarking tool with a web-based interface that allows you to complete a fairly detailed survey about numerous aspects of your business and product. This information then feeds into their database, they crunch the numbers using some unique methodologies, and provide a set of benchmark metrics. These metrics are compared with other entries in their database and you can see where you stand against other startups. 

In May of 2011, the Startup Genome Project released its first report summarizing their findings from more than 3200 internet-based startups. In August of 2011, they followed that report up with one about Premature Scaling, which is a primary failure mechanism for internet startups. When you go to their website, you can request a copy of these free reports. They then email you a link to the requested report. Very cool and full of good insights.

The folks at the Startup Genome Project recognize that entrepreneurship is at least as much art as science, especially in the internet startup game. However, because of the huge number of internet startups, most with exceptionally fast
life/death cycles, it provides a great opportunity to detect patterns that can be verified.  The business equivalent of a fruit fly. 

I tried entering sample information to test drive their Startup Compass tool. As noted, the questions are pretty detailed and certainly biased strongly toward internet/software-only companies. However, the questions asked in the tool and the trends gleaned from the reports provide some great insights. If you don't have time to read the reports themselves, their blog has some concise summaries and also provides indications of what the folks at the Startup Genome Project are doing next. 

As we near their first anniversary, thanks to the team at the Startup Genome Project for some compelling and valuable work!

There have been more than 25 Republican debates so far this election ‘season.’  Some would say that’s way too many.  Given the alternative of voters relying on heavy doses of incredibly negative ads, I’m of the mind the debates are clearly preferred.  As we get beyond the primary madness into the fall campaign’s insanity, the trade between these two will become even starker. 

This is not meant to be a political endorsement one way or the other, but I’m convinced that you can apply something of value to your own business if you reflect a bit on Ron Paul.  Ron Paul?  Yes, in the sense that in many respects he has played a valuable devil’s advocate role in these debates.   We’ve all heard and are aware of the importance of having a devil’s advocate at meetings addressing important issues.  As founders or senior leaders, it is critical for you to have someone in the room serve in that capacity.  It helps prevent poor or, just as often in my experience, incomplete decisions.  My definition of an incomplete decision is one where one or more of the decision’s primary implications are not addressed and clarified adequately so that the team leaves the meeting without a common understanding of the decision.

Ron Paul’s Best Devil’s Advocate Traits

I have been filtering out the politics and admiring Ron Paul as an almost ideal devil’s advocate.  You should consider these traits, which seem to exude from Ron Paul:
  • Thoughtful – Right or wrong, Ron Paul has spent time thinking through his positions and, just as importantly, his questions.  You want your devil’s advocate to bring depth of thought to bear on the issue at hand.  It often takes that to ask the best questions, ones that come from a fresh point of view. 
  • Willing to speak up – Ron Paul is far from bashful.  You don’t want your devil’s advocate to be timid.  Otherwise, why are they in the room?   
  • Unique perspectives – Some of Ron Paul’s opponents would say crazy perspectives!  However, if you want to dislodge ‘group think,’ it is often necessary to plop a very unique perspective on the table. 
  • Thick skin – Some of the debates have gotten fairly personal, and it seems Ron Paul is able to maintain a remarkably even keel.  You never want your devil’s advocate to take things personally.  Their role is a valuable one, and they need to continue to be engaged on the issue. 
  • Sense of humor – Ron Paul gets some very good laughs out of the audiences, but also out of his opponents.  That indicates a likeability factor that is important.  People tend to receive out-of-the-box thoughts or questions about their position more favorably when it comes from someone with a likable personality. 
Help Your Team Make Better Decisions

When you consider your senior team that typically addresses big issues, make sure you have someone that can effectively serve as devil’s advocate.  Factor the traits above.  Ideally, your senior management team includes one or two individuals that naturally and effectively fit the bill.  If not, invite someone outside the core leadership group to attend the meeting.  I have liked to call these folks ‘thought leaders.’  Even though they are often more junior, they act as informal leaders with a great pulse of the organization, the technology, and/or the market.  

So, look around the room during your next important meeting.  See if you can locate Ron Paul.  You may be surprised to find that your Ron Paul… is you

I read an interesting article about Mobile Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) Technology on the LiDAR News website today.  It was written by Ted Knaak of Certainty 3D.  It is Ted’s perspective that adoption of mobile LiDAR scanning technology by transportation agencies is driven more by organizational issues rather than the hardware and software.  I share that perspective wholeheartedly.  He draws some valid conclusions and makes instructive recommendations to improve the rate of adoption.  I think Ted’s on the right track here in many respects, but I believe there are a couple fundamental perspectives to bring to bear that would improve understanding and might open the door to additional strategies to gain market traction.   

The article cites the tremendous improvements in efficiency that appear to be enabled by LiDAR surveying technology:  a 10x improvement in the number of scans that can be completed in a day, 80% reduction in required field time, a half-million data points per second at speeds of 45-50 mph for ground-mobile units, and even more staggering numbers for airborne systems.  However, despite these impressive performance numbers, transportation infrastructure projects have been resistant to widespread adoption of the technology. 

Ted had an informative discussion with a state surveyor from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).  The perspectives expressed by the FDOT surveyor were tremendously valuable and drove Ted to consider a much broader view of the customer’s ecosystem.  I will get to Ted’s recommendations in a moment, but first a sidebar. 

Any time someone mentions ‘disruptive technology’ I immediately re-register the numerous wisdom nuggets that come from Clayton Christensen’s seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma and its more instructional sequel The Innovator’s Solution.  Of particular relevance here is Christensen’s mantra to focus on the circumstance and the job to be done rather than the customer.  What exactly is the job to be done? Are you helping the customer do their job better?  Are you factoring the entirety of the job?  Are you asking the customer to change their job? 

The last of these questions is a doozy.  In many cases, and quite often it seems where LiDAR technology is involved, the customer is being asked to change their job in significant ways.  From personal experience, this is a huge challenge, especially with governmental organizations.  As Pip Coburn’s The Change Function articulates, those customers will only act when the pain of adoption is less than the level of their crisis.  Companies with emerging technology products, no matter how stellar their performance metrics, must focus relentlessly on minimizing the pain of adoption while being leery of circumstances where the customer’s sense of urgency is limited.