2010
05.30

2. Street Smarts – OK, so you’re a tenacious person – you never give up. Well obviously that’s meaningless if your startup idea sucks. I don’t think it takes book smart people to build great companies – sometimes it’s a hindrance. But you do have to be a smart person and I personally prefer street smarts. I’m looking for the person that just “gets it.” They know instinctually how customers buy and how to excite them. They have a sixth sense for the competitors’ weaknesses. They spot opportunities that aren’t being met and the design products to meet these needs.

Because they’re street smart, most great entrepreneurs tend to prefer getting out and talking with real customers rather than sitting in a cubicle all day doing beautiful PowerPoint slides. And when they walk in my office and present you can tell that they know what they’re talking about. You can practically hear the “voice of the customer” when they’re presenting their concept.

I often tell people that I’m looking for people that weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I like people who aren’t worried about social consequences of doing something they’re not supposed to. That’s why I personally believe many immigrants or children of immigrants fare well in business. It never occurs to them to play by the same rules as everybody else; in fact, I’m not sure if they even know what the “rules” are. It leads many of these people to be more street smart than those defined by convention.

If I were writing about the most important attributes of a VC (hmmm) one of the things that would make my list is “ability to spot patterns.” I see the same things over-and-over again and being able to spot things and compartmentalize them is important – it helps with short-handing analysis and learning. Thinking out loud – I’m sure that’s important for entrepreneurs as well.

So I had written this whole series the week of Thanksgiving but virtually every day I wake up and see examples. Two quick stories from just yesterday.

On social conventions: Two years ago I was in New York and I called the little brother of one of my wife’s best friends from Wharton. He was at a startup that was in a super hot sector. I saw him again yesterday for the first time in 2 years. He told me that when the markets soured they were no longer hot. They realized that they were selling a bunch of cool products but none that had enough economic value. They had wasted a lot of money because they had raised a lot of money and therefore hired a large staff. A new and experiened CEO was brought in and cleared house. The CEO helped identify the one key product that had huge value as confirmed via customer feedback and he built the organization around this.

He asked each sales / biz dev person to call customers and tell them they had to change their contracts. He said, “call the customers, tell them the news and let them scream at your for 5 minutes. Hold the phone far away from your ears. When they’re done being mad at you and when you haven’t yelled back then they’ll say, ‘OK, so what are we going to do about this?”

I loved that story because it’s so true. Only a real entrepreneurial leader would have taken this chance and encouraged his team to make these calls. For anyone involved I’m sure the first call was mortifying. The second one was embarrassing. But by the fifth or sixth it was kind of fun. Sort of a game. You had done something you knew society told you that you weren’t supposed to do but you knew you had to anyways. And the world didn’t fall apart. As I always tell people, “being an entrepreneur is a gritty business.”

I was once involved with a company (not mine and not one I invested in personally) that had a great product but had blown through tons of cash and was being run by somebody who is off-the-charts smart and charming but was not (is not) an entrepreneur. How I got involved goes in the “no good deed goes unpunished category.” The CEO was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Went to the right schools / worked at the right strategic consultancies.

We were heading into this most recent recession but it wasn’t fully known yet. I just knew that our sales sucked wind and we were burning through tons of cash. I advocated LOUDLY at the board that we needed to cut our burn rate. We were SMOKING cash. The CEO told me that we couldn’t cut people in customer support (where we had 7 people for just a dozen customers and sales were sub $1 million) because we had made contractual commitments to clients that required all these people. We couldn’t cut product development (we had 23 people!) because we had made product commitments to a large customer who was about to agree to a nationwide rollout. We couldn’t cut marketing because they were instrumental to the sale. “OK, then let’s renegotiate with our customer!” I was told that this was impossible or at least imprudent.

When I was at BuildOnline (my first company) and things went “pear shaped” we called all of our customers and said, “I know that we signed contracts with you. The reality is that the market has changed and I need to change to the new realities. We committed to product features. I can’t ship those as promised. I’m sorry. Do you like our product & service? Yes? Ok, thank you. Listen, I know that if you like what we do then you’ll want a healthy supplier / partner. I need to be able to earn a profit and with the contracts we’ve signed I cannot. I either need to cut product development staff (and therefore can’t ship products as promised) or I need to be able to charge you slightly more for our service or for features you want to see so that I can make ends meet. Help me understand which you prefer.” I lost zero customers. In fact, we built tighter relationships. I had no choice and as they say, “necessity is the mother of all invention.”

The problem for the company smoking cash was that it was beneath the CEO to make these calls or to make the difficult cuts. We missed our sales targets that year by 66% and the next year by 45% and never really cut costs very much. The company incinerated cash. And I asked to leave the board. Or I was asked. OK, it was very consensual. When your board is eating in the company dining room with silver spoons you certainly don’t want awkward old me at the party asking the tough questions.

On Street Smarts / Working with customers: I had coffee with another startup founder yesterday. Really nice guy and clearly smart. He was at a 3-person startup where he was a co-founder but not the CEO. The CEO was the “ideas guy.” My coffee date told me about the product they were building. I told him that it sounded like an interesting feature but not something customers would pay for or adopt. I walked through my logic, “well, if a customer installs your tool on his website he’s going to have to hire an entire staff to manage the project. If the tool doesn’t grow his revenue then how is he going to cover the additional costs – especially in this market?”

I went through more examples. I told him that he needed to go visit these customers and understand what problems they had today attracting and retaining customers at their websites. He needed to brainstorm solutions with them to solve their problems. He needed to ask whether they would be willing to pay if he could deliver features that would help him grow revenue or cut costs. He confided in me that his team had built the product because it sounded like a good idea but had never validated it with customers. My street smarts told me it was not going to fly with customers.

I told him not to be despondent. The thing is – 80%+ of startups build products in a vacuum without really ever testing the business value with customers or listening to their needs. Sure, they talked to one or two guys – but didn’t do it methodically. If you don’t understand how your product adds value to your customer base it is unlikely that it will unless you come from that industry and already know the products from your own experience.

Why do people do this when it’s kind of obvious? Because it’s far easier to get a bunch of smart guys to show up in a living room every night and do screen mockups, to riff off of other products you see in the market and to build, then show your friends your tools than it is to network like hell meeting potential customers that you think will be bothered by your calling them. What I explained is that the middle managers at large companies often want to feel like they’re involved with startups and are more approachable than you think. You just have to get out of your comfort zone.

Do you have similar experiences when you built your companies?

本文为《企业家基因》连载的第二篇,作者认为:走出去了解顾客要比书本上学来的聪明或电脑上得来的研究结果重要得多。

2. 街头智慧 —— 好吧,阁下是意志坚定之人 —— 遇事从不言弃。不过若是创业想法全不对路,那显然一切亦是白费功夫。我不认为只有传统意义上聪明绝顶的人才能建立伟大的公司 —— 有时那甚至是一种阻碍。不过你的确得是一个心怀智慧的人。所谓智慧我个人在此更倾向于街头智慧。我需要的是那种能把事情「搞得掂」的人。他们生来就明白顾客想要什么而我该如何调动其积极性。他们冥冥之中能感应到对手的种种弱点。他们能预见远处的机会而据此设计出产品一发中的。

正因为他们有街头智慧,大多数优秀的企业家习惯走上街头直接与顾客交流而非蜷居一室捉摸着制作精美的 PowerPoint 幻灯片。因此当他们走进我的办公室时,你一眼就能看出他们对自己的计划胸有成竹。而在阐述自己的经营理念时,你仿佛能听见「顾客的心声」。

我常告诉人们自己所寻觅的不是温室里的花朵。我青睐不因社会传统而做事畏首畏尾的人。这便是为何我个人认为很多外国移民或他们的子女能把生意做好的原因。他们从不曾想过要和别人遵守同样的规则,事实上,我估计他们恐怕都不知道规则是什么。这导致了他们比那些思维传统的家伙更具街头智慧。

如果本文是在讲一个风投应具备的最重要能力,我会把「模式识别力」作为列表中的一项内容。看到重复出现的事物而有能力发现并将它们归类是十分重要的 —— 这对减少重复分析和认知很有帮助。大胆思考 —— 我确信那对企业家而言也是同样重要的。

虽然我在感恩节忙于写作此系列,但其实每天醒来我都能发现支持自己观点的例子。下面就简要地讲两个故事,就发生在昨天。

关于传统思维:两年前我在纽约给老婆的一个来自沃尔顿的好朋友打电话。他当时在一家热门行业的创业公司上班。昨日是两年来我们第一次碰面。他告诉我当产业后来萎缩时他们的公司不再欣欣向荣。他们意识到尽管自己在出售一些很棒的产品,但经济效益却差强人意。他们之前筹了不少款而雇了庞大的团队,因此现在资金大量流失。一名有经验的 CEO 新被聘入负责理清业务。他通过客户的反馈情况来帮助公司找出一个中心产品并在此基础之上再展开其他工作。

他让每一个销售人员给顾客打电话告诉他们以前的合同需要修改。他说,「给他们打电话,告诉他们这个消息,让他们对你吼上 5 分钟。同时把话机拿得离耳朵远一点。当他们吼完而发现你并不还嘴之后,他们会说『好吧,那现在我们怎么办?』」

我喜欢这个故事因为它非常真实。唯有真正的企业家会抓住这个机会并鼓励他的团队去打这样的电话。对任何人来说第一个电话必然是令人气恼。第二个则令人尴尬。然而第五第六个却会变得有趣起来。有如游戏一般。你知道自己做了一件社会公理不允许的事,但你也知道它非做不可。而之后世界依旧美好。就如我经常告诉人们的一句话,「当一名企业家不是个轻松活儿。」

我曾和一家公司打过交道(并非我自己的公司,我个人也没有投资),它有非常好的产品但烧钱烧得厉害。它的掌门人不算(现在也不是)企业家,但聪明绝顶且相貌不凡。我被牵扯其中的原因可归结为「善无善报」四个字。而这位 CEO 便属于温室里的花朵。她曾就读于顶级学府且在有名的策略咨询公司有工作经历。

我们当时正进入之前不久开始的萧条期,其庐山真面目尚未全部显露。我只知道公司一边在大量烧钱而另一边却在喝西北风。我在董事会上大声疾呼削减投资 —— 目前的资金正在急速蒸发!而我们这位 CEO 告诉我无法裁掉客户服务部门的员工(只有 7 个人面对十几个客户,销售额不到一百万美元)因为我们在和客户的合同中约定需要这些人。我们亦无法裁掉产品开发部门的人员(有 23 个人!)因为已接下了一个将要在全国范围内进行销售的客户订单。我们也不能动市场部因为他们就是销售业绩的基础。「好吧,那咱们就重新和客户谈谈!」我被告知那也不行,或者至少不是明智之举。

当我在 BuildOnline(我第一个公司)把事情搞砸时,我会给所有的客户致电解释,「我明白咱们签过合同。可目前的现实是市场发生了变动而我必须因时应事。我们对产品功能有所承诺,但恐怕无法按约发货了。我很抱歉。您喜爱我们的产品和服务吗?是吗?很好,非常感谢。我知道如果您喜欢我们业务的话您就需要一个健康的合作伙伴。我们需要赚取一点利润来维持周转,但以之前的合同来看恐怕有些困难。我不得不裁减部分产品开发的员工(因此就无法按约定发货),或稍微抬点价来信守承诺。您愿意告诉我您的选择吗?」结果没有客户选择离开。事实上,我们之间的关系得到了巩固和加深。我当时毫无选择,但就如常言道,「创新来自需要。」

那个烧钱公司的问题在于,给顾客打电话或进行艰难的裁员都未摆上其 CEO 的桌面。那一年我们的销售额低于预计 66%,第二年低了 45%,而支出问题一直未得到真正的解决。公司消耗了大量现金,而我要求退出董事会,也可以说我是被要求 —— 反正双方意见达成了一致。当你的董事会成员在公司餐厅拿着银质刀叉大吃大喝时,当然没人愿意听到我问出那些令人难看的问题了。

关于街头智慧/与客户打交道:我昨天和另一家创业公司的创始人共进咖啡。人很不错且十分聪明。他与别人联合创立了一家目前只有 3 个人的公司。CEO 是另一个「想出点子的人」。这位喝咖啡的人告诉了我他们目前正在做的产品。我对他说那听上去像个有趣的东西但顾客不会为此买单。之后我又详细地讲了一下自己的思路,「这么说吧,如果一个客户在自己的网站上安装了你的产品,他会需要一班人马来维护这玩意儿。如果它自己不能产生利润,客户如何来填补它造成的支出呢 —— 特别是在这块市场上?」

我又举了些别的例子。我建议他去拜访一些客户并了解目前他们的网站在吸引和保持顾客上有些什么问题。他需要和这些人一起想办法解决这些问题。他需要请教如果自己能为网站提供增加收益或降低成本的办法,那他们是否会愿意掏钱。他悄悄对我说自己的团队已经完成了产品制作因为它听上去像个好主意,但从来不曾与客户有过交流。我的街头智慧告诉我顾客不会喜欢它。

我告诉他不要气馁。事实是 —— 80% 以上的创业公司会选择闭门造车 —— 他们不在客户身上检验自己产品的商业价值或倾听顾客的需求。当然,他们会和一两个人聊一聊 —— 但没有一套科学的方法。如果你不明白自己的产品会如何提高客户基础,那么它很可能不会,除非你已经对其有深刻的认识并兼有相关经历。

那么,为什么人们会犯这样显而易见的错误呢?因为对一帮聪明人而言,每天晚上凑在一起钻研模型、比较市场同类,而后再做出自己的产品要比广泛接触那些你认为会讨厌接电话的潜在客户容易多了。我想说明的是,大公司里的中层管理人员会比你想象中的要好接近,因为他们经常想着自己某天会去创业。你需要做的只是离开自己的温床。

在创立自己的公司时,诸君也有类似的经历吗?

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  1. 支持下先!

  2. 牛XX~顶了~~顶了·~

  3. 喜欢版主的风格,哈哈~· 期待更好的文章。

  4. 来博主这取取经,希望有时间也回访一下啊。

  5. 华丽的插入!~