Pitching Cooleaf at 36|86

I had the opportunity to pitch my company, Cooleaf at this year’s 36|86 conference in Nashville. The conference is designed to highlight the best startup companies in the southeast and to connect investors and entrepreneurs. There was a $50,000 prize for the winning startup pitch along with lots of press. I have to say, the conference organizers did a really nice job and I’d recommend it to other entrepreneurs.

To be honest, I try not to do too many pitch competitions because they really don’t move the needle for your business.  It’s good to do every so often though to keep your edge. Believe me, when you have to be on stage in front of a couple hundred people and deliver a pitch describing your company, it forces you to be on point. I think it’s also good to feel that nervousness in your gut which is a reminder to me that I’m living!

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The Casual Hypocrisy I See from my Democrat Friends

I’ve found that most people are very entrenched about their political views so there is no reason to get into a circuitous argument. I’m writing this piece to hopefully generate some thought and reflection.

I have friends who say they support the values of Democrats. However, based on their actions, I see them supporting these values when applied to other people and not themselves.

Take the subject of taxes as an example. I have friends who support all these ideas of the government providing free this or that but when it’s time for them to pay their taxes, they look for any way possible to weasel out of paying their share. It all sounds great until they have to pay.

Another example is on healthcare. I know people that support Obamacare but never had to experience what it’s like to deal with it for themselves because they have other coverage. I personally lost my health insurance because it did not comply with Obamacare requirements and now I pay more than double what I used to pay for health insurance.

It amazes me to hear people speak so passionately about their views only to have a double standard when it applies to themselves. I don’t have an issue with someone just because they have a different opinion than me. I respect the fact that they care enough to have a strong stance if they believe it is best for our country. The issue I have is with people who talk a lot but then don’t back it up with their own actions.

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My 3 Lessons Learned in B2B Sales

I have a background in product development. I’ve never been responsible for generating revenue until I started my company, Cooleaf. What I learned is that sales is hard. Really hard.

We’ve been through a lot at Cooleaf and we’ve had some really nice wins along with our share of rejections. The wins are so more meaningful because you know how hard they are to achieve. And it still hurts your soul when you’re rejected. Anyone who says it doesn’t is full of it.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned along the way. My hope is that you can take my lessons and apply them to your own startup.

  1. Sell to buyers that have budget and authority

Sorry to all my HR friends but HR is one of the worst place to sell into inside an organization. Exceptions can be made of course but in general, HR is a poor buyer because they are not a revenue generating part of the organization which means they have less authority when seeking budget. My advice is to NOT sell into a cost center for a company. Instead, pick a buyer such as head of sales or marketing who are in a direct path to revenue for their organization. I know for me, if my lead sales rep. came to me and said that if we buy this new software it would help them sell more, I would be interested.

  1. Make it easier to say yes by limiting the number of people who need to say yes

Top down sales slows your sales cycle significantly. When the whole organization has to adopt your product, it means that more people will be involved in the decision making process which means inevitably, you will experience a longer sales process. We’ve started working directly with team leaders such as a VP of X and offering a solution directly for them with their team. Our goal is to make them a champion to grow our product inside the organization. Even C-level people don’t want to make a decision to buy some new software unless they know their people will value it and adopt it.

  1. Remove the budget barrier

One of the most common barriers to a sale is the line, ‘we don’t have budget’. Well, why not just temporarily remove this barrier by offering a free trial or pilot of your product? I’ve found that one of the biggest fears a buyer has is that if they buy, what if the product fails to get adopted inside the organization. It’s less about the money and more about them looking bad that is the real issue. By letting them use the product first through a trial, it eases this concern. However, you have to be careful because people value what they pay for and that last thing you want is for the buyer to say that the trial didn’t workout but in reality it’s because they did not commit to using your product.

I’m still learning every day but these are a few of the lessons I’ve found meaningful. I hope you do too!

burn the boats

Burn the Boats

I’ve recently been reading a book called Think and Grow Rich, by Napolean Hill. The premise of the book is that you can achieve anything if you want something bad enough and set your mind to go out and get it.

In the book, there is a story about an ancient war general who leads his troops to the enemy’s land. His army was outnumbered by a more powerful enemy. Once he and his troops arrived, he instructed his troops to burn all the boats. Before the battle, the general addressed his troops and said, ‘ You see the boats going up in smoke? That means that we cannot leave these shores alive unless we win! We now have no choice. We win or we parish.’ They won.

I believe the idea of going all-in and not hoping to achieve something but rather making up your mind that you will achieve it, is the only way to truly be successful at what you do.

I find this to be true for me personally with my marriage and professionally running my own company.

Everything worth doing is hard and there are days when I question myself. I have to always remember that I will figure out a way to achieve my goal and take steps everyday towards making it happen.

Next time you find yourself questioning if you can make it, just remember…. burn the boats!

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How Companies can Accelerate Innovation

For companies looking to accelerate innovation, why not open up a competition for smaller companies to bring ideas, new technology, and entrepreneurship to offer solutions for business problems at your company? This is exactly what Citi did.

I recently had the opportunity to present Cooleaf as part Citi’s Smarter Worklife Tech Innovation challenge. Here is the summary of the challenge from Citi.

“Digital Innovations are affecting every part of Citi’s business including its internal operations. 

Smarter Worklife Challenge enabled by Digital Acceleration within Citi Fintech invited selected technology companies to a crowd-sourcing initiative to identify innovative human resources technologies to improve “Employee Journey”. 

We received 133 submissions from 21 countries, out of which selected 19 Finalists presented their solutions to Citi Leadership at a Demo Day in NYC on February 11, 2016.”

Cooleaf was one of the finalists to present in NYC near Citi’s headquarters. Each company had 8 minutes to present and there was a strong emphasis on sharing a live product demo. The attendees of the event were a combination of Citi executives along with other executives from Citi partners such as PwC who were interested in what solutions would be presented.

We were assigned two RMs (Relationship Managers) that were subject matters experts at Citi that helped give guidance on our presentation and how best to align Cooleaf’s solution to solve specific problems that would most likely result in interest from Citi’s leadership team to do a pilot.

Here is a video of my presentation.

Citi has a huge volunteer and community service program where hundreds of events are organized each year around the world. The challenge for Citi is to maximize awareness about these events for employees to engage in them. There is also a challenge in managing the logistics of employees registering and communications for each local event. We found that much of the logistics are done manually and Cooleaf could add significant value by automating internal processes for Citi while also helping to maximize awareness and engagement into the existing programs that Citi has invested in.

Our proposed pilot for Citi was to create a branded web and mobile employee community platform that is part of the employee on-boarding process. When a new employee joins the company, they would quickly have access to many types of employee resource groups inside Citi to build connections with other employees based on common interest and to also be plugged into the many volunteer and community service opportunities that Citi sponsors.

I’m very proud to say that Cooleaf was one of the eight companies chosen to participate in a pilot with Citi but also one of the three companies selected to receive a cash award!

These types of events are great to help promote innovation. The large company wins by having many smaller companies compete to offer the most innovative solution to a business problem while the smaller companies have an opportunity to then work with a large customer that they most likely would not have had. In addition, there is a great PR opportunity.

I hope to see more of these types of events in the future and would be happy to share more details with anyone interested in hosting this type of event for their company.

How Social Learning will Disrupt Traditional Corporate Training

If you have a corporate job, you most likely have experienced being required to take some type of online training courses. If you’re like me, you try to get through them as fast as possible so you can focus on your real work.

The crazy thing that I’ve found in the corporate world is that even as important as knowledge and learning are for the business, the way it’s facilitated is as if people are back in grade school.

Once an organization is large enough, say around 200 employees, they may have a Learning Management System where employees take quizzes and training courses. The reality though is that people are busy with their work so these training courses are only a required nuisance to ‘check the box’ than actually learning.

Real people learn from real experiences. I personally find it so much more valuable to look someone in the eyes and hear about how they dealt with a situation in a real-world setting.

Companies have a huge untapped asset regarding the knowledge and experiences of their people. The big question is how to effectively share knowledge in a way that is meaningful for both the individual and the business.

I believe the best way to share knowledge inside an organization is through Social Learning. Think back on the last time you went to lunch with someone you looked up to. That person may have shared experiences about a problem that you are dealing with. This intimate conversation has your attention and you’re engaged because someone is sharing knowledge about a topic that matters to you.

What if we applied this same scenario inside a company in a way that is more scalable? Instead of a lunch meeting, what if that person with experience and expertise shared their knowledge with 10 to 15 other employees in a meeting room. What if the business determined certain skills and knowledge that was critical for employees to have in order to achieve company goals and scheduled a series of such events to focus these topics?

A learning focused organization is a critical competitive advantage. Technology can help maximize knowledge sharing to occur across teams that is aligned back to specific business goals.

I believe there is a huge opportunity to disrupt the current stale model of corporate training. Organizations that invest in social learning across teams will benefit from employees that are engaged in learning skills and knowledge that better themselves and the business.

At Cooleaf, we’ve found that our product works very well to organize and manage employee knowledge sharing events. One customer example is Daugherty Business Solutions, who uses Cooleaf to create team events focused on sharing knowledge about specific skills and other categories that help grow their business.

Below is a snapshot of Daugherty’s community dashboard and a sample knowledge sharing event.

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What It’s Like Inside A Top Startup Accelerator

500 Startups

My company was recently accepted into the 500 Startups accelerator program which, is one the most exclusive in the world. There is approx. a 3% acceptance rate. For the last couple months, I’ve been spending every other week in Silicon Valley at their HQ in Mountain View, CA. Needless to say we’ve been pushing it hard and earning a lot of sky miles.

500 Startups is a micro VC and as part of the program, they invested $100K in our company. There is also an investment made with their network of mentors and CEOs who are there to help you grow and keep you accountable.

There is a lot of hype from the outside about these accelerators. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to do it. After all, we had an existing business with customers and revenue. I was worried that we would get there and would be told to start over and redo our product.

What I found was different than what I had expected. We have barely talked about our product. I guess the assumption is that you already have a solid working product; otherwise you would not have been accepted into the program in the first place. The main focus is on how to scale your business. They push you for growth and then hold you accountable each week for hitting specific growth metrics.

Since joining the program we have quadrupled our level of sales outreach to build up our customer pipeline and are developing a repeatable sales process. Having a level of accountability each week where you have someone asking simple questions such as ‘why didn’t you hit your metrics?’ or ‘you didn’t have time to pick up the phone and call that prospect, really?’ all hit home hard when you’re looking someone in the eyes and you know there is a high expectation for you to deliver.

It’s not all roses. Things could be organized much better. It’s one of those deals where it’s totally up to you to get what you want out of the program. There are lots of resources available to you but it’s up to you to go get them.

We actually don’t spend the majority of our time at the program when we’re traveling there. Much of the time we spend visiting prospects in the Bay area based on our sales efforts. The amount of learning that we have done in such a short period of time has been phenomenal. There are a lot of talented people in the Bay area due to the strong startup ecosystem. We just brought on a new strategic investor after being there for only two months.

I absolutely would recommend the 500 Startups program for other entrepreneurs. The program has pushed us out of our comfort zone in a good way while providing guidance to scale our company. We’ve learned that there is no silver bullet. Growing the company into our vision is in front of us if we hustle like hell and go out and get it!