How We Should Have Done It
The Definition of Success Belongs to You
Two energy startups. One succeeded. One Failed. This is what I learned.
I recently got to know Zack Moore and Shannon Sentman of Sol Vista in their office around the block from me in the Silver Spring Innovation Center (SSIC). As they told me their story, I was struck by how uncannily similar it was to my last company, greeNEWit.
Both companies started with the same vision of unlocking the potential trapped inside of buildings in the form of energy costs. Both raised capital to develop software products. Both faced similar setbacks and market challenges.
Yet ten years later, Sol Vista is a market leader with a bright future while greeNEWit closed its doors days shy of its ninth year in business.
I couldn’t help but walk away from my time spent with the Sol Vista guys wondering, what could we have done differently…?
Why People Quit Their Job to Become Entrepreneurs
“Scale thoughtfully. Source locally.”
My ears perked up.
I had just finished listening to an episode of The Tidbit on Full Service Radio hosted by Kim Bryer, Founder and CEO of Cureate. The show discusses tidbits of knowledge around starting and running small businesses with a food and beverage lens.
The outro Kim uses to sign off from each episode reverberated through my mind.
Making the Most of Capital
How Quick Base gave this entrepreneur the platform to pursue her dream
When Sharon Faust was 5 years old, she knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur.
She looked up to her mom and watched as she crafted the life that she wanted with her own hands and spirit. A true creative, Sharon’s mom was an artist and entrepreneur who started a graphic design firm and opened a store that sold local crafts and artwork.
Sharon’s mother wasn’t the only source of inspiration in her life. Her grandmother ran a real estate business, and her father grew up on a family-owned farm.
These examples instilled in Sharon a deep desire to create something of her own one day. She wanted that life of independence and fulfillment she admired so much about her role models.
Purpose and Profit
A not yet true story of how Lean helped one startup
Tucked within the walls of an inconspicuous building off of Liberty Heights Avenue in Baltimore lives a true gem of Maryland’s entrepreneurship community. Conscious Venture Lab runs an accelerator program here for purpose-driven startups who epitomize the principles of conscious capitalism.
It was here that I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my former coworkers, Josh Massey and Gabe Bustos, to learn about their company, Ortus Academy. Ortus teaches money management and financial intelligence to 5th-12th grade students with a proprietary and hands-on money game they call NumisMatters.
In the days that followed my conversation with Gabe and Josh, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do if I were in their shoes. I imagined what it might look like if Lean principles were used to address the challenges that Ortus now faces. What the story could be if I sat down with Josh and Gabe in a year to do a follow up interview.
What follows is the not yet true story that they shared with me one year from today.
Replacing Hustle with Humanity
Let’s move the conversation beyond compromise
In early 2014, my last company, greeNEWit, was in crisis.
We had just lost our most lucrative contract implementing one of Baltimore Gas and Electric’s largest energy efficiency programs. It was worth over $1 Million.
Layoffs were inevitable. We had to part with nearly half of our staff to survive.
Nobody felt less secure than Josh Massey and Gabe Bustos, Co-Directors of greeNEWit’s OUR Schools Program. OUR Schools was a social program that supported greeNEWit’s mission by teaching Maryland elementary students the importance of sustainability and the environment in an exciting assembly style presentation.
What My First Business Taught Me About Failure
Hustle has Eroded Workplace Culture. Let’s Fix That.
“Excellent post, Brad! We absolutely should be having deeper conversations about what it takes to start and operate a successful business, regardless of industry or size. Thanks for bringing a little light to this!”
I lit up with excitement, my pride beaming momentarily, after receiving this message on LinkedIn in response to an article I had published on rethinking what it means to be an entrepreneur. This was exactly the sort of engagement I was hoping for. I didn’t skip a beat and replied back, hoping to solicit an interview for a new post in my “Entrepreneurship In Real Life” series.
Entrepreneurship In Real Life
It was just one step on a longer journey
When I was a junior at the University of Maryland in 2007, I took a class that altered the course my life.
I was majoring in mechanical engineering, destined for a career in project management when a business professor opened the door to an alternative choice. He told me and my classmates that life is not about following a path. It’s about creating one.
That moment set into motion a story line in my life that lead to my first business, a passion and career in entrepreneurship, and the confidence and skills to create agency and purpose in my life.
What is Lean?
When you think of an entrepreneur, what image comes to mind?
Is it someone like Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, or Elon Musk? If so, you’re not alone.
When I typed the word “entrepreneur” into a Google Image search, this was the result…
The Importance of Actionable Metrics
Lean means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, “running lean” means cost cutting to the bare minimum. To others, Lean Manufacturing is all about reducing waste without sacrificing quality or productivity. In the world of entrepreneurship, the Lean Startup methodology offers an approach to building business through practices of experimentation, iterative development, and validated learning.
To me, the most important principle of lean is this:
Focus the precious time and resources you have on the right things, and don’t waste or invest new resources on the wrong things.
Fix the Weakest Link First
In an era defined by big data, metrics have too often become overused and misunderstood. There’s a desire among many business leaders to collect every piece of data that they possibly can about their business to arm them with information that can give them a leg up.
Then again, just as often there are those who feel overwhelmed by the very notion of data and instead look at simple markers like revenue, production, or even instinct to tell them how the business is doing.
Either way, the result can be detrimental. Too much information can leave you swimming in a sea of dirty or segregated data, not being able to see the forest through the trees. Too little and there’s a complete lack of visibility between your top and bottom lines, leaving you charging full steam ahead not knowing where you’re headed.
Invest in Growth with Insights and Efficiency
With an understanding of the business model and our most important markers of progress, the fun can begin! It’s time to dig in and figure out how to move the business forward.
So where do we start? We start with the weakest link.
Think of your customer life cycle and operating model not a one giant process, but rather as a system of interconnected processes. A series of links in one chain. If you apply stress to a chain, the entire chain won’t fall apart. It will always break in one place - the weakest link. Trying to strengthen all the links at once or reinforcing former weakest links is the very definition of waste.
Why AArrow Sign Spinners is investing in automation and you should too
When I was the COO of an energy efficiency company called greeNEWit, using data and efficiency to invest in growth was particularly important for us. Having scaled the business incredibly quickly, there were seemingly an infinite amount of links in our chain that needed fixing. The problem was that our staff was already stretched thin, we had maxed out our credit lines, and we weren’t in a position where it was advantageous to raise capital.
So how could we invest in improvement with the resources we had? We invested with insights, and we invested with efficiency.
How Quick Base outperformed a $300,000 app for 15% of the price
Have you ever seen the guys on street corners spinning and flipping advertising signs to the amazement of onlookers and, at times, the detriment of traffic? Those are the world famous AArrow Sign Spinners, and you have to see what they can do.
So how do you keep a staff of thousands spread out across 40+ cities and 10 countries accountable, available, adaptable, and affordable? That was the challenge AArrow Sign Spinners posed to BE Lean.
Over the course of our relationship, we’ve taken a slow, manual, error-prone headache and transformed it into a lean, efficient, and powerful operating system that would be the envy of all the spreadsheet lovers (and haters) of the world. I’ll tell you how we did it.
How to Spot the Best Free Business Tools
I’ve got a challenge for you. Can you count the number of systems, tools, and applications your company uses? If you’re like most businesses, it’s a lot.
My last company, greeNEWit, was no exception. In fact, I challenged myself to count the number of systems we used, and I got to 40 before I stopped counting. That’s more than one system for every employee in the company!
It was too much. Having so many disparate systems wasted time, money, and resources.
So we did something about it. We committed to improving our operating ecosystem, and over time, we eliminated, replaced, and integrated half of the systems that we used. This was the foundation of an operational transformation that yielded some incredible results.
Tips to Avoid Getting Burned by Free Products
Ask any of my friends or family, and they’ll tell you that I certainly love a deal! I’m the guy using coupons at the grocery store, scouring the web for discount codes, and haggling any chance I get. So when it comes to the systems that I use for my business, I follow my lean principles and look for the best value I can get.
So how do you know when something’s a real steal and when it’s too good to be true? The answer lies in understanding the motivations behind why a product is being offered for free, and making sure the trade-offs work for your needs.
Here are my top 3 reasons why a company will offer software for free based on what I’ve learned over my years bargain hunting for the best-valued systems.
Reclaiming the Ideals of Entrepreneurship
To follow up on my last post about how to take advantage of the motivations behind why companies offer their products for free, I wanted to share some additional tips that are essential in picking a free tool for your business.
Tip #1 — Don’t run the core of your business on free systems
Unless you’re self employed or are in the very early stages of your business, it’s a bad idea to run the central components of your business on a free software.
Filling in the Spaces of an empty canvas
When you hear the word entrepreneurship, what comes to mind?
These were the words I kept seeing over and over this morning as I was perusing a popular media site that highlights stories and events within the DC entrepreneurship community.
Why is WeWork so popular?
For creatives, a blank canvas represents the beginning of something new. An exciting start to a destination with infinite possibilities. For systems thinkers like me, a blank canvas can feel like an infinite expanse of nothingness, devoid of anything to grab hold of for inspiration or direction.
At times, the blank page of my computer screen gives me that same feeling. The blink of the cursor flashing at the top of a page awaiting the words that I can’t seem to find swirling in my head. Writing can be incredibly rewarding, and a source of clarity and inspiration. But regardless of whether it’s been a blog post, a journal entry, a marketing document, or even my to do list, it’s been a real challenge for me recently. I’ve been lacking that something to grab hold of.
This week, Spaces gave me that something.
How to filter out the noise in the connection economy
For people who aren’t that familiar with the concept of coworking spaces, if they’ve heard of one, they’ve likely heard of WeWork. WeWork is the fastest growing coworking concept in DC, if not the country. In the past few years, WeWork has quickly expanded from 1 to now 10 locations across the metro area, with more on the way. With locations such as White House, Manhattan Laundry, and Crystal City, when I started this project, I knew that WeWork would be one, if not several, of my stops. I’ve been incredibly curious about what’s made it so popular, and to some in the entrepreneurial communities I’ve been connected with, a bit contentious as well. I visited their Dupont location to find out.
As I reflected upon at the beginning of my journey back into the DC entrepreneurial community, I’ve learned how strongly my brain is wired in systems thinking. I can’t help but see the world as a beautifully complex structure of nodes and connected pathways. Sometimes this holds me back when I struggle to find “anchor points” in new environments, but it also gives me this insatiable curiosity to find order in a seemingly chaotic world.
I believe our success in life (however we choose to define it) is largely determined by our ability to understand our relationships with systems — both our place within the systems in which we live, and the relationships we have with and between others that exist within those same environments. But not all connections are valuable, and the wrong ones can be detrimental to our success.