Today’s guest on The Successful Pitch is John Chisholm, the author of Unleash Your Inner Company. He has such an impressive background from MIT and Harvard and has coached thousands of entrepreneurs on how to be successful. He shares those secrets with us today. In fact, he said, “Passion is an attitude but perseverance is a behavior.” He does a deep dive into the psychology of growing your mind from the inside out. He really shares what he looks for when he hears a pitch as an investor. I think you’re going to get a lot of value into learning what it takes to reduce the risk by hitting certain milestones and showing an upside potential so that your pitch becomes irresistible. Enjoy the episode.
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Unleash Your Inner Company with John Chisholm
I am thrilled to have John Chisholm today as my special guest. John has an amazing background. He went to MIT. In fact, he’s now president of the MIT Alumni Association. From there, he went to Harvard. He was one of the early employees at Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Valley. He has an amazing book called Unleash Your Inner Company. He has also founded two companies. He co-founded a third. He sold a fourth company. He’s advised literally thousands of entrepreneurs across five continents. John, welcome to the show.
John, thanks so much for having me.
I have so much respect and insight for what you’re doing. You have such an amazing career and journey. Let’s start with this whole concept of you’ve been both an entrepreneur and an angel investor. Let’s just dive right in. What do you listen for when you hear a pitch?
I think it’s helpful to have been an entrepreneur, when you’re both evaluating pitches and trying to be helpful to entrepreneurs, I listen very closely for a real unsatisfied customer need. Until I hear one, it’s hard for me to get very excited or to be very focused on the opportunity. So many entrepreneurs focus on their really cool technology rather than a real customer need. I like to say, I started my first company with a really cool technology for which there was no customer need. It took me six to nine months to let go of that cool technology and swap it in favor of something for which there was a real customer need, namely doing surveys on the internet.
My first company which I founded in 1992 was Decisive Technology which published the first software for automated surveys via email and later via the internet. Start with a real customer need, that way you know that your business will be addressing a real customer need. It’s okay to use your resources, including your technologies if you have some, to suggest real customer needs, but make certain that you’re satisfying one. In the book, I talk about ways to come up with a potentially infinite number of unsatisfied customer needs even just in the areas you’re passionate about and to test them and to confirm that they’re real.
How do you suggest somebody test that the problem is real? Do you have any ideas on that?
Yes. First of all, let me talk about how you come up with unsatisfied customer needs. Start with any product or service in an area that you’re passionate about. For example, you’re passionate about running. One of the products and services we runners use are running shoes. Then ask yourself, what are the limitations of that product or service? I can think of three for my running shoes. Number one, they start to smell after I’ve worn them too many times. Two, if I want to change the shoelaces to match the color of my outfit, it’s a hassle to thread and re-thread them every time, two laces of different colors. Three, the shoes don’t tell me how far I’ve run or how fast I’ve run and they should know that, shouldn’t they? Those are three possible customer needs.
I have to confirm that they’re real and unsatisfied. Real means that other people besides just me have the need that means talking to people, going online seeing if other people seem to have the need, doing interviews. Also, I have to confirm that they’re unsatisfied, which means that another product or service isn’t already satisfying them. That means seeing what products and services are currently available, going to shoe stores. If I can satisfy myself that they are real and unsatisfied, great. That’s an opportunity for me to come up with a possible solution to that need. Let’s say, I can’t find anyone who addresses the problem of changing shoelaces easily to match the color of my outfit. That’s an opportunity to be creative and maybe I can think of a way to let a set of shoelaces to snap on or off. For the other needs, the shoes that smell and the shoes that don’t tell me how far or fast I’ve run, there are obviously solutions for those footpads and sprays and so forth.
Then ask yourself, what are the limitations of those solutions? Sprays have to be done every day. Footpads have to be changed frequently. What if there were a way to go for weeks or months without having to use the spray or change the footpads? That would have some advantages over the current product. Now, I have a new potential customer need that is the leftover need from the original need that’s not fully satisfied by the product or service currently available. Similarly, for the shoes that don’t tell me how far or fast I’ve run, there are solutions to those. There are Fitbits, there are odometers and so forth that you can wear while you’re running, but those I have to put on and take off. What if there was a way to have it built into the shoes so that I didn’t have to worry about putting it on or taking it off? Then that’s another potential need.
You can see I started out with a single product or service in an area that I’m passionate about. It blossoms into a tree of potential unsatisfied customer needs that I can consider evaluating. That’s how you can get a potentially infinite number of unsatisfied customer needs from even just one product or service in an area that you’re passionate about.
That’s so helpful. I’m always telling everybody: when you pitch, paint a picture. You just did that for us, John. You talked about it blossoming into a tree and you showed us how each branch leads to another branch by this logical way of exploring what the problem is. You’re really getting into the head of a potential customer’s problem that they may not have even thought about. “Yeah, my shoes smell.” They accept it. If you can really figure out a way to prevent that, they would love it. That’s really helpful.
John, sometimes I hear from budding entrepreneurs, “What if my areas that I’m passionate about aren’t very business oriented?” Let’s say I’m passionate about long hot baths, kittens and comic books. None of these sound very businesslike, do they? But even in these areas, there are potentially an infinite number of unsatisfied customer needs.
Warm hot baths. People like to read, listen to music, talk on the phone when they’re in the tub. How about a floating waterproof case for my iPad or iPhone that lets me do those things when I’m in the tub? Kittens. They lose a lot of their cuddliness when they grow up to be cats, don’t they? What about a diet or genetic therapy that allowed a kitten to stay a kitten its entire life? There would be a lot of demand for that, wouldn’t there? Comic books. The hugely successful and popular tradeshow Comic Con in San Diego attracts about 150,000 people. Hugely profitable, people sign up, attend dressed up as their favorite comic book character. No matter what your passion is, even if they don’t seem very businesslike, like those three, there will be unsatisfied customer needs in those areas. You just need to find them.
I love that. I’ve actually been to Comic Con. Talk about finding people who are passionate. This enthusiasm, whether it’s somebody who rides a Harley and they get that tattooed or the Nike people that get the swish tattooed. If you’re that passionate and there’s a whole other group of people that are equally passionate about what you’re doing, that’s great advice, is to focus on solving that problem and you’ll solve other people’s problems. In your book John, you talk about using passion and perseverance as a positive feedback loop, which is just the very beginning of Unleash Your Inner Company. I would love to have you talk about, how we can get a positive feedback loop going in our own head?
What do we mean by positive feedback loop? I mean people or things that reinforce each other. Passion is an attitude, perseverance is a behavior. In many aspects of our lives, our attitudes and behaviors reinforce each other. If I deeply love an activity, you know how the hours can go by like minutes when I’m engaged in that activity. It’s easy to persevere in those circumstances. That’s an example of passion driving perseverance. Similarly, if I just stick with an activity long enough so I start to get good at it and then get better at it and then start to like it and then start to love it, that’s an example of perseverance driving passion.
If you can think of any aspect of your life where you’ve experienced this positive feedback between passion and perseverance, that’s probably a really good area to consider starting a new business. It could be in any realm of life. It could be in family, sports, some area of scholarship, travel. You name it.
You talk about the psychology of entrepreneurship, and certainly passion and perseverance is a big part of that. Is there anything else that you want to share with us about the importance of the psychology of entrepreneurship?
I have an entire chapter in the book called Growing Your Mind from the Inside Out. It’s really hard to start a business. You’ll run up against lots of obstacles. I talk about many of the obstacles I’ve run up against in the last 25 years starting businesses. I’ve had to lay off people, cut back salaries, factor receivables so I had enough cash to make payroll. At one point I reduced my salary to minimum wage. We had to move to smaller more modest offices. All of these are hard and humbling steps to take. You have to be very deliberate about building your own self confidence to be successful as an entrepreneur in my experience, or at least it’s helpful to do so.
In this chapter, Growing Your Mind from the Inside Out, I offer a number of techniques. One of the techniques I offer is this: If there is some aspect of yourself that you genuinely can’t change, find a way to view it as an asset. I use myself as an example. When I was in my early 30’s, I accepted the fact that I’m gay. Most people wouldn’t view that as an asset, at least from a business standpoint. I disagree. For me, it’s been an asset for at least five different reasons.
One, when you are growing up gay, you know unambiguously with absolute certainty that at least some of the world’s routine assumptions aren’t wrong. People routinely assume that guys are attracted to girls and vice versa. You know that it’s not universally correct. I think growing up gay has helped me not necessarily accept the status quo, think outside the box. That’s made me a better entrepreneur and executive. Two, it wasn’t socially acceptable to be openly gay when I was growing up and so at least some of the energy I might’ve put into dating, I put into sports, studying and career instead. 30 years later, I’m hugely enjoying the benefit of that early investment. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone to MIT if I hadn’t been gay.
Three, I’m not a minority in any sense that I can think of other than being gay, so it has sensitized me to what it’s like to be a minority. Four, when people see that I’m not trying to hide my sexual orientation, they can see I’m being honest with them and that helps build trust between us. Five, I think it further conveys that I have strength and reserve if I can be open about the fact that I’m gay.
Similarly, if there’s some aspect of yourself that you genuinely can’t change, find a way to view it as an asset. Set the bar very high. Don’t use this as an excuse to accept some aspect of yourself that you can change and would like to change. If you genuinely can’t change it, if you can find a way to view it as an asset, it’ll be hugely empowering for you as it was for me. That aspect of yourself will become one of your strengths.
A few years ago, I was telling this exact same story to a group of undergraduates in Guatemala in an auditorium. About half way back in the auditorium, a young man was sitting. As I spoke, he slowly made a fist and gently moved it up to his chest and pressed it against his chest. At first I thought it was a small gesture of agreement or support for what I was saying. Then, when I looked again, I could see he wasn’t making a fist at all. His hand had no fingers on it. I imagine he was saying, “This I cannot change. This is my strength.”
How moving. I love what you said so much. I personally relate to it as I’m also gay. I know that before I was comfortable talking about that, it was always a secret that you’re keeping. In order for anybody to trust you, I’m a big believer that before anybody wants to work with you, hire you, invest in you, they have to trust you. The best way to be trustworthy is to be authentically who you are, because otherwise people feel like you’re hiding something and they can’t put their finger on it. If you’re comfortable with who you are, more times out of not then other people are too. They pick up your energy, whether you like yourself or not. Thank you for sharing that so much. It’s so great.
One of the questions I always get asked by people I’m helping with their pitch is, “Is this the right time for me to be looking for money? Do I have to have a lot of traction or can I get funded with just an idea and a minimum viable product?” What are your thoughts on that?
I definitely think there are right times in a startup’s life to raise money. They’re not when you’re running out of cash. Then you have no credibility or negotiating leverage at all. They’re not even when you’re about to run out of money. I would say that the right times are when you either, A) significantly in reduced risk or B) significantly increase your upside potential as perceived by the investor. Let me say a word or two about both of those.
First of all, significantly reduced risk as perceived by the investor. What do I mean by that? Each time your company reaches a milestone, such as a positive cash flow of revenue, your first customer, your first working prototype, each time you reach one of those milestones, you have eliminated a risk in the business. If you have positive cash flow, you’ve eliminated the risk that you can get revenue. If you have revenue, you’ve eliminated the risk that you can get customers. If you have customers, you’ve eliminated the risk that the market will accept your product. If your market is accepting the product, that eliminates the risk that your prototype works, and so forth. Each time you can reach one of those milestones you have significantly eliminated or reduced a risk to the investor.
If you’re about to achieve one of those milestones, that’s a particularly good time to raise money, both before and after. Let’s say you’re very confident that you’ll achieve one those milestones in the next 60 to 90 days, schedule a time to visit the investor. Layout your value-add, the customer need that you satisfy, your solution, your team, your track record and so forth. Say to them that in the next 60 to 90 days, you will achieve this milestone. Then, ask if you can come back 60 to 90 days later after you’ve done so. Then go ahead, achieve that milestone, go back and talk to the investor again. That starts building your credibility with the investor even before they become an investor.
I love that. You said two things that I really want people to have as a big take away. One, don’t wait until you’re running out of money to seek money because you’re desperate. Just like in dating, nobody wants to date someone who’s “desperate.” What you just said here is just so important. Investors invest in who you are, your integrity and how you think. John just laid out for you step by step what to do, to prove that you have integrity, that you do what you say you’re going to do because you have thought through something. That your word means something because then they know if they invest in you going forward and you say you’re going to deliver a milestone, odds are you will because you’ve already proven it to them.
Beautiful, John. Thank you so much. They may or may not invest in that round but they’ll remember, “Those were the guys who said that they were going to do X and who did X.” You’ve made a positive impression, they could well be investors on the subsequent round. That’s one set of times when it is a good time to raise money, in my experience. A second set of times are the converse of reducing risk, which is right after you increase upside potential.
One of the things I talk about in the book, Unleash Your Inner Company, is the bowling pin model. Think of the growth of your business over the next three to five years as a series of bowling pins. You knock down the first bowling pin, that bowling pin helps you knock down the next bowling pin, the next, and next and so forth. Each of the bowling pins is a customer or market opportunity. It could be a city. It could be a vertical market.
Let’s say you’re located in San Francisco. Your first bowling pin might be the region of San Francisco, where you live. Your next bowling pin might be the city of San Francisco. Then the next bowling pin might be Oakland, which is a nearby city, then Sacramento, then San Jose, then Los Angeles. Establishing a market presence and awareness and customer base in each of those cities will help you further penetrate the next city. These bowling pins could be vertical markets instead. If you’re in IT, maybe it’s accounting as an application for your software. Maybe it’s supply chain management, maybe it’s customer relationship management and so forth. You could grow that way.
What builds confidence in the investor’s mind that your company has upside potential is when it’s really credible, that by knocking down one bowling pin, it will indeed help you knock down the next bowling pin, the next and so forth. One way that you can help build that credibility is by showing that you’ve knocked down one bowling pin and it is helping you already start to knock down the next bowling pin. I’ve got a set of customers in one vertical market, maybe the markets are like retail, maybe they’re B2B customers in retail financial services, telecom and so forth. Maybe your initial set of customers is in financial services and you are expanding from that base into retail or into telecom or vice versa. The first few customers that you get in the telecom space or whatever the next bowling pin is, that builds the credibility that it really is true that by knocking down one bowling pin you can knock down many bowling pins.
Again, another really good time to raise money right before and after, when you’re very confident that the first customer or cluster of customers in the adjacent vertical market or whatever the market is will be knocked down. Let your potential investors know that you’ll be achieving that within 60 to 90 days. Go out and do it, then come back to them 60 to 90 days later and show them that you’ve done it. This technique is like a two-edge sword. If you succeed in doing what you set out to do and said you’re going to do, it is a huge win. If you fall significantly short of doing what you said you were going to do, that’s a big negative. You want to be very confident that you are going to achieve whatever it is you’re going to achieve in the next 60 to 90 days. If you need to wait a little bit longer to make absolutely certain that you’re going to do it, that is something you might well consider. All of this raises the question, how would I fund my business in the interim until I’m at a point to raise money?
In the book, I laid out three different ways to fund your business in the interim until you’re at a point where you can attract outside investment. They are, number one, living frugally yourself. In the book, I offered the example of my friend, Nick Winter, a successful entrepreneur here in San Francisco, who has reduced his physical possessions to exactly 99 things. He has one laptop, one cellphone, two pairs of jeans, one wedding ring and so forth. My list on 99 things is in the book. This is an extreme case of minimalist living, which seems to me is an emerging trend.
I know that I have experienced downsizing from a big spacious three-story town house in Menlo Park to a compact town house in the town of San Francisco seven years ago. When I did, I had a whole new sense of freedom from having to take care of day to day maintenance on my house. When I clean out a closet or my kitchen and free up space in the closets, I have a new set of freedom and spaciousness. I haven’t gone to the extreme that Nick has but I can certainly empathize with how simplifying your life and minimalist living frees up mindshare and money to invest in your business. In the book, I talk about how skipping Starbucks can save you $1,250 a year, which is enough to buy a very nice coffee machine with gourmet coffee for several employees for the first few months that you’re in business. Living frugally is one technique, and freeing up mind share, resources and cash to invest in your business.
Two is providing services. If there is some skill that you are uniquely skilled at and expert at, then potentially you can offer those services as a way to generate revenue to fund your business. For my second company, which was in enterprise feedback management, which means automating the customer feedback and surveys for corporations, we had learned about that field from my first company, Decisive. The second company was called CustomerSat, the website is still CustomerSat.com. We had early experience in doing surveys. For my second company, we used the product of my first company to do large scale surveys for corporations and used the earnings that we made from those services to fund the development of our platform for the second company.
You can do the same. Use whatever skills you have to generate cash to fund the development of your new technology. If the skills that you’re providing or the services you’re providing relate to the new business, so much the better. In fact, that’s the ideal case because there you’re not only generating funds, but you’re building customer relationships, you’re learning about customer requirements and all of that. You can fold it into the new company that you’re starting.
The third way is friends and family. If your friends and family see that you’re living frugally, see that you’re serious enough about your venture to provide services to fund it, then that will show them how serious you are about that new venture and make them receptive to consider investing in your new venture or lending to you for your new venture. Those are three techniques that you could use before you reach the point where you’re ready to either get crowd funding, angel investing or approach a venture capital firm.
That’s so helpful. Live frugally so that investors feel like you’re going to be good stewards of their money. Provide a service as a way to generate additional revenue for yourself in the interim. Especially if, let’s say, you’re really great at tech and that’s what you’re bringing to your start up, then you could probably get hired as a tech consultant. Those people that are hiring you could even become customers. I always like to say, if you really hit the jackpot, you come up with a startup idea that a customer becomes an investor because they love what you’re doing so much. Have you ever seen that or experienced that yourself, John?
Absolutely. The company I co-founded two and a half years ago, Pyze.com, their largest investor came to them directly through one of their customers. Incidentally,if any of your listeners are developing mobile apps, they should check out Pyze.com because the applet gives their mobile app a ton of customer intelligence, free of charge in the basic version of the product.
That’s great. Unleash Your Inner Company has received over 85 five star reviews on Amazon, soon to be 86 when I get on there. How did you come up with the name of your book? I’m always interested in that story of origin.
The catalyst for writing the book was a TED Talk. After I sold my last company in 2009, I was invited to talk to young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. I started out with a 30-minute talk and then a 90-minute talk, then a half-day workshop, and a full-day workshop. Then I was invited to give a TEDx Talk, which meant cutting it back to eighteen minutes. I had a full day of material. I had to figure out what was the most important for the eighteen minutes. That process of deciding what was most important and distilling the most important parts to eighteen minutes was so clarifying. I realized for the first time after I’ve done that I could turn this into a book. That TED Talk is a TEDxUFM, University of San Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala.
That was 2011, I already had a great deal of material to work with. Originally, the name of the talk was Release Your Inner Company but then I changed it to Unleash Your Inner Company because that seemed more powerful. I spent about a day a week in 2011, two days a week 2012. It was a full time activity by 2014. I finally submitted the book to my publisher in 2015. It was five years in the making. A labor of love. Probably on average about a half time activity over that five years. The book came out in October 2015. It’s now been out for almost a year and a half.
What’s the best way for people to follow you? Obviously, we’re going to put the link to buy Unleash Your Inner Company on Amazon. You have a wonderful website called JohnChisholmVentures.com. Your Twitter handle is just your name?
John, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your wisdom, your insight, your passion and your expertise on how we can all learn to unleash our inner company and make it happen with the passion and perseverance that you’ve clearly shown and continue to show in the way that you live your life.
John, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
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