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It's Been an Honor House of Genius

The leadership team at House of Genius recently asked me to step aside to make room for a new City Director in Boulder. I'm very happy to share that my successor will be Tim O'Shea, a friend and a deserving community leader. Last night I had a great time in my last session as a House of Genius volunteer and took an extra moment to appreciate the great people that I've had a chance to meet and work with.

Over the course of the past three years or so I've had the opportunity to participate as a contributor, presenter, moderator, organizer, and director. Starting in Boulder, House of Genius popped up in a few cities around the country, then around the globe. I've had the privilege of participating in all three annual gatherings of volunteers from cities near and far. It's been a ton of fun watching the leadership team grow the organization from it's first event in Boulder to events in Asia and Europe.

I'm excited to see Tim shape Boulder to be the model by which all other House of Genius cities are compared. He's been a great community leader already and his positive influence will be felt immediately.

Thank you to co-founders Toma, Tim W., and Collin as well as Jacqui for giving me the opportunity to hold the fort in Boulder as House of Genius expanded its reach city by city. Thank you to the hundreds of contributors, presenters, sponsors, and other volunteers that I've had a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with to help entrepreneurs move their businesses forward.

It's been an honor. Truly.

A Fond Farewell to Quick Left

Earlier this morning my CEO Ingrid let the Quick Left team know that this week will be my last with the company. Next week I'll be joining Simpler, a new Boulder company that will launch a SaaS product for the automotive industry. While I'm incredibly excited to share more detail about Simpler I'll wait until next week; this week I'll be busy enjoying my last few days at Quick Left and giving thanks to the great people that I've worked with the last two and a half years.

I'm very proud to say that Quick Left and I have grown significantly since I originally signed on as an apprentice in the fall of 2011. In that time the Quick Left team has more than doubled in size, moved into a beautiful office, established an international presence, added Sprintly as a product, and expanded into Portland and San Francisco. It hasn't been rainbows and unicorns the entire way but we've managed to do a lot of things well together.

In the meantime I learned a ton about code, stepped up my volunteer efforts in the startup community, created a reality in which my wife is retired in her thirties, learned something new about leadership and management on a daily basis, and advanced from Apprentice to Managing Director in the span of less than eight months. I made a ton of mistakes along the way but always had the support of my work family, the greatest example of brainpower and give-a-shit that I've ever been around.

There's still plenty more room for the company and I to grow together. Ingrid continues to be the best boss I've ever worked for and the team only got stronger after our recent merger with Sprintly. Quick Left is just getting warmed up. If you think I'm crazy to be leaving, you may be right. Then again, people thought I was crazy when I signed on with Quick Left as an apprentice at the age of 35. It's fair to say that it worked out.

To my Quick Left family past and present: don't be a stranger. And thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Denver Open Coffee Club returning to Fluid 6/10

In response to feedback that my co-moderator Doyle Albee and I have gotten we're moving Denver Open Coffee Club back to Fluid Coffee Bar this week. We've really enjoyed our stay at Galvanize but have always had trouble being able to hear each other in such a large space.

If you're not familiar with DOCC it's an informal gathering, mostly of those in the startup space, to talk about current events in technology. We open each session with new people introducing themselves, upcoming event announcements, and job announcements. The rest of the time is spent in a group discussion of whatever topics strike our collective fancy. It's a great way to have a sense of what's going on in the startup community.

We'll be sticking to our usual schedule, meeting every other Tuesday from 8 - 9am. The next session is this Tuesday June 10th - I hope to see you there!

 

Don't forget Doyle and I run Boulder Open Coffee Club on the opposite Tuesday of each month at Scrib (now the Boomtown Accelerator) and our friend Marshall Smith runs Loveland Open Coffee Club on the same schedule as DOCC at The Armory!

Loveland Open Coffee Club Launching Tomorrow 4/1

Open Coffee Club is spreading north in Colorado tomorrow! Marshall Smith, a Boulder Open Coffee Club (BOCC) regular, is kicking off Loveland Open Coffee Club (LOCC) tomorrow 4/1 8am at The Armory.

Doyle will be moderating Denver Open Coffee Club (DOCC) as usual at Galvanize. I'll be heading north to co-moderate LOCC with Marshall to help get things off the ground. Thanks to everybody involved, including Clint Bounds for making The Armory LOCC's home.

If you've never been to a xOCC event, it's an informal gathering of startup folks every other Tuesday running 8 - 9am. Here's what we usually cover:

  • Introductions: new attendees introduce themselves
  • Announcements: everybody gets a chance to share open job positions, work they're looking for, and events that are coming up
  • Discussion: the group discusses whatever comes to mind; when things get slow, moderators suggest topics, usually centered around tech news that has come up since the last meeting

LOCC will run every other Tuesday starting tomorrow 4/1 8 - 9am, so be sure to mark your calendars. I hope to see you there, and please help us spread the word!

 

Candor Shouldn't Require Blunt Force Trauma

Lately I've noticed that people thank me for speaking candidly. Sometimes, including now, I worry that my candor is noteworthy for the wrong reasons. My intention is to be concise but the unintended consequence can sometimes be blunt force trauma for my recipient. It shouldn't be that way.

More often than not feedback is watered down with the best of intentions. In an effort to soften the blow, many people sugar coat it or are passive-aggressive about it. I've found that watered down feedback is incredibly hard to understand and build on, which can create frustrating, drawn out problems. At House of Genius, we go to extremes to ensure that feedback isn't muddied by a person's credentials or qualifying comments either. Candor is a good thing.

It's not all rainbows and unicorns, however. There are times when I have an emotional response to being on the receiving end of candid feedback. It can be tough hearing things I don't want to hear. That said, I'd rather have my ego bruised temporarily than to be blissfully ignorant about how to get better. 

With that in mind, my first lesson learned about being candid without blunt force trauma is that it requires tasting your own medicine from time to time.  I try to remember that the knee-jerk reaction I can have to candid feedback is something that recipients of my feedback can also feel. Plus, who really wants to get feedback from somebody who isn't open to it himself?

Secondly, I try to be candid in delivering both the good and the bad. While the compliment-criticism-compliment approach has its place (also known as the shit sandwich or the compliment sandwich), that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being equally straightforward, and more importantly, equally opportunistic about delivering good and bad news.

It's important to say things like "Hey, I noticed that you're falling behind on the timeline you committed to. We need to talk..." I submit that it's even more important to say things like "Great job on that last hackfest! I really appreciate the work ethic and execution that you bring to this team. Thanks..."

You may notice that people have unexpected reactions to candid compliments. Some have a harder time accepting a candid compliment than a candid criticism. Regardless, you're showing the recipient that candor is a delivery style, not a way to assert power or to hurt feelings. Even if that's not the case, at least you've given somebody you care about a nice little boost of encouragement.

With each interaction I have and each relationship I build I get more comfortable with speaking candidly, but I'm still a work in progress. If you've got a tip you'd like to share, I'm open to feedback in the comments below (sadly, pun intended).

The Startup Colorado Community Fund As a Sponsor

Startup Colorado Community Fund logo.png

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accepting a $6,000 grant from the Startup Colorado Community Fund on behalf of House of Genius Boulder.  I thought I'd share what the process was like to help out those of you interested in similarly funding your startup community event or organization.

 The Community Fund is "on a mission to assist entrepreneurs in Colorado leading their startup communities - with resources to amplify community growth and engagement." They're looking to back an organization that:

  • Focuses on driving entrepreneurship and innovation
  • Puts entrepreneurs first
  • Is inclusive
  • Engages the entire entrepreneurial stack
  • Is Colorado-centric
  • Has the intent of becoming sustainable.

The application itself was a simple text form which took 15 minutes or so to complete. After doing so I had the option to invite others to provide a recommendation and/or to show support on Facebook to help build our case.

A few weeks after submitting our application we were informed by email and phone that House of Genius would be awarded one of the two inaugural grants along with 1 Million Cups Denver. I was asked to accept the grant during a Startup Colorado event as part of Denver Startup Week, which was a great opportunity for me to speak about House of Genius in front of 100+ people from the community.

The final details I had to provide as a follow-up were also simple: a short written summary about House of Genius and how it meets the criteria bulleted above, along with the organization's EIN and address. The grant is being routed through the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado and will arrive shortly. It was that easy.

For House of Genius Boulder, the Community Fund grant will go an incredibly long way. The funds will fuel roughly a year's worth of our monthly activity, which brings together twenty or so volunteers from the business community to help three entrepreneurs move forward with what they're working on.

More importantly, it does two less obvious things for us:

  • it frees our team from having to chase sponsor dollars, giving us more time to focus on making Boulder the standard by which other House of Genius cities around the world are measured
  • it has put House of Genius on the radar of the grant committee members, an active and influential group of entrepreneurs, investors, and community leaders here in Colorado and beyond

For any of you leading an event or organization that supports the startup community in Colorado, I highly recommend looking into the Community Fund as a resource. With $200,000 committed to the fund and a rolling application process, you should apply now.

Thank you to the grant committee and David Bennett, my main point of contact with Startup Colorado - the Community Fund is an incredible resource.

If you've got questions about the fund or the application process, I'll do my best to answer them in the comments!

How Are the Boulder Chamber and the Startup Community Relevant to Each Other?

Having had a tour of duty with the Boulder Chamber and being active in the startup community these days, I'm still looking for answers.  I could use your help.

The Boulder Chamber has a 100+ year history of anchoring the entrepreneurial community. It does a tremendous amount to support entrepreneurs at a high level as an advocate and influencer of economic policy as well as at a granular level by offering free consulting to small business owners, among many, many other activities. That said, it's odd to me that the Chamber and the startup community overlap so infrequently.

In thinking through how we're relevant to each other, keep in mind how different the Boulder Chamber and the startup community are. The Boulder Chamber has both the constraints and resources that the startup community does not: a budget, headquarters, influence over economic policy, and full time employees. Clearly we execute in very different ways, but our interests are the same: to see entrepreneurs thrive in Boulder.

Consider recruiting, one of the startup community's biggest pain points. With downtown Boulder itself as one of our best tools for recruiting out-of-state talent, there are plenty of ways that the Boulder Chamber can help.

To their credit John Tayer, President & CEO of the Boulder Chamber, and Sean Maher, Executive Director of Downtown Boulder, Incorporated (an organization largely responsible for how vibrant and amazing downtown Boulder is), have already found ways to collaborate with Boulder Startup Week, one of the startup community's most notable events. Together they've successfully convinced out-of-state developers and designers to move to the area, deepening our talent pool.

A recent chat with Tim O'Shea and Rich Maloy, two of BSW's organizers, reminded the three of us of how much more we could be doing with established organizations like the Chamber and DBI. Advocacy was one of the first things that popped to mind. I'm sure there are many others.

John and Sean have also reached out to me to learn more about my involvement with Boulder Open Coffee Club and House of Genius and their place in the ecosystem. More importantly, they've shown up to participate in both events. Because the startup community rewards those who participate, I'd love to have the startup community reciprocate.

Perhaps you'll consider coming to Esprit Entrepreneur today and tomorrow to help the Chamber celebrate entrepreneurship in Boulder. Companies including Rally Software, SparkFun, SendGrid, Return Path, and Quick Left (disclosure: I work there) will be among the companies represented.

Help me out here - what other ways can we welcome folks like John and Sean to learn more about what we're doing, and conversely, for us to learn more about what they're doing? I'd love to get a conversation going in the comments below!

Every Day Is a Tryout

During my senior year of high school I made the cut for the varsity basketball team having never played a single game of organized basketball. I didn't know it at the time but it would become the experience most influential in my approach to my career. Why? Every day is a tryout.

I ran track in high school because I loved the competition. I played basketball for fun with my friends, but never as an organized sport. One of my best friends convinced me to join him during informal basketball workouts to get in shape for the upcoming indoor track season.

I was a nerd. I was socially awkward. I didn't belong with the cool basketball players. 

During the fun stuff, full court games, I'd end up playing with the underclassman and the JV players because my basketball skills were terrible. During the hard stuff, drills to get in shape, I'd excel. Most of my peers who planned to try out for basketball weren't trying very hard because they didn't think that informal workouts mattered.

The basketball season had not yet begun so coaches were restricted from running organized practices, but unbeknownst to most of us, they were watching. On one of the last days Coach Farias interrupted an agility drill to ask me if I planned to try out. I told him no, I hadn't planned on it.

"Too bad," he lamented, "you may be a diamond in the rough. "

I ended up trying out and earning a spot on the team purely for my work ethic. I beat out a lot of better players because I outworked them when everybody thought the coaches weren't looking. Making an impression didn't begin with tryouts, it had been taking place long before that during informal workouts.

The 1991-92 LHS Minutemen, "Where Defense Began."

I've applied the lesson that every day is a tryout to how I approach my career. I don't wait until it's time to submit my resume to put my best foot forward. I don't wait until my boss announces a role I'd like to prove I can take on a little more responsibility. I try to make an impression every day. I know that people are evaluating me today for the promotion I 'm going to apply for tomorrow.

It's an approach that helped me advance from Apprentice to Managing Director at Quick Left in 8 months. It's also created opportunities for me to become a co-organizer for House of Genius Boulder and the co-moderator for Boulder Open Coffee Club and Denver Open Coffee Club, which have been key in connecting me with a ton of great people and great companies.

Ultimately my basketball career was unimpressive. I rarely played in games and scored a whopping 8 career points. That said, making the varsity basketball team that year changed my life. It expanded my social circle, boosted my confidence, and showed me that improbable things can happen when you create your own luck. Coach Farias, thank you, as this lesson has stuck with me. 

I haven't a clue what I'm trying out for these days, but I know I'm trying out for something.  You should too.

You're a Genius

Each month my co-organizer Katie O'Block and I invite 20 or so businesspeople from the community to House of Genius. Collectively we help three entrepreneurs move forward with their businesses in some way. If you're hesitant to join us because you're not sure if you can live up to the Genius standard, this post is for you. You belong. You're a Genius.

House of Genius Boulder July 2013. Photo taken by Mike Howard.

The House of Genius secret sauce isn't about scouring the planet for Mensa members, MBAs, and PhDs. It's about curating a local group of people with fairly diverse points of view to share any insight that they've got for the entrepreneurs presenting that night. You're a Genius even if you don't know it.

Many of our participants fit into traditional business functions and industries that you might see listed on LinkedIn: marketing manager for a web development company, attorney at a specialized legal firm, and bookkeeper at a restaurant, for instance. We've also drawn from occupations including opera singer, sommelier, jewelry designer, humor researcher, author, undergraduate, artist, and investor. And yes, we've managed to include Mensa members, MBAs, and PhDs too.

Don't get hung up on whether your credentials are strong enough. We go out of our way to enforce a level of anonymity by asking that people limit introductions to their first names with no mention of their job or past experience. By having people leave their credentials at the door we're able to let every contribution stand on its own merit.

 

Katie and I would love to see you join us for House of Genius Boulder. If you've got any questions please reach out to us directly: bing@houseofgenius.org and katie@houseofgenius.org. Otherwise, provide us with a bit of information and we'll be sure to find a session where your experience will best complement the rest of the group's. Together, we create Genius.

 

I Can't Give a Shit About Your Startup Until You Give a Shit About My Problem

I'm selfish. So are the other people you're trying to convince to become customers of your shiny new startup. Until you show me that you give a shit about solving my problems, I don't give a shit about your startup. Keep that in mind even when you're talking to people who aren't your customers - investors and advisors surely will.

I'm not breaking any new ground here. There's plenty written about focusing on the user, connecting features with benefits, and so on. The fact that over half of the startup entrepreneurs I talk to can't succinctly explain what problem they solve indicates that this advice is worth repeating.

Here's a formula: 

  1. Polish your explanation of what problem you solve until you can get people to instinctively nod their head in understanding.
  2. Express your excitement for solving that problem. I want to see it on your face and hear it in your voice. Get me caught up in your excitement.
  3. Lead with it every time, whether you're describing it to a friend, pitching it to an investor, rallying your troops, recruiting a co-founder, or talking to your customers. Every time.

Note: if you can't manage #1 and #2, it's time to think of a new idea.

Until you master explaining what problem you solve for me, don't bother telling me what you do. I don't give a shit that you're creating a social network for _____, that you offer me badges for _____, that you automagically do _____, or that you track my _____ unless I know what problem is solves for me. For me. For me. For me. It's all about me.

Once you've got my head nodding because you understand a problem I have, you'll have me leaning forward in my chair dying to know how you solve it for me. A customer that's dying to know about your startup is a good thing, agreed?

BOCC's New Home: Scrib

Boulder Open Coffee Club is moving to Scrib next week! My co-moderator Doyle Albee and I had looked into several possibilities and are very excited about having Scrib be our new venue.

 Immediately after the news broke that Atlas Purveyors was closing its doors for good, we received tons of offers from other coffee shops, restaurants, coworking spaces, and startups to provide a new home for BOCC. The support that has been shown over the past few days has proven that it's truly a community event. It's humbling to be a steward of something that has grown into such a beloved part of this community.

Atlas' Chris Rosen let Doyle and I know about his decision to close a few days ahead of making it public to give us a head start in finding a new home. Chris, thank you for all that you've done for us, particularly in the classy way that you've handled Atlas' closing, and thank you for being a community leader. You've left big shoes for Scrib to fill but they're up to the task!

For those of you not familiar with Scrib, it's a thriving coworking space on Broadway just north of the Pearl Street walking mall. Thanks to Jeff, Toby, and the rest of the Scrib team for making BOCC feel so welcomed. Coming from the mall on Broadway, hang a right when you see Unseen Bean, head through the doors, and find Scrib one floor below.

We're really looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday at 8am!  

 

One Brick at a Time, One Step at a Time

I have a hard time sitting down and writing consistently. It's a habit I'd like to form but have had a few false starts with since I decided to create a blog three years ago. Each post feels like a huge project though I know that I'm putting too much pressure on myself.

A tidbit from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance prompted me to think about an approach to break my unproductive cycle: when you're blocked trying to write something about the United States, focus on a smaller chunk until you have the focus you need, whether it be a single city, street, building, or brick.

This brick by brick approach reminded me of my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail years ago. A 2,100+ mile, 7 month hike that was taken not as an epic journey, but as a series of states, resupply points, shelters, and steps. Step by step I walked from Georgia to Maine.

One brick at a time, one step at a time.