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In this Best of 2022 article, you'll discover gems of wisdom from people who are at the absolute pinnacle of their craft and industry and who are generous partners to us at Panoramic Ventures. It's the turn of the year, which means you've likely gotten an (over) abundance of retrospectives. Our version of the best-of is less about reflection and more about sharing knowledge to help set you up for a strong 2023.
This article reflects counsel from professionals who have given their time, experience, and counsel to people who have participated in our Startup Showdown events. That was their gift to the brilliant founders in our portfolio. Our gift to you is compiling them. As you're planning for 2023, or as you're dreaming up your next big build and launch, come back to this post. It's a resource you can return to again and again for reliable guidance and inspiration.
We've even organized their takeaways by topic so you can find just the right advice, just when you need it.
Inside-out: Building and Scaling Your Operations
Outside-in: The Importance of Mentors and Community
Kathryn O'Day, a partner at Atlanta Ventures, advises that founders think about whether the market is right for them. Founder-market fit is important because if you're going to pour yourself into a specific business for the next decade (or more) of your life, it should be interesting and exciting. VCs also will consider the market in terms of whether it could reach multibillion-dollar status in the next three-to-five years. Even if a market is not big yet, signs should point to the fact that it will be. A big market means more potential customers and a possibility for more authentic demand - the signal that customers will pay you before you've built the product or even if there are still some bugs in your product.
Tim Dorr, managing director of Techstars Atlanta Cox and Techstars Impact is an advocate for doing a lot of customer discovery. He advises that founders talk with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of customers. You'll be better prepared to obtain customers and sell long-term if you understand the problem, where the customer is with it, and where their head space is. Actively talking with customers to understand their needs is how you set yourself up for real traction, which is measured by how well you have connected to your market.
If a customer is willing to pay you for your product, you know you're on to something. But don't build anything until you have proof that somebody will pay you upfront. Customer discovery research is necessary for truly understanding the market and your customer's pain. It's also crucial for gleaning whether they are willing to take a chance on you and an unproven product. The Mom Test is a good resource for learning how to assess what unaffiliated paying customers want (i.e., not just your family and friends). It offers practical customer discovery approaches and talk tracks for things to ask and reasons to ask the questions.
Founder and president of Ground Control Research Anastassia Laskey advises entrepreneurs to ask customers, prospects, and members of the broader target audience(s) structured questions about their pains and problems. Use the insight to find out if they are in need and big enough to pay you for a solution. You can repeat the process to keep a pulse on the problems you're helping them to solve so you can understand how well your product(s) perform over time.
Always listen to what your customers are asking for and what they need. As you're having customer conversations, tune into the language customers and prospects use to describe their problems. Listen to the details to know which of your product features will move the needle for them. Prioritize your messaging with that knowledge in mind, and then continue to hone and simplify. If you have clarity about your core customers and how you can solve 80% of their problems, you'll be in a great spot to scale.
It might feel more comfortable to reach out to the broadest audience possible (to take advantage of numbers). But Mike Gomez, president of Allegro Consulting, recommends using market research and listening to focus narrowly. Specifically, zero in on your likeliest first-paying customer. Once you do that, you can begin to go "straw small," methodically directing thoughtful, useful sales and marketing to an audience that genuinely wants to hear from you that is willing to pay you to solve their problems. Besides the increased chance of conversion, you can also take pride in knowing they are making a good buying decision by choosing to work with you.
Adhering to methodology with your outreach and listening will keep you aware of how different efforts are working together, who is talking to whom, and even how products are integrating. In this case, the information shows you what is possible and helps to prevent loss and costly traps over time.
Joel Cahill, the co-founder and CEO of INFIMA Cybers Scurity reassures founders that VCs want to invest in people who can recognize where they have gaps, as well as where they excel. If you have a vision, product-market fit, and clarity around your client and revenue stream, it's okay if the details change over time. What's important is that you can clearly articulate the problem and have a clear, digestible plan to solve it, so you can stay on track even if you have to course correct.
Here we move from forming your operations to forming your operating environment. Like all successful leaders, successful founders pull value from inputs, not just outputs. From sounding boards to inspiration to visibility and reputation, the community you build, the individuals with whom you interact, and the ways you leverage relationships matter immeasurably.
Kelly Anne O'Neill from Dualboot Partners has been on the startup and mentor sides of the table. Most notably, she ran the mentor and advisor program for the Atlanta Tech Village. Naturally, she advises founders to build a trusting relationship with someone who will have your best interest in mind. It matters less whether that relationship is personal or professional so long as the person is respectful, honest, and willing to push you. You're working hard and probably in the weeds, so it can be natural to push back. But your role as a mentee is to be vulnerable, open, and coachable. Be open to suggestions and take feedback. Remember, your mentor has your success in mind. Chances are, they can see things where you might have a blind spot (especially if you're a solopreneur).
Joe Dupriest of NextUp Ventures sees such value in mentoring that he advocates for having a few. With a host of mentors who will listen and provide feedback, you'll gain various perspectives that can help you determine your market-fit research. And if you can tell your company story consistently, dial in your business offering(s), and confidently answer tough questions, you'll be better positioned for pitching, networking, and selling.
Clay Gordon, the managing partner of Stout Street Capital, observes that coastal cities are historically such strong innovation markets because of their density of information, people, and resources. If you're in a market that lacks a sufficient network, don't hesitate to look outside your region. And look beyond typical mentor roles. You might find that leaning on people like your attorney or banker can help with connections. Keep in mind that they also network, so they may be able to make introductions and warm referrals.
Particularly if you don't (yet) have access to a robust and valuable network, start your community-building efforts with early-founder programs. Legendary partner and chair of the Technology Group at Morris, Manning & Martin LLP, John Yates advises talking with an early-stage or angel fund that provides specific support for founders, including a supportive cohort of peers. Outside investor channels, you can plug into associations for entrepreneurs, which also offer peer cohorts, learning opportunities, and networking events.
Larry McHugh, an executive committee member at Atlanta Technology Angels, reiterates the impact that an appropriate community can make for founders. He advises starting with an incubator with offerings that align with your goals and business (sector, model, etc.). These organizations exist to support entrepreneurs with free resources and information, and events designed to kickstart thriving businesses.
Atlanta Tech Village managing director Aly Merritt encourages founders to get to know the A-players in the industry, especially locally. If you're going to engage with the network, make sure you recognize names and faces. Know who members of the target audience are, who the investors are, and who is doing great things. And then take advantage of opportunities to connect with these people during events.
If you look, most communities have great resources for founders (see above!) Especially if you're just starting out and need extra coaching and help with your business before seeking outside investors, look for a program with a curriculum dedicated to general fundamentals — like selling to a particular demographic or regional market fit. Kim Seals, general partner at The JumpFund, encourages founders to capture the basic principles before considering outside funding. And be aware that if a VC feels like you're a bit too early for them, they may refer you to a program like this. They'll likely track you as you make progress, so it's important to stay engaged as you learn and develop. Here we move from people to process.
The mentors and advisors share experiences about pitching, negotiating, and selling. Because if you're not pitching, negotiating, and selling, your startup is a hobby.
Once you simplify your messaging to its clearest form, use it to distill your pitch into a one-pager. Start with a three-minute general overview. You can get to your questions faster by keeping things fast and energetic. Whether you have one mentor or a few, ask a bunch of questions. It'll help you hone your pitch. Alla Adam, the founder of Biohack.yourself, says that the most successful founders start with the pitch deck but then say, "Okay, let's stop it here. Let's just talk." They tell the story about why they created their startup, share what they need, and explain how they plan to grow. And they get the investment.
Preparation, respect, and good listening run through most of the mentors' advice. Bring honest curiosity and smarts to the negotiation table. Ask "why" and "how" questions and be silent so you can actively listen. Don't try to be smarter than you really are, or you'll miss vital cues.
So often in startups and sales, egos get involved early on because people are excited, passionate, super smart about what they do, and closing deals. Richard Harris, the founder of The Harris Consulting Group, observes that many founders assume they should be better at sales because they know the product better than anyone. They also make the mistake of thinking they are experts in sales because they have read great books like Addicted to the Process or Never Split the Difference. But if you're building and managing sales, you know that soft skills matter. Good salespeople know how to negotiate and close deals, but great salespeople build relationships and know the personal stuff. Get out of the process rut and connect. Get to know people in your network personally. Ask about their life goals or where they would like to go on vacation. And then, think about how you and your business can help them reach those things.
Our thanks go out to these mentors for contributing to our promise at BIP Ventures to be a venture capital firm that is committed to showing up for our innovation community as a true value creation firm. Interested in contributing your experience? We're always looking for great mentors. Go to Startup Showdown to learn more and get involved.