A New Decade

Photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash.

Welcome to 2020, the beginning of a new decade. I always enjoy reflecting on achievements and failures of the previous year and making plans for the coming one this time of year. This time I decided to reflect on an entire decade of growth, learning, and momentum both won and lost.

The 2010s were a tumultuous and challenging decade for me. There were several very high highs, and there were several very low lows. I’m sure this is the same for everyone else as well – we can all reflect on 10 years of experience and find a complete rainbow of moments that range from the best to the worst.

Some of the highlights of the 2010s for me include:

  • Completing my MBA
  • Starting two venture-funded startup companies
  • Being selected to Techstars and nailing the Demo Day pitch
  • Moving twice (once from Atlanta to St. Louis and then back to Atlanta)
  • Completing a Half-Ironman and a Marathon as well as several century rides, triathlons, and half-marathons
  • Taking my sons to Germany, Australia, Mexico and other overseas destinations

The decade came with its share of low-lights for me as well. Most notably, both of my startups ended poorly for me. While my first company is still in existence and actually thriving with new leadership, my second one blew up in flames when my terrible choice for a cofounder torpedoed the whole thing and left me without an engineering team that could build the technology we promised to our investors.

With the 2010s safely in the rear view mirror, I’m turning my attention to this next decade, the 2020s. The 1920s were referred to as “the roaring ’20s” based on a bull market and the exuberance of popular culture back then. I’m excited to see what this decade brings for all of us, including the first manned flight to the moon in 50 years, possibly a manned trip to Mars, ever-improving economic and social conditions for the poorest third of the world, and hopefully some answers to climate change.

But I’m most excited to see if I can make a clean break with the traits and habits that kept me from being as successful as I would have like to have been in the 2010s. I created the conditions that led to the failures I experienced. The good news is I’ve learned several hard-taught lessons for the next time.

I’ve decided to make a clean break with the old decade and embrace the new one as a new version of myself. This blog is part of that. I don’t journal as much as I’d like to, and that’s one of the changes I intend to make. I’m excited to look back on this blog entry and cringe at how poorly it compares to the content I will be writing in 10 years.

Other changes are coming for me, too. I’ve given up alcohol, I’m changing the way I eat, I’m exercising, I’m working with a therapist and an executive coach to improve myself, and I’m working on being more present with my family. This coming decade will see both of our sons go off into the world on their own, and I want to cherish what little time we have left together.

I wish for you to recognize and make a clean break with the thoughts and habits that held you back this past decade, much as I am trying to do myself.

Take this opportunity to really think about what held you back, and ask yourself how you manifested the conditions that led to those setbacks and failures. I’ve learned to look deep enough to see my own part in each failure, and recognize what was my fault (and what wasn’t). The parts that I can change I will, and the parts that I can’t change I will learn to accept.

Happy 2020 y’all. Let’s make it the best decade of our lives.

Creating Peak Moments in Your Startup

Creating Peak Moments in Your Startup

Peak moments last a lifetime.

I want to share with you a peak moment in my career, and why it matters that we strive to create them whenever we can — not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us as well.

It was May of 2011. My VP of Sales and I had just come back to the office from a meeting down the street with a potential customer. When we walked in to the building, there was a lot of buzz in the main conference room where our merry band of 10 or so employees typically camped out and worked side-by-side.

I walked in to see what the commotion was all about. I started to ask a question but stopped mid-sentence when I saw it. Everyone was watching my reaction — and smiling ear to ear.

There on the conference table was a complex piece of hardware that embodied two years of planning, evangelizing, fundraising, engineering, development, and software project work to pay for it all.

I picked it up, held it, smiled, and in that single moment it felt like all of those months of drama and difficulty were suddenly completely worth it.

Someone snapped a (somewhat blurry) photo of that moment, but it’s crystallized in my mind forever.

That peak moment — circa May 2011.

My first startup had just received the first demo unit of SCOUT — a satellite communications test and management device that, coupled with some incredibly novel software, could replace sending field engineers to dangerous parts of the world and empower soldiers to operate and troubleshoot complex satellite equipment on their own.

The thing that struck me about the moment wasn’t so much the demo unit itself. It was the unfiltered pride and joy on the faces of the others in our company watching me play with the thing as if it were a prized toy on Christmas morning.

This was one of many peak experiences I carry with me from the four years of my life I invested in that company.

I’m currently reading a book recommended to me by a close friend called The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath. The book points out that humans tend to remember peak experiences (both good and bad) and base our generally irrational decisions on those experiences. The Power of Moments suggests that those experiences can sometimes be manufactured, and lays out a blueprint on how to do so.

Great book if you’re interested in creating peak moments.

Thinking back to that moment in time, I can’t help but smile and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. It was just a singular moment — the rest of that particular day was filled with challenges with our payroll, a customer complaining about a flaw in a website we had just launched, and having just come back from a meeting with a customer that had my VP of Sales and me wondering why we had to fight so hard all of the time to win even little deals.

But that moment stands out in time as a peak experience. A simple, clean moment among all the other moments where, just for a minute or so, the challenges melted away and the focus was on this beautiful milestone.

I’ve experienced even higher peak moments since then, as well as a healthy share of personal and professional nadir moments (valleys). But I call attention to this moment for two reasons.

First, it was as pure and innocent a moment as I can recall in my professional career. Here we were, this tiny band of misfits that had no business revolutionizing a multi-billion-dollar industry by solving a real problem with technology that wasn’t available just a year earlier. It was every bit the David-and-Goliath startup story we read about so often on the tech blogs. We were even covered on one of those blogs — which actually shut down our website from the traffic surge.

Second, it helped me to understand that my team was as every bit as invested in building something big, and they needed to share in that moment in order to recharge their momentum towards our greater goals. My sincere gratitude and joy in that moment were as much for them as it was for me.

My super-power is my ability to evangelize an idea. I’m not a superstar salesperson, nor am I entirely comfortable in evangelizing myself. Unlike so many successful people who have their face on whatever product they sell, I’d rather build an image of what others can achieve with the idea I want to share with them.

But in the ever-tumultuous world of startups and small businesses struggling to achieve and maintain momentum, we sometimes tend to forget to take a moment and manufacture a moment for everyone involved to share.

Those peak moments last forever. And they help to build what your customers and employees need to put your mission and vision in front of other opportunities they consider for themselves.

You don’t have to be a natural evangelist in order to to create these peak experiences. You do have to work at manufacturing them, and understanding the value of these moments is critical to understanding what it takes to create your own good fortune and luck.

Not every moment can be a peak experience. Nor should they be. And not every attempt to manufacture a peak experience will succeed. I can look back and count dozens of missed opportunities in my career. I wonder how different my career would be had I capitalized on those moments with employees, customers, vendors, investors, etc.

It’s been more than 7 years since that moment I held SCOUT for the first time. But, right now, that moment feels like it happened yesterday.

I’ve come to realize that generating those peak experiences, not just for myself but for everyone else around me, is the most important work I can do. People build a story in their mind about everything. Taking the opportunity to create a peak experience for those people will undoubtedly return so much more than just about anything else you could give them.

What peak experience can you create right now? Is there an opportunity to imprint pride, happiness and trust on those around you that you’re missing?

Those peak moments are more precious than anything else we can create or experience in life. Because in the end, our lives are a collection of moments. Take the opportunity to create more moments that are memorable, and you’ll find that you will have a sense of actually living longer.

Lean Startup in the Defense Industry

Going through Techstars Boulder as the CEO of Candl last year was an amazing experience for a lot of reasons. I learned a lot about cofounder dynamics, emotional intelligence, investor relationships, coaching/mentoring, and how to focus on the right things in a startup.

Of all the skills, frameworks, concepts and tools I learned during Techstars, it was the Lean Startup philosophy that has helped me the most in this next phase of my career.

Before Techstars I had not been exposed to Lean, Agile, Scrum, or anything even remotely similar. A Lean Canvas was an entirely new artifact to me. I had been trained in my MBA program on how to build 90+ page business plans, and had lawyers build a 300+ page PPM (private placement memorandum) at the cost of around $35K to raise funding for my first startup back in 2010.

I’m currently reading a book called The Corporate Startup, which walks through how to implement many of the Lean Startup processes and mindset in a larger company. It’s a timely read given that I am now the Vice President of Innovation at Envistacom.

Lean Startup preaches these three primary concepts:

  • Customer Discovery
  • “Plan, Do, Measure, Learn”
  • Pivoting is Okay

Customer Discovery

Customer Discovery isn’t something that is taught in the defense industry. In fact, the defense industry is an interesting and unique marketplace where the primary defense contractors are literally reactionary in culture. We respond to the needs of the Department of Defense. The DoD pushes out an RFP and we respond. Sure, we’re trained on how to influence those RFPs, and many times those RFPs are based on what they learn about the products and services we create either pro-actively or based on another DoD-funded program. But going out and polling soldiers and program officers isn’t a default modus operandi for the defense industry.

At Envistacom, we’ve embedded a business development / customer relationship expert within our Innovation group. It’s his job to bring us to customers with problems and help us stay focused on solving relevant problems instead of building neat technology.

This has allowed us to build processes and metrics around making sure our investments in R&D are aimed at real problems with real funding.

Plan, Do, Measure, Learn

This philosophy seems straightforward to anyone who has worked in the software or Internet industries. But in the defense industry this is a foreign concept. Rapid prototyping, cyclic development, and projects without detailed specifications or schedules are seen as weak, lazy, and incoherent outlays of capital. I’ve had a challenging time convincing many of the super-smart folks I work with to embrace the lean sprint model.

We did had some early success which has helped to assuage some concerns. We built a revolutionary new hardware prototype design in 37 days – from concept to 3D-printed example hardware. It would have taken 37 days to develop the Gantt chart schedule alone in a standard watefall scheduling effort.


It’s unnatural and uncomfortable for defense contractors to enter into an project not knowing how long it will take, how much it will cost, or even what the final result will be. So when we changed the definition of what we were building halfway through an R&D project, I fully expected the program management and finance folks to lose their minds. Which they did, but only for a moment. When they saw what we were pivoting to, they agreed with the new direction.

It’s easy to deliver what you say you will deliver in the beginning. It’s much harder embarking on a journey that leads to a solution that customers absolutely need.



Lean Defense Contracting?

Contractors are paid to deliver a capability as defined by the customer. In the defense industry, we are trained to receive a requirement specification and build to it on time and on budget. It’s not our place to decide for the customer that the building they want should be wired differently than specified, or the network they need should run faster or slower than they spelled out in the contract.

That being said, there are times when it’s appropriate for our industry to develop a new capability that can change the math on decisions made that influence those specifications. And to do that, we have to use different tools than we use for solution projects.

Lean Startup has its place in every industry – even the defense industry.