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The Founders Club and Meaningful Work

WP Engine and Meaningful WorkI was at a PHP meetup with Jason and Mark last week to see about meeting some developers to hire.  It can take months to hire, and since we’re growing (really fast) we need to have hiring conversations all the time in order to keep up with the company. The sooner we meet someone, the better.

We all started playing pool.  Jason and Mark are pretty great at pool, and I’m average :-).  As the party winds down, and the open bar closed, Jason and I started drinking gin and tonic and talking about growing a startup and what it means to both of us personally to have work that we find meaningful to our lives.

I was able to share my story of Rheumatoid Arthritis, which became pretty obvious when I was limping around the bar a bit, and my neck looked like it was fused together.  That’s one of those conversations that’s cool to have with people as I get to know them.  It’s a story that I don’t tell everyone personally, but the people I do tell are important.  Jason asked a few questions, but in general just gave me the opportunity to share an important part of my life.

The fact that I am having this conversation with my Founder, and my boss, is a good sign. Everybody has been through painful periods, so being able to relate those times with colleagues/bosses can strengthen relationships.  I really value the ability to have an honest and introspective conversation with the people I’m close to, and this counts my professional relationships as well.  Having an earnest and open conversation with Jason at a bar on 6th street was a significant moment for me that week.

At some point the conversation drifted to startups and doing work that matters.  The process of finding work that matters to me has been a theme in my life this year, so I started asking questions to learn about Jason’s work.

One of the questions that I asked him was about how founders like Andrew Warner, and Adii Pienaar of WooThemes, Peldi Guillizzoni of Balsamiq, Amy Hoy, and then Jason form the club that they have together.  I was thinking specifically about the camaraderie that Andrew expressed with Jason in their most recent Mixergy interview.  Andrew said, “Jason, you’re a friend, you could wake me up with a phone call in the middle of the night and I’d make a pot of coffee to wake myself up to hear what you had to say.”

I asked Jason if those strong relationships are the result of growing selling companies and “joining the club” of successful entrepreneurs.  His answer was pretty surprising.

He said that while, yes, there sorta is “a club” the reason they’ve all bonded the way that they have is more because they’ve each bared their souls and shared the messy process on their blogs.  They’re friends because they’ve all found their voice online and shared their entrepreneurial stories with the rest of the internet.  Less “Founder’s Circle,” and more Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris in the 1920’s diving into one another’s writing.  Yes, either comparison is pretty damn flattering.

Here’s where this club is cool.

When we talk about entrepreneurs finding success, we talk about the ways they became better versions of themselves first, and successful in business as a result.  In order for an entrepreneur to become successful, and to make lots of money as a result, he or she must continue growing as a human.  My favorite example of this right now is Robert LoCascio’s Mixergy interview.   I also think that if growth stops at any point along the way, then chances are, the business growth stops as well.

Let me phrase that idea differently…  

The more self-actualized and genuine an entrepreneur becomes, the more money they stand to make, and this is an infinite process.

That’s a belief that I have.  And I’m not sure how Jason would phrase it, but I see evidence in the blogs he writes that he believes something similar.

I think the process looks like this: The more honest you are with yourself first, then you become more honest and open with others.  Then you start feeling more genuine all the time and find yourself connecting with more and more people who are doing work you find meaningful.  Then you find an opportunity to work with those people.   And once you’re doing work that matters to you, with people you admire, you’ll suddenly begin enjoying a greater level of success than before.  So you’re happier because you’re doing work that matters, with people you respect, and suddenly you’re waking up and going to sleep really happy about how you spent your time that day.  And now, since you’re happier in your work, you’re probably doing a better job, so you’re probably making more money all at once.  This becomes a vicious cycle of positivity, and you start looking back every 6 months and saying, “Damn, this 6 months was better than the last, and that 6 months was better than the one before that!”  And that’s an awesome way to live your life.

That’s been true for me the last 6 months, and having been through layoffs at a well-paying, but meaningless job before this one, when I look back over my shoulder, I’m pumped about where I’ve come, and where I am today.

I could have just had all that floating around in my head, or maybe I just wrote a blog post about those thoughts at some point.  But I actually got to talk to Jason about it, and that made the evening for me.  Jason gave the opportunity to share that bit about how working at WP Engine has made me feel and what it has meant for me.  Waking up in the morning excited and ready to go to work each day means a lot to me. (I think it should mean a lot to everyone.)

I told Jason, the work we’re doing at WP Engine makes me happy to get to work in the morning.  I feel like the work and the company actually matters.  I feel like the work that I am doing contributes something important.

When I said all that, Jason exhaled all of his founder stress for just a moment and said, “That’s good.”  As if he was still worried about the success or failure of his company, and my small story was a tiny mile-marker that he was doing something right.

My feelings about my work and the company mattered to him.  They were important to how he measured the company on some level.

Yes, we’ve got big graphs that show our revenue projections, and they are looking really really good right now.  And I’m sure that absent those positive revenue projections, my particular affirmation might have gotten lost in the chaos.  But all told, I still think it would have been significant to him, and I still think that he would have been happy to hear one of his employees talk frankly about what is important and valuable and good about the company they both work in.  I still think it would have been meaningful to this particular founder.

And the fact that it was meaningful to him, made it meaningful to me.

Because at the end of the day, I’ve got a lot of my own dreams and places that I want to go.  And I want to make sure that while I’m getting there, the people that I’m working with and learning from are the type of people I can have this sort of a conversation with.

If there is a club of founders who can connect with their audience in a blog or a video interview, and who can connect with their customers and employees as well; that’s the type of club that I’d like to join one of these days.  Call it “club meaningful work,” and we all roll up our sleeves to improve our little corner of the world.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Mark Suster, Venture Capitalist, Loves WP Engine and Takes a Photo with Austin Gunter

Mark Suster, Venture Capital, and WP Engine

Mark Suster has been using WP Engine for a while.  When he came to Austin today and dropped by the Capital Factory / WP Engine offices we got an awesome photo of him proudly holding up his fine new WP Engine t-shirt.  Mark’s blog, Both Sides of the Table, one of the best blogs I read religiously about Venture Capital.  He writes it as a serial entrepreneur, turned VC, and shares his perspective on startups and startup funding.  If you haven’t yet, check it out.

While he was in the office, Mark was also kind enough to give some direct feedback on a new business model incubating in the office.  That says a lot about his style and the sort of hands-on care that he gives the companies that he chooses to work with.  Down to earth and practical.  Exactly the sorts of qualities that you want to have in your VC.

Thanks for stopping by WP Engine today, Mark.  Let us know how that T-shirt fits.  Maybe send us a picture!

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Startup Life in the WP Engine Offices

It's an Orgy of MacBooks and startup companies on the 7th Floor of the Omni in Austin, Texas at the WP Engine / OtherInbox Offices

I love Brian Fryer so much

I thought it was hilarious how many MacBooks there are lying around the WP Engine offices.  Maybe I’m just a fanboy or a Mac snob, but I really love walking around the office while I’m writing copy to find them everywhere.

Mine’s on the left, then Brian Bigelowe, and Brian Fryer, of Whoosh Traffic.

Not pictured is or how much I love working up here.

Also, check out the post I wrote for WP Engine this week.

Part of the Challenge of Being a Consultant

Consultants face the drama of contracts falling apart at the last minute

Stop making that face! It will FREEZE like that!

I’ve been enjoying working for myself for several months now.  There are some things that I really like about being a free agent.  But the biggest plus about being a solopreneur service provider is also probably one of the biggest downsides: I make as much money as I want to each month.  Since I’m operating on my own, if I want to make more money, all I have to do is sell more.

But I have to be selling if I want to make anything at all…

Those of you doing sales or biz dev, will understand what I mean when I say that a sale isn’t a sale isn’t real until the check is in the mail.  No matter how much of a sure thing a contract seems, it’s vital to follow through until the sale is finalized, because something can always change.

I’ve found that when a contract doesn’t work out (if you’re a contractor, this is inevitable), you must accept full responsibility for the sale falling through.  As tempting as it may seem to blame the other party for any number of reasons, the only thing they didn’t buy was you.

Recently, I’ve had two contracts that seemed liked a sure thing, but that fell through at the last minute.  There were enough similarities between the two situations that I’m writing about them in order to learn from them myself, and encourage the rest of you.  I’m surely not the only one who has gone through this.  I’d also like to figure out how to prevent this from happening again in the future.

Both contracts were with companies that I admire and was going to learn a great deal from.  One was a 4 year old 100+ employee startup, in a mobile space with which I’m familiar, and I had met one of the chief marketing folks around town.  The other company was a much smaller boutique firm that I did a small project for last year.  Both companies had seen my work as a writer and a digital marketing strategist and both spoke highly of my work on multiple occasions.  Based on the work they’d already seen, both companies initiated meetings with me to discuss specific projects, and we had several meetings, and sent lots of emails to narrow down projects.

It seemed like everything was in place: good relationships with key stakeholders, confidence with the quality of my work, and a stated desire to work together over the long term.

In both cases, the bottom dropped out at the last minute.

AND, both times the reason was the same: “We got ahead of ourselves. There isn’t as much work as we originally anticipated.”

This is a frustrating and a confusing thing to hear.  It’s frustrating because I was looking forward to making some money and to working with a new client that I admired.  It’s confusing because both sides of the equation have already put 6-12 hours into the negotiation at this point.  All the emails, meetings, and planning sessions add up to a decent amount of time that I’d already committed to the project, and you know that the other company has put in a similar amount of effort.

So what happened?  

In my case, I am pretty sure that the following things went wrong.

In one instance, I priced myself out of the job.  I did my research on a good market rate for the work, but I could tell in the final conversation that the price I laid out didn’t leave enough headroom for them in the contract.  It was disappointing, because I had tried to leave plenty of room for contract negotiation, and I would have been happy to negotiate an initial project rate and then revisit my rate later on.  I wanted to work with the company, but I missed the boat on this because I priced myself incorrectly.

Side Note: Pricing is a huge part of being a consultant.  You don’t want to undervalue yourself, and you can’t charge the same rate you’d make working 40 hours a week because you won’t bill a full 40 hours.  Half that time (or more) is spent on biz dev (case in point), on administration, and on all the other minutiae of running your own business.  Assume you get to bill 20 hours a week at $20/hr.  Take out 2 weeks vacation and you’re making $20k a year before taxes, and without benefits.  The basic math is $<rate> x 20 (hours) X 50 (weeks) = Gross Salary.  $40/hr will mean $40k a year, before taxes and expenses.

In the second case, the problem was that I didn’t sell the quantitative value of my work well enough.  We talked ideas, and we talked about general strategic needs, but I didn’t zoom in on a specific area that I could move the needle on immediately.  When the person I was talking to spent one meeting diagraming out the costs and values associated with each group under his management, I knew that I hadn’t conveyed well enough how adding my warm body to the mix would equal more revenue associated with his domain inside the company.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that you could say that about both situations.  I didn’t sell my value specifically enough to either company. If I had, they wouldn’t have gotten cold feet at the last minute.  It’s a case of coming on very strong in the initial conversations, and not following through with enough substance at the end.  At the end of the day, we are going to be evaluated as a line item in a spreadsheet, and we need to sell ourselves accordingly.

Action item: Use this as a learning opportunity to be a better salesman.

That’s definitely my responsibility.

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter


Writing Exercise From Umar Haque Essay “Betterness”

Umar Haque is one of my favorite new business authors.  I found his blog on the HBR list that I follow, and downloaded his short essay Betterness: Economics for Humans onto my Kindle to start reading it.

The essay is short, about 80 pages, and is an ideal read for entrepreneurs and psychology dabblers like me who have been following the Positive Psychology field grow out of Penn.  In the essay, Haque takes the principles of positive psychology and applies them to the economy.  Namely, just as positive psychology recast the paradigm of mental health from therapy to fix mental and emotional problems, into coaching for peak mental and emotional performance, we can also think of world economies as something to be optimized as well.

Umar does a brilliant job to redefine “wealth” as more than stakeholder returns.  He uses the word wealth in reference to higher order returns: emotional growth, social connection, emotional health, job satisfaction, to name a few.  Here’s a post that will elucidate this movement is already happening.

Just like business coaches help executives reach their peak performance, we can also envision economies measuring themselves according to higher-order returns, and performing at their peak instead of half-hearted therapeutic attempts to remedy wage stagnation and widening economic inequality.

“A move away from business towards betterness.”

Umar takes the mission statements of a few growing companies and singles them out as exemplars of growing wealth in human terms: emotional, social, personal, and mental wealth, as well as monetary.  He gives examples of those higher-order returns and challenges corporations and entrepreneurs to begin measuring their success according to the things they want the world to have tomorrow that it lacks today.  It’s a much-needed expansion on how we define “wealth” in human terms.

I carved out a simple writing exercise to help me think about the impact that I want to have on the world, and then how to measure it.  I’ve taken Umar’s lexicon from the book, and applied it to a simple set of questions that can be answered over time to develop a new business, a personal manifesto, or to re-examine how an existing business is measuring their impact and growth in terms of Purpose, Products over Trinkets, and how to create true value chains.

Let me know what you guys think:

  1. What kinds of higher-order returns to I want the world to have tomorrow that it doesn’t have today?
  2. Which kinds of precise benefits to I want to return, and to whom?
  3. How can I measure the human wealth that I create?
  4. Specify the Common Wealth with precision and accuracy.
    1. Whose wealth will be enhanced?
    2. Who will benefit most from what is put back into the economy’s buckets?
    3. Who will gain the wealth created?
    4. To whose common wealth will I add?
    5. How will the created wealth be enjoyed in common, shared amongst the community?
    6. How will the wealth created enrich others as well?

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter


Coffee With: Karen Borchert, Director of Products at Phase2

One of the coolest things that I do every week is have lunch or coffee with someone interesting or influential in Austin, Texas.  I’ve been meeting and developing relationships with all sorts of really awesome Austinites for the past few months, so I decided to start posting about the meetings on my blog.  You’ll read about the awesome stuff these people are creating, their causes, and what I learned from them.

Karen Borchert and I met at Austin Java to talk about Entrepreneurship in Austin

Karen Borchert and I met at Austin Java to talk about Entrepreneurship in Austin

Yesterday, I had coffee (she had a latte, I had a huge espresso) at Austin Java with Karen Borchert, Director of Products at Phase2, an open-source technology services company serving publishing, public policy and non-profit clients globally.  Karen has founded and run NPOs as well as the social venture, Keen Guides, a video tour company with accessibility in mind.

We met to talk about Social Entrepreneurship in Austin.  Actually, one of the first things that we did was acknowledge that many of the ventures in Austin are simply more socially focused than in many other cities, simply because of the local culture.  Karen pointed out that so many of the startup companies in Austin have an eye towards sustainability or are as equally cause-based as they are profit driven.  She pointed to the work that Suzi Sosa is doing at the Dell Social Innovation Challenge as a prime example.

Since I have been talking with a handful of entrepreneurs about creating a social entrepreneurship incubator in Austin, I gave Karen the big picture of the project, and asked for her feedback.  She is an alumnus of the LaunchBox Program in DC, and shared some of her insight about what makes an incubator successful.

It was a good coffee conversation until we started wrapping up, and I asked her to please “call bullshit” on my pitch.

[blackbirdpie url=”!/austingunter/status/164137504998572034″]

That was when the conversation actually got interesting.

I’ll summarize the big idea that she put forth.

Startups need funding, whether bootstrapped or invested, to pay for the following:

  1. Excellent Developers to build the right technology tools
  2. Designers to create an identity, brand, and product
  3. Legal filings
  4. Media / Content
  5. Sales / Marketing

Incubators traditionally pair entrepreneurs with investment in exchange for equity so the entrepreneurs can fund 1-5.  But often, a new venture doesn’t know who to use or how to vet potential technologists, designers, or other service providers for their venture, and they waste a lot of money and time trying to find the right folks.  Karen suggested that an incubator might be more successful by taking the same equity, but instead of handing the startup cash, handing them a bucket of time from a tested, trusted, stellar talent network that would provide the development, design, sales, marketing, etc.

Instead of giving cash to a company with no idea as to the quality of the service provider it will eventually go to, foster a symbiotic network of high-quality start-ups and high-caliber service providers.

If the concept worked, the incubator would shift the focus of entrepreneurship towards the development of the people involved in startup companies, instead of on getting funded.  The service providers / engineers would be served by getting market rates for their services while also giving them a chance to work in startup companies.  The idea people could retain the services of great service providers to help them ship products.

Karen’s thesis statement was, “I think most people would love to work at a startup if they could just find a way to get paid.”

As I mull this over, the question of how to split equity comes up, as well as the very real problem of this model not eliciting 100% commitment from all parties and people walking away when things get rough.  I hear Angel Investors say that there is no substitute for the commitment of founders who have already sunk a year or two and tens of thousands of dollars into a venture.

But, I don’t think the amount of money invested comes before entrepreneurial commitment.  I think commitment is the driving force behind an entrepreneur who invests his or her own money into making an idea work.  The amount of money is equal to the time it took the entrepreneur to prove to the world that they were right.

Karen, thanks for spending the afternoon talking with me.

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

On the set: We Are Austin Tech Interviews

Joshua Baer and Josh Jones-Dilworth on the Set for We Are Austin Tech

Saturday afternoon, I volunteered as a “production assistant” for We Are Austin Tech.  My job was to record timestamps for each interview question and transcribe the answers.  I took about 15 pages of notes over the course of the afternoon, and got to listen to interviews from some amazing entrepreneurs that I admire for how they live their lives and the challenges that they take on.

Basically it was an inspiring way to spend a Saturday.  Thanks to Joshua Baer for inviting me to help out, and to the whole crew, led by Austen Trimble, for being so awesome to spend the day with.  Amazing and talented people.

Biggest epiphany: Bijoy Goswami, in his interview, defined “bootstrapping” as the process of discovering your personal business model…a process that can take up to 10 years for some entrepreneurs.

I had never defined bootstrapping as a primarily personal discovery, instead of a business model one.  I’ve always mentally blurred the line between the business model and the entrepreneur – not all models work for all entrepreneurs – but I hadn’t articulated the connection so clearly.

It means that as of this year, I am officially a bootstrapper.  It feels good to say that.

Risk means losing your balance

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  To not dare is to lose one’s self.”

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Existential Philosopher and Theologian said that.  I love Keirkegaard’s work because he explores our emotion and choice when we as people face big life decisions.

“Facing a big life decision” is a fancy way of saying making an choice that will change my life.  We say a decision is important because it alters the current balance our life in a substantial way.  Once we’ve made a big choice, there is no turning back.  Choosing where I eat lunch isn’t typically a life-altering event.  There isn’t a lot of risk involved.  Choosing to live in Santiago Chile when I was 20 changed my life forever.

Choosing to start a new project, or start a new business carries a great deal of risk with it.  If things don’t go as planned, the business could fail.  We could fail.  Whatever the outcome, it can take time to regain a sense of balance.

Earlier this week, I wrote that I am moving out my parents’ house because it will make my life less stable.  The goal is to lose my footing in order to not lose my dreams.  I am choosing to take a risk, and I feel afraid because I know that might fail.  The fear can get in our way if we bow to it.  Recently, I’ve decided that if I’m feeling fear then I’m doing the right thing and pushing my comfort zone.  It means I’m making progress.

Here’s another quote from Kierkegaard:

During the first period of a man’s life, the greatest danger is to not take the risk.

When I feel afraid, I remind myself of this.  I am 25, and I don’t have much to lose.  With each year that passes, I have more to lose.  Now is not the time to wait for something to happen to me.  Now is the time risk failure in order to make something happen.

Two weeks ago, I was talking about risk with a mentor of mine, and she reminded me that taking a risk is like riding a Segway.  Segways won’t move forward until the person riding them risks losing their balance and leans forward.  Segways move when rider leans forward past the point of being balanced. Right now, if you stood up and started to lean forward, once your center of gravity passed your toes, your body would fall forward.  The human body is programmed to prevent you falling on your face.  Once you lean too far forward, your foot steps forward and catches you.  You’ve almost fallen, but you’ve also taken a step forward.  If you didn’t lose your balance, you would have stayed in the same place.

The Segway works the same way.  Only once the rider leans forward and loses their balance the gyroscopes kick in and the Segway moves forward.  The farther forward the rider leans, the faster the Segway moves.  It’s natural to feel uncomfortable when you lean forward like this. If you’ve ridden a Segway, you know the sensation of almost falling over right before you start moving.  After a few times, most people learn to trust that the Segway is not going to let them fall flat on their face.

Instead of a wheelchair, I rode a Segway all 4 years of college.  My arthritis was very bad those four years, and  I rode the Segway to class every day.  I forgot how scary it was the first time I rode it.  Leaning into the risk and trusting the Segway became natural.  Trust was my segue through the pain of walking and helped me graduate from college.

The YouTube video below is me riding my Segway across the stage at graduation to accept my diploma.

Taking a risk is the only way I know to segue from one stage of life to the next.  And once I get comfortable with one risk, it seems like it’s always time to take the next one.

What is your Segway?

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter


PS: Kierkegaard also said that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”  Here’s to your anxiety.