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What does it mean to be a “coachable” entrepreneur?

I spent this summer as a CEO leading a startup through Excelerate Labs. We underwent a pretty major pivot during the summer, a pivot that probably saved our business.

I think people misunderstand what happens inside this program. They hear its leaders say that entrepreneurs must be “coachable.” And when they hear me explain how we changed our business model, they put these two facts together and say things like “Oh, so did Excelerate tell you to make that change?”

Uh, no. They didn’t. Nobody inside Excelerate Labs tells you what to do. Truly, sometimes I wish they did. It would have been a lot easier.

But in fact what happens is that they ask questions, they provide tools, and they point out problems and force you to confront holes in your business model or your pitch. Then you have to find a way forward by listening to your customers, interpreting a mess of data and making intuitive decisions.

When we found a way through to a successful and more scalable business model, I learned to tell the story of our decision-making in a way that seems logical, linear and even obvious. But this is hindsight talking.

And with the same wisdom of that hindsight, what I think they really mean by “coachable” is a difficult balance between “sticking to your core identity” and “humble and open to other perspectives, ideas and criticisms that can make your company better.”

Because there will be mentors and investors who just don’t get what you are about. For us, it was those who suggested that we change our business from re-using gently used kids’ clothing to just shipping cheaply-produced new clothing straight from the manufacturer. I learned to say to those folks “I’m certain that would be a very successful business, but that’s not the business I am trying to build.” I was determined to stick to my guns on the core values of reducing parents’ consumption and helping them reuse great kids’ clothes.

And then there will be those who get the core but still challenge the execution of your idea: how you are marketing it; how you are defining your customer; what those customers really want from you. One mentor from IDEO said to me “Is your approach really the best way to solve this mother’s problem of constantly replacing her kids’ wardrobe?” I was too scared at first to seriously entertain the question, because it had the potential to blow up our whole business model. But it was exactly this question that led us to the changes we needed to improve and survive. People who can frame those tough questions are incredibly valuable, and being coachable means listening to them.

“Coachable” doesn’t mean young, it doesn’t mean inexperienced and it doesn’t mean easily influenced. It means being open-minded–but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.

Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: , , , , — October 12, 2012

The anatomy of a pivot – FoodGenius

What was the initial insight behind the food genius idea?

The initial concept for FoodGenius was that people eat dishes not restaurants.

Every review site on the web allows you to sort by restaurants but not dishes. We wanted to help people discover and share their next favorite restaurant dish in a similar way to how they search for individual music tracks.

What changed, when and why? What was it that your customers told you or your team discovered that prompted the pivot?

Well, we entered Excelerate knowing that we had to figure out our business model – to either focus on consumer advertising or leverage the underlying data we collected.  By mid-summer it became clear that the time and energy involved in scaling the consumer side of the business just wasn’t paying off and we decided to refocus on the the data instead. We spent the subsequent months building an API and rewriting the code to reposition the data we’d gathered to date. It then became clear that our target customers were really food services businesses looking to better understand consumer dining habits.

How did you adapt the business plan?

It was an incremental process. We always knew we were going to leverage data about restaurants, the challenge was figuring out the “how”. I like to say that there’s a notable difference between a pivot and a jump – your core strategy remains the same, or rather you keep one foot grounded and pivot around with the other to find how you’re going to make your thesis work.

What did you ultimately learn about pursuing path B over path A?

Simply put, you have to focus on what you’re good at. We had to choose between being a data driven company and a consumer design company, and we were hands down better at the data part of that equation. If we had been a bigger company, we could have probably gone out and hired the requisite design talent. As a start up, you’re forced to choose the path where you know you have the most edge and for us that lay in interpreting the data.

Could you have done anything else initially to foresee the need for this change?

I don’t think so, no. If we had never tried both paths then we would never have known which would work better.

Someone once said that “a start up is a series of discrete experiments” – you want to be continually removing risk and refocusing your efforts where you have the most traction. Had we come in day one saying we were going to focus on data then I think the idea behind FoodGenius would have been a lot less compelling.

What advice would you offer other entrepreneurs facing the need to pivot?

I’m a big believer in the idea of strong opinions weakly held – push forward aggressively but don’t be so invested in one way of doing things that you can’t shift gears when the facts change. This philosophy speaks to the belief that small businesses should be nimble; this is often their greatest advantage. Others should look to capitalize on that ability to be flexible.

What do you think has enabled you to be successful in making the transition?

We were very direct about asking people for advice.  Throughout the process at Excelerate, and even since then, we continuously asked for targeted feedback. We leveraged the mentors, as well as the broader community, and this really helped us make better decisions along the way.

Is there anything you would have done differently? More quickly?

Hindsight is always 20/20. I think having a plan for 3 months and sticking to that before reevaluating and setting the plan for the next 3 months is really a good way to go about things. I equate it a bit to parenting! You have to be flexible and ok with some uncertainty. I’d advise others to have a plan but to be constantly reevaluating as the facts change.


Filed under: Company Blog Post,Status Updates — Tags: , — March 3, 2012