Author Archives: Bob Crimmins

About Bob Crimmins

Chronic Technology Entrepreneur, Philosophy Grad, Poker Instigator, Dad

Strap a Spreadsheet to Your Passion

(Originally appeared in GeekWire)

I’ve met a lot of really bright engineers and entrepreneurs who I think could do great things if they strapspreadsheetpursued a big, interesting problem in a big, interesting market. But instead they get enamored of scratching their own itch, i.e., solving a problem they themselves have experienced and then didn’t find, didn’t like or didn’t even look for someone else’s solution to the problem.

What’s wrong with that approach?

There was a time when I would have said: “Nothing, it’s great.” And I still think it can be great. But I no longer think it’s definitely great. Regrettably, too many otherwise really, really smart people believe that doggedly attacking their private obsession with great passion is THE way to do a startup.

Sorry. That’s just wrong. And it’s got me rethinking the role and value of entrepreneurial passion.

We’ve all heard the stories of entrepreneurs who experienced a problem and then attacked the problem, fanatically, until they figured out a simple solution. They built a prototype, raised seed capital, worked hard and then sold to Google for a ton of cash.

Some of the stories include apocryphal accounts of entrepreneurs who believed against all odds that their idea was meaningful and would amount to something, even in the face of dozens and dozens of investor rejections, colleague admonitions and the cold shoulder from customers.

See, the myth goes, all you have to do is passionately pursue a solution to a problem you’ve experienced and you’ll be rewarded. Believe in your dream. Prove them all wrong. Never give up. Bullshit! There are two major reasons why passion alone for your idea can be dangerous.

1) Your IDEA doesn’t know a damn thing about business.

There are countless ideas that I, you, and everyone else, have that just do not warrant spending any more than “hobby time” on. If you want to create a business (which I read somewhere is the point of being an entrepreneur) solving a problem isn’t, well, the problem.

Solving a problem in a way that creates value sufficient to justify someone paying money for the solution (an amount of money sufficient to sustain and grow the business) is the problem.

Investors have a nose for this. And, if your problem doesn’t smell like one that people will (eventually) pay enough money for, then they are unlikely to invest. And if you’re gonna bootstrap (i.e., not take Other Peoples’ Money) then you need to get QUALIFIED external validation of your business because you won’t be getting it from your investors.

Your wife, your best friend, your co-worker, your aunt Judy and your neighbor are not qualified to give you advice on whether your idea might also be a viable business.

If I were going to bootstrap a new business, I’d still look to talk to investors for feedback on my idea as a business. Short of that, find some serial entrepreneurs to talk to, preferably ones who have lots of arrows in their backs.

2) Your PASSION doesn’t know a damn thing about business.

Passion is by definition not rational; and it’s certainly not business savvy. I would go so far as to say that passion (a close cousin of faith and love) is blind. Be careful. I get a little shiver up my spine whenever I hear an entrepreneur justify what they’re working on because it’s a problem they’ve experienced.

It’s as if the mere existence of their passion is what is going to make the difference in their success or, worse, that their passion is what qualifies them to solve the problem in the first place.

The reality is that mere passion about an idea is not a good reason to pursue it; nor is it an indicator that you’re capable or qualified to solve the problem you experience. In fact, the more passionate you are about an idea the more vigilant you should be about getting QUALIFIED third-party validation that your idea could actually be a business.

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t trust yourself. But I do mean that you should not trust an irrational, emotional drive to solve a problem as evidence that the problem is worth trying to build a business around.

Even if there is a business that could be built around solving that problem, that doesn’t mean that you are the one who can solve it. If you get some business validation around the idea and it is in the realm of possibility that you could build that business then your passion may turn out to be an asset.

Now that I’ve railed on passion, I have a confession to make.

I am a dangerously passionate entrepreneur. I also believe that passion is a tremendous asset to entrepreneurs. I would characterize it as necessary, but not sufficient. So what’s passion good for?

Passion can be the spark that gets you going. And it can be the fuel that keeps you going. It will keep you awake late nights. It will inspire confidence as you build a team, raise capital and engage early customers.

There are better things to be passionate about than scratching your own itch. Be passionate about building a great team, passionate about designing a great product, passionate about delighting your customers, passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, passionate about finding and scaling a sustainable business model.

These passions will serve you well whether you’re solving your own problem or someone else’s problem.

But passion just about your personal experience is actually shaky ground.

If you’re so passionate about solving your own problem, then you risk missing some really important things. For example, your market might share your problem too. But they might think about in a very different way.

If your passion about your solution to the problem is incongruous with the way your potential customers think about the problem then you’re in for a tough run. Beyond that, lots of startups end up pivoting their product/market/business pretty substantially away from where they started. This is healthy.

But, if you’re obsessive about solving your problem your way, then you may just miss the real market opportunity. And, if you end up pivoting and land on a product/market that you’re not as passionate about, then you’ll have lost the motivation that got you started in the first place.

Passion may just keep you in the game when nothing else will. When the dark days come (as they usually do) it can be hard to keep going. In the dark of night when you’re running out of money and can’t make payroll, your competitors are beating you badly, you’re being sued by a former employee and 1,000 other things that suck, your passion for the business can keep you from returning that call from the Amazon recruiter.

A closing thought.

If we had to wait around for entrepreneurs, first to suffer from every problem worth fixing, and we had to wait around for the ones who were also passionate about fixing it, and we had to wait around for them to successfully build a viable and sustainable solution, then not very many problems would get fixed. And not very many successful businesses would be built.

If you personally experience a problem in a way that makes you passionate about building a solution then congratulations — you have a reason to think about whether there is possibly a viable business that is worth spending time on. Now, go formulate and test your assumptions about the problem, the solution, the market, the revenue.


Spontaneous Youth Entrepreneurship

So far, 356 heroes have stepped up to get Project Wise Walker within striking distance of our crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter. By any measure, that’s amazing support and we couldn’t be more humbled or grateful. But with less than 24 hours left to go and a 10% gap to close, we could use a few more heroes.

Here’s the link if you can help:

Wise Walker really is a fantastic product. Every time I walk Lola I realize its value and I would seriously miss it if it were gone.  But there’s more to Wise Walker than just the best darn dog walking accessory ever made.  Wise Walker is also about youth entrepreneurship and a dad on a mission to release two powerful women on the world.  Here’s a story to show you what I mean.

One Saturday last year, about six months into our entrepreneurial adventure, Sarah and Annalise had their friend, Sehoya, over for a play day.

They were all in their bedroom playing quietly. As some of you parents know, that’s not always a good thing. I peaked in the door to check on them and they were all on the top bunk with a laptop computer and clipboards.

Their reaction to the intrusion was immediate and . “Dad! Go away!” “Get outta hear… this is private!” Very quickly scanning the scene I deduced that trust was called for and I just as quickly ducked back out. I let them know (talking through the door) that we would be heading over to Student RND soon.

Student RND was a hacker space for youth that has since shut down. But the team behind Student RND went on to expand the now-national “Code Day” program they had created at the space.

The plan for our day at Student RND was the usual: take some things apart, attach some wires to some batteries to see what happens, maybe build a contraption or two. Oh yeah, and cutting parts out of wood and acrylic on the laser cutter. 😉 Today’s special project was going to be a personalized wooden keepsake box for Sehoya’s birthday.

While I was getting the laser setup, the girls had setup chairs in a circle to continue whatever it was they had started in the bedroom earlier that day. They were intent on keeping their activity a dad-free zone. They had clipboards, so that’s cool.

Turns out, what they had been working on was their own business plan. They wanted to create the first ever large and exotic pet sitting service — tigers, elephants, turtles, snakes, giraffes, guinee pigs horses of course. The talked about the kind of facility they’d need (big) and what it would cost to build and run the business (a lot), what they would charge customers (enough).  It was the full meal deal and I couldn’t have been more proud.

It’s impossible to know today whether Sarah or Annalise will go on to someday become noted women entrepreneurs, creating a product or service that solves real problems and create jobs.

What I do know is that Annalise and Sarah as 12-year-olds are gaining an understanding of entrepreneurship that is preparing them to take on the challenges of entrepreneurship if they choose to. In the mean time, the lessons, skills, experiences and confidence that have come from Project Wise Walker has been an amazing gift for a father to share with his daughters.

I’m looking forward to sharing those lessons, skills and experiences with other families who want to explore entrepreneurship together. I can’t share the confidence; but trust me, it will come from within.

All the best,


Fun With Math — How My Daughters and I Are Making the World a Better Place

It’s not hard to find startups touting their mission to “change the world” by making it 4% easier to find a book you’ll love or  reducing the time it takes to add inane content to the webs from 40 seconds to 31 seconds.  No value judgement here… just an observation that “changing the world” may be a lower bar than you might think.  For all those book lovers who love to find books they love, a 4% improvement over a life time of reading is a worthwhile innovation.

One of my favorite “changing the world” stories is the one about Steve Jobs insisting that making the Macintosh boot 10 seconds faster would save dozens of lives. With 5 million users, Jobs claimed, that 10 seconds would equate to 50 million seconds… or dozens of lives. He got the math wrong but the idea was cool.

Thinking about the math of changing the world, I wondered about how much better my daughters and I were going to make the lives of dog owners through our Wise Walker invention. You can learn all about the Wise Walker at (Hurry if you wanna get a Wise Walker… our Kickstarter project closes in about 50 hours, i.e., 9am PST on Tuesday, 11/25.)

So here we go… with correct math.

If you walk your dog twice per day, seven minutes in the morning and 12 minutes in the afternoon, that’s 6,935 minutes per year.

Assuming your dog gets his business done in the first four minutes on each walk, that leaves 4,015 minutes (~67 hours) of carrying that nasty bag around each year.

Your Wise Walker should last at least three years (probably a lot longer!), giving you 12,045 mins, or 201 hours of relief from handling that bag over 2,190 walks. At a $25 pledge amount, that’s 2/10 of one cent per minute of relief, or about one cent per walk.

If we deliver 400 Wise Walkers through our Kickstarter, we’ll bring 4,818,000 minutes of relief from carrying around nasty bags of dog “business” in just the first three years.  That’s something we can be proud of.  😉

Why I’m Teaching My Daughters Entrepreneurship

Like any dad, I want to do everything I can to prepare my young daughters, Sarah and Annalise, for the lives that lie ahead of them. This includes teaching them right from wrong, how to stand up for themselves, how to always act with integrity, the value of education, good eating habits, the importance of exercise and the many other valuable lessons of life.

I consider the lessons of entrepreneurship to be tremendously valuable as well. The reason is that my daughters will grow up in the United States. They will derive their livelihoods from within a highly competitive, technology-dependent, capitalist economy. The skills they will need to thrive map remarkably close to the skills that help entrepreneurs thrive.

Moreover, if the trend in entrepreneurship continues at even a quarter of it’s current pace, the opportunities available to those confident in the art and science of entrepreneurship will be tremendous.   The thesis is that by the time my daughters are 20-somethings, their experience and comfort with entrepreneurship could be a distinct advantage — maybe sooner!  😉

Sarah and Annalise are not relevantly different from millions of other kids who are also facing headlong into a new future where entrepreneurship will be a viable opportunity for so many more than it ever has been. Of course, not everyone will, or should, or can, become an entrepreneur — if everyone is a founder then not much work is gonna get done.  But if you have kids and you want them to have all possible choices available to them then, I propose, it’s smart to prepare them to understand and operate in an evermore entrepreneurial world.


We have been working together for more than 18 months on our entrepreneurial project and that project has resulted in a Kickstarter project for a pet product we developed together.

Here’s an incomplete list of some of the skills I think the girls are learning:

  • critical thinking, decision making and problem solving
  • team work and cooperation
  • public speaking
  • interpersonal communication
  • professionalism
  • how businesses are built and run
  • how technology can solve problems
  • how technology can cause problems
  • why design is important
  • what a spreadsheet is
  • what a financial model is
  • how manufacturing, fulfillment and order management works

Some of the impacts I’ve seen in my daughters through this entrepreneurial experience include:

  • increased confidence and self-esteem
  • responsibility and leadership
  • patience and perseverance
  • delayed gratification

Importantly, these skills, lessons and experiences are coming through actually doing entrepreneurship, not through lectures or text books.

confuciousI hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.

 — Confucius

I’m also on a mission to unleash two powerful women on the world. For me, that means making my daughters understand that they can do anything they choose to do… and that there’s nothing they can’t chose.  Seeing themselves create a solution to a problem and to see that solution become a real product brings with it the powerful message that “I can do that… because I did.”

Of course, this a powerful message for any kid to receive, girl or boy.  But I think it’s especially important for young girls to get this message, as there is clearly a gender gap in some of the most lucrative and rewarding careers in our economy, including technology, entrepreneurship and leadership.

I know this experience is having an impact on my daughters. I see it in the way they have engaged in the process and taken on the responsibility of the work. I hear it in the way they talk to others about the project.

No one knows if either of the girls will someday be startup entrepreneurs. Frankly, I don’t think it matters. The skills, lessons and experiences of entrepreneurship will be valuable to them both no matter what passion they pursue.

If you were to ask Annalise today what she wants to be, she will not say “entrepreneur.”  She will say “veterinarian”.  Sarah will say “professional volleyball player”.  And that’s how it should be.

Entrepreneurship is not something you do in a vacuum and it’s not something you pursue for it’s own sake.  If Annalise is to become a successful entrepreneur, she may very well do so by inventing a new medical device to help horses or launching a chain of on-demand, in-home vet care clinics or the Uber of pet transport services. Perhaps Sarah will be inspired to create the first VR sports competition platform or a DIY publishing platform for young writers.

Empowerment is not turning someone into something. It helping them turn into whatever it is they want to be.

The best part of this experience is that it’s a win/win no matter what happens because the quality time we’re spending together is all the reward that’s necessary for any of us. But preparing them to crush it in the real world is a great side benefit.

Fun with Celebrity Dog Poop

As my faithful readers know (both of you), I’ve been working with my 12-year-old daughters on a dog poop bag carrying product called Wise Walker.  Fantasizing about how great it would be to have a celebrity endorsement,  I Goggled “celebrity dog poop bag”.  I was surprised to find out that pics of celebrities carrying dog poop is “a thing”.  Even the Huffiington Post has a slide show.

A few of my favorite pics are below.  If you happen to know a celebrity with a dog (isn’t that pretty much all of them?) then be sure to let them know that they never have to be photographed carrying crap around ever again.



Ashton Kutcher


Charlize Theron




jessica biel ticle-0-19A47007000005DC-71_634x645

Jessica Biel


Anne Hathaway

Newco Kids – Lessons in Entrepreneurship

Last summer, I began working with my then 10-year-old twin daughters, Sarah and Annalise (now 12), on an entrepreneurial project.  It has been (and continues to be) one of the most personally rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as an entrepreneur and as a dad.

Even before last summer, Sarah and Annalise had a vague understanding of what it means to be an entrepreneur and they know that’s what daddy does.  They know that the work of entrepreneurs is building businesses.

They know that dad tries to help other entrepreneurs through mentoring, advising, speaking and writing.  They know what Techstars is and they love visiting the Techstars offices (although I think part of that is the massive stash of snacks on hand during the program.)

They’ve sat in a few Startup Weekend events and interacted with several of the teams at the Startup Weekend Women’s event last year.   They also used to love hanging out at Student RND when they had their youth hacker space in Bellevue.twins-collageAnd now they know what the words “customer development” mean.  Because we did it, together.

They now also know what a spreadsheet is, how web sites get built, what a patent is and why it matters where is a product is manufactured. And a LOT more.

It all started when Annalise, Sarah and I were walking our dog, Lola, one day.  Like clockwork, Lola pooped. I asked “who’s gonna pick that up?” The giddy answer was “dad!”

I was resigned to do my duty (dooty?) as a dad and pick up the poop. Jokingly, I told the girls that if I had to pick it up then they at least had to carry the nasty bag. The predictable response was an enthusiastic, “Ooo… no way!… gross!”

dog1I couldn’t blame them. It really is gross. It’s also a constant distraction — whenever I’m carrying a poop bag, I’m constantly thinking about finding a place to dump off that bag. Once I do get rid of it, the distraction is immediately gone and I can enjoy the walk again.

Not to be melodramatic but it really does feel like a weight being lifted from my mind. As a chronic entrepreneur, that sounds like a “pain point”, a problem crying out to be solved.

I saw this as an opportunity to challenge the twins to think about a solution to the problem of carrying poop around… and directly experience what it means to think like an entrepreneur. Thanks to Socrates, we talked about solutions to the problem in the days ahead.

The next week, we went to a major pet retailer and three small pet shops fully expecting to find at least a couple products that would solve this problem.  But we didn’t find anything… not one product allowed you to stash the poop bag!

We were able to find a couple of home-grown products by searching Google, but nothing that looked like a commercial product.  This was surprising; it seemed like such a natural product.  So I called my friend, Shaheed, who runs Oliver’s Pet Care, a successful online pet supply retailer on the Amazon marketplace.  Surely he’d know of some commercial products.  Nope… he’d never heard of one.

tigersWe finally did find a commercial product by reaching out to another colleague of mine who invented the very clever novelty product DogSnorz, a set of humorous pillowcases for dog lovers.  He offered to scout for similar products at a major pet products show he was heading to. He found just one product; a hard-shell poop case with a shoulder strap — yes, that’s right, you WEAR that nasty bag of poop!!!  Yuk!

Ok… so there should be a better solution for this problem… and at a minimum there was at least some entrepreneurial lessons to be learned (and some fun to be had) by trying to come up with something better.  And that’s just what we did.

Exposing my daughters to the lessons of entrepreneurship has been one of the most rewarding fatherly experiences I’ve ever had.  And that experience continues!  We’re now working on a Kickstarter project to continue with our entrepreneurial journey.

I know that the girls have learned a lot; and virtually none of it can be found in any school curriculum.  Best of all, they are learning by doing.

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
— Confucious, 5th Centure BCE

We’ve all three learned a lot.  Somewhat unexpectedly, I’m pretty sure I’ve actually learned more then they have.   And there’s much more ahead.  I am gathering all the lessons we’re learning and will publish those for other entrepreneur dad’s and mom’s who have in interest in sharing their passion and experience as an entrepreneur with their kids.

Seattle Techstars Demo Day is coming!

techstars-logoTechstars Demo Day for the 2014 Seattle class is on November 6th at 2pm.

I look forward to this every year.  It’s remarkable to see how the ten teams evolve though the program and watching them pitch is humbling.

There three ways you can be involved.

1) If you’re an accredited investor or venture capitalist, and you’d like to attend, contact for an invitation. These are always very fun events, and the networking opportunity is unheard of.

2) If you would like to participate as a community member, you can reserve your FREE ticket here: Space for this is extremely limited… so do doddle.

3) Following the Demo Day pitches, Techstars is hosting a massive launch party for all the teams… and you’re invited. They are expecting 800 to 1,000 attendees so you don’t want to miss it. Grab a ticket here:

The Most Unlikely $100.30… EVER!

Today I witnessed the most extraordinary coincidence of my life.

I count myself lucky to have two amazing daughters, Sarah and Annalise.  I also count myself lucky to have twins.  Today, “lucky” took on a whole new meaning.


Annalise and Sarah are now ten-year-olds.  They have both had piggy banks since they were about two years old.  About a year ago, the piggies were full and so they each wanted to cash in their coinage for some folding dough.  So we busted them open.  Again, this was about a year ago.

Both girls dumped their respective hordes into heavy duty freezer bags.  My guess is that each weighed about 8 pounds or so, but Sarah’s was just a little bit heavier; she must have had a higher concentration of pennies and nickels.

Sarah wanted to cash hers in at the Coinstar machine right away; Annalise wanted to hold on to her bag of booty a while.  I totally understood Annalise’s choice… eight pounds of hard, cold cash is a pretty cool thing for a nine-year-old.


Sarah had a blast shuffling the coins into the machine.  She even got to push all the buttons.  A few minutes later, the noisy machine went silent.  We decided that she’d get the Amazon certificate and avoid the 9.8% fee.  I would buy the certificate from her for cash and then she could deposit the money in a savings account.  A couple more button pushes the and out popped the Amazon voucher.  The total: $100.30.

Fast forward to today.  Annalise had completely lost track of her bag-o-coins.  We decided to paint the girls’ bedroom this weekend and that meant sorting through (and purging) probably 200 pounds of accumulated kid debris.  Well, I call it debris… they would call it treasures. 

In the process, Annalise’s coins surfaced.  She was very excited to have them in hand again; and this time she was eager to visit the Coinstar machine!

2012-07-22 20.36.22

On the drive to the nearby supermarket where the Coinstar machine lives, Annalise hoped out loud that she had at least as much value in her bag as Sarah had a year earlier.  She still knew Sarah’s number: $100.30.

“Dad, how much do you think there is in here?”  She fondled the plastic pouch.  “I hope I have as much as Sarah… do you think I do?”

There’s a twin thing.  It’s like sibling rivalry… only much more refined.  You see, each twin is always competing for the exact same resources all the time.  If they were a year or two apart, the older one would outgrow the toys, activities and attention relevant to that age.

DSC01696As the younger one reaches that age, the older one wouldn’t care much for those things because they would have outgrown them.  Thus, less direct competition ALL THE TIME FOR EVERYTHING.  But I digress.

Finally we reached the Coinstar machine.  In go the coins.  Of course, like Sarah before her, Annalise got to control all the buttons.  Chugga chugga churn churn… ding!  The total amount: $99.27.  Remarkably close to Sarah’s $100.30.

Great result, I thought to myself; Annalise, though, was a little dissapointed.  “Dad, you have any change in your pockets?”  I didn’t.  “Do you have a couple dollars I can have so that have the same amount as Sarah?”

I probably should have encouraged her that it wasn’t a contest and that $99.27 is an awesome number and close enough to Sarah’s number.  But I didn’t.  We figured out how much she’d need to feed into the machine to get her to Sarah’s number: $1.03.

I took two one-dollar bills from my wallet and walked 60 feet to the bank teller at the US Bank counter housed in the grocery store.  “Could I get four seven quarters, two dimes and five pennies?”  The teller shot back a brief, quizzical smile.

The entire walk and bank transaction only took at most 90 seconds.


But by the time I’d returned to the Coinstar machine, the screen was prompting us to confirm the Amazon certificate choice, with no way to go back and put more coins in!  Oh no… the machine timed out!  Foiled!  Now the voucher would forever say $99.27.

As we reviewed the receipt, Annalise looked down at the coin return slot.  Neither of us had noticed it till just then.  “Wait, what’s this?”, Annalise said.  “Oh, that must be the coins that the machine couldn’t figure out.

We counted it out.  Holy crap!  $1.03!!!  I couldn’t believe.  I counted it again… twice.  Sure enough, exactly $1.03.  Add that to the $99.27 and what do you get?  Precisely $100.30.

What a tremendous coincidence.  Annalise “got it”, at least in the way that a 10-year-old can.  But I was reeling.

I’ve always been a geek about probabilities.  In college, I used to count cards at blackjack, which is all about shaving fractions of a percentage off of the houses advantage until the advantage is yours.  For the past decade I’ve been studying the odds and probabilities and odds of poker, to the point that I can calculate the percentage chance of making a flush or a full house out of my hole cards in a matter of seconds… and my expected long-term value of calling a bet based on that percentage and the amount of cash in the pot.

Roughly estimating about 17 random coins per dollar:

  • 2 – Quarters
  • 3 – Dimes
  • 2 – Nickels
  • 10 – Pennies

That makes about 1,700 coins collected randomly over about 8 years.

2013-09-15 21.09.57

There was never any effort to achieve parity between piggies.  Visually, Sarah’s piggy appeared to have about 20% more coins than Annalise’s piggy — Sarah was more diligent about stocking away change when you found it.

I don’t even know how to figure the odds that eight years of random coin collecting would yield the exact same dollar value.  All I’m confident of is that the probability would be infinitesimal.

I’m also confident that I would have bet the farm if someone would have offered me a wager against.

I guess there really is a “twin thing”

The John Cameron

A couple of years ago I grabbed a drink with my good comrade, Randall Lucas.  He suggested Mistral Kitchen because he had the inside scoop on a renowned bartender who could create high art with a rocks glass and mysterious bitters from places unknown.  The bartender in question was Andrew Bohrer; if you’re a fan of mixology you should definitely check out his blog, Cask Strength.

After a few minutes of indecision, Andrew proposed that I described the “essence” of a drink I wanted and he’d concoct something to match.  Ah, a noble challenge.

Imagine a dark, dank cave lit only by a rusted and weathered oil lamp.  Cob webs drape the rough hewn walls.   In a dimly lit back corner of the cave a single cask sits among ailing, rusted farm implements and exotic curiosities long forgotten.  The cask markings are unreadable.  Above the cask, a narrow plank shelf secured to iron spikes driven deep into the wall.  Small, dusty bottles with mostly dry corks clutter the shelf.  A few corks, however, have saved their contents from the elements.  After some trial and error, making the most of the mysterious liquids within… here’s what you end up with….

The John Cameron:

2 oz Vermouth: either Torino or Carpano Antica
.5 oz Ardberg 10yr old scotch
2 dash orange bitters
1 dash persimmon vinegar

Good luck finding a bartender who knows how to make this one.  But feel free to pull up this page next time you’re sitting across the bar from your favorite mixologist.

Why Impact Entrepreneurs Need Tough Love

[This post was originally published on GeekWire, June 13, 2013, under the title “Tough Love and Less Purity for Impact Entrepreneurs.”]

One reason I love getting to know social impact entrepreneurs is that they are among the most sincerely passionate entrepreneurs I ever get to meet.  They’re not just enthusiastic and driven, which often gets labeled as passionate.

Social impact entrepreneurs care deeply and passionately, about their projects in a very personal way.  And their missions are often so profound and inspiring that I get goose bumps just hearing them talk about it.  Occasionally, I even get a little choked up as I imagine what they want to accomplish and the impact they would have if they were to succeed.

I was moved in just this way recently when I met a wickedly smart and infectiously passionate entrepreneur whose simple vision could have profound, life changing impacts for children all over the world.  (Wow… I just got a lump in my throat just thinking about what she wants to accomplish.)

(Out of respect for confidentiality, I am not disclosing the particular entrepreneur or her mission.  However, she did review this piece prior to posting.)

Moreover, her idea is not only brilliant and potentially highly impactful — it’s also a very simple idea and straightforward to execute on.  That’s part of what makes it so brilliant.

But once I felt that I understood her project (and cleared my throat) I found myself doing what I always seem to do — rooting around for the biggest, hardest problems that will challenge the success of the business.

In my view, she had some potentially fatal issues.

She was trying to tackle too many, disparate problems all at once and that was going to complicate her messaging and dilute her resources, her impact, her brand and her chance for success.

It was also greatly complicating the organization she’d need to build to reach sustainability… which in turn increased the risk she would fail to even get things off the ground at all.

She was impractically concerned about optimizing every single aspect of her venture, looking for the absolute greenest and healthiest (and, as it turns out, slowest and most expensive) way of doing every last thing.  And every single one of those things had literally zero to do with her core mission.

It was also going to massively delay the launch of her product… by about 500 percent.  In the meantime, while she was focused on things that had roughly nothing to do with her mission, how many kids would continue to suffer while she got all that irrelevancy worked out.

I’m not trying to be the bad guy (although it often feels that way).  You see, having a great idea and being passionate about it is absolutely not a guarantee for success.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that those two things combined give you only a very marginal advantage at best.  As I’ve written before, very few awesome ideas turn out also to be good businesses and passion can be as much a curse as a blessing.

In the case of social entrepreneurs, these challenges are increased because:

  • Social entrepreneurs often focus on how to bring their idea to life and not on how to build a sustainable or scalable business around it. As such, they are perhaps more likely to miss the warning signs that their idea is not also a sustainable business.
  • Their passion is so strong that their blind spot is just that much bigger.

Add to this that they get less brutal feedback from advisors and mentors — no one wants to rain on their parade.  Personally, I think it’s unfair to coddle them.  In many ways, they need even more tough love than their self-serving, free-market counterparts because the get so little of it and their missions are so important.

I find that business-focused conversations with impact entrepreneurs can run pretty much the same way as with their capitalist counterparts.  With a few exceptions.

  • First, impact entrepreneurs are usually less comfortable and less interested in talking about the business aspects of their business.
  • Next, impact entrepreneurs suffer (I would say) from a notion of purity that is counter-productive to their mission and vision.
  • Next, impact entrepreneurs have such a refined radar for identifying good things that need doing that they try to do too many good things all at once, diluting their chances of success in creating significant and lasting good of any kind.
  • Finally, impact entrepreneurs are more caught off guard by “tough love” conversations.

I won’t speculate on why or whether these things are really happening.  I’m certainly open to discovering that these observations are either mistaken perceptions on my part or actually a byproduct of something I’m doing poorly.

What I can say is that it doesn’t need to be this way and for many social impact entrepreneurs it’s not.  Impact entrepreneurs who participate in programs like Fledge and Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI) have a terrific opportunity to develop their business acumen through rigorous programs of education and mentorship.  The quality of engagement in these programs is very high and there is no shortage of tough love.

But space in these high-quality programs is finite and competition is fierce. Inevitably, many otherwise very bright and passionate impact entrepreneurs are unable to participate.

Regardless of whether an impact entrepreneur makes it into an accelerator program or educational institution, I have found that there is a way to make headway on all fronts, essentially turning what I believe are four liabilities into four actionable principles that will make a difference.  In a nutshell, the four principles are:

  • Care deeply about building a sustainable and scalable business, as it will increase the impact you will achieve
  • Temper purity with practicability insofar as it supports your core mission without compromising your core values
  • Focusing your goodness radar on achieving your core mission
  • Embrace “tough love”

These are principles that will help impact entrepreneurs get the business parts right while they’re busy focusing on the social impact parts.  The mechanism for impact entrepreneurs to exercise these four principles is holding themselves accountable to a personal impact report.

A personal impact report is an attempt to account for the overall impact you bring into the world through your social impact business — not just your ability to get your idea off the ground and “make a difference”.  The challenge becomes how you can do that in the most sustainable and scalable way possible.

We’d probably all agree that making a meaningful improvement in the life of just one person is a laudable mission.  Every time you do that, you do something awesome.  But how much more awesome is it to make a difference in the lives of hundreds… or thousands… or millions?  Of preventing 1,000 tons of Co2 from entering the atmosphere… or 1,000,000 tons or 10,000,000 million tons?  Or providing clean water to 10 villages… or 100 villages… or 1,000 villages?

Sometimes, less is not more.

Of course, you’ve got to start with one life, one ton and one village.  Boiling the ocean pretty much never works.

But if, from the outset, you are not thinking about how you could sustainably scale your impact (by building sustainability into your model, intelligently tempering your purity, focusing your impact and attacking the hard business questions), not only are you setting yourself up to make a smaller impact on the world, you are also diminishing your likelihood of succeeding at creating any impact at all.

If an entrepreneur’s goal is to make a positive impact on the world, how could we possibly be critical of how they choose to go about it or how much they try to scale it?  I think the easy answer here is that we shouldn’t be critical.  Rather we should look for ways to support them.  But, I propose, they should critical be of themselves and seek advisors and mentors who will hold them accountable for doing so.  A personal impact report is a simple way to constructively do just that.

Here’s how it works.

A personal impact report measures the total amount of goodness your efforts produce in the world.  As the entrepreneur who got it all started, you get fractional credit for all the efforts of the team you build and the product or service your company delivers.  It’s kind of like building your “down line” in a multi-level marketing program like Amway.  That’s why being the founder is such a big responsibility — you make many of the early decisions that will determine the potential depth and breadth (i.e., the impact) of that down line.

Precision is neither necessary nor feasible — being approximately right is superior to be being exactly wrong.  A personal impact report need not be as rigorous as a written report complete with spreadsheets and critical analysis.  It can be as simple as a mental exercise performed when big decisions need to be made.  However, as with all forms of accountability, writing it down and sharing it with others are important.

When thoughtfully applied, I propose that the four principles will increase both success rates and impacts or social entrepreneurs.  Am I right?  Too soon to tell.  What do you think?

Returning to the story I started with, the impact for the entrepreneur of thinking about the four principles I’ve proposed is likely to result in a magnitude increase in the amount of impact she will have in the very near term, will lay the ground work for a more-scalable impact down the road, and will extend that road farther into the future.

Starting a company is a daunting undertaking, whether your mission is creating wealth or creating social impact or both.  Sustainability is crucial to all of them; scalability is crucial to many.  Impact entrepreneurs owe it to themselves, their team and, most importantly, to the lives they intend to impact, to be passionate about getting the business parts right.

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