The quaint town of Woodstock, Ill. is known for being the place where the Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day” was filmed, and for its historic main square where the Woodstock Opera House is located. I live in the area and write about technology startups, but I never expected to meet an accomplished tech entrepreneur and author in our fair city until I met Frank Gruber, cofounder of Tech Cocktail, a media company and events organization focused on local tech scenes across the US.
Gruber came to his hometown of Woodstock this fall for his book signing for “Startup Mixology,” which is about the “ingredients” of successful entrepreneurship. At a local bookstore just steps away from the Opera House, he began by talking about the role of celebration in startup success. This caught my attention, and I asked him during our telephone interview how he realized that celebration is an effective element of startup culture.
“It’s interesting because it actually took a while for this to mold in my brain, and realize it’s actually celebration that was missing,” explained Gruber. “I realized that the role of celebration is not being talked about, but should be — it’s used as a motivational tool. Literally creating opportunities to celebrate, so that you can almost document it as a milestone and say, listen, if we do that, then we’re going to celebrate. Because if you don’t, you’re not acknowledging that you’re moving in the right direction.”
Forbes reported in 2010 that Frank Gruber was one of tech’s 20 most media-connected people, and the interviews and testimonies in his book certainly back that up. In our conversation, we also talked about his mentors, the mindset of an entrepreneur, the harsh realities of startups, finding customers, and defining culture.
TechRepublic: Who are some of the entrepreneurs that have had an impact on you personally?
Frank Gruber: It’s going to be a lot of people. I think it takes a village of people to get this down. So I had to learn on the fly, and started reading a lot of books.
One of the first books I read was “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” which has been a New York Times bestseller for some time. Some of the lessons in that book started the rewiring. I thought maybe I could do some real estate, which my dad had done and I knew.
In writing and testing out blog platforms early on, I started looking at stuff by Seth Godin. Other folks that were already out there writing books about turning ideas into action, they were also inspirational.
Once you get out and start connecting online with people, folks like Pete Cashmore from Mashable, and Richard MacManus from ReadWrite, you kind of create a community of folks that are in the same space and do the same thing. But while they are doing similar things, you can still learn from them. Tony Conrad is another one I met early on. He has started a number of companies, and has had several exits. He is also a venture capitalist.
Over time I have learned a lot from a lot of different people, and that’s why you see in the book so many interviews, and so many nuggets from all these people. I’m still collecting, learning, and recalling things that I learned from these folks along the way.
TechRepublic: According to the research of Prof. Savas Sarasvathy discussed in Chapter One, what is unique about the entrepreneur’s mindset? Can someone deliberately cultivate this?
Frank Gruber: The reason for pulling that research in was to show that there’s a difference between the entrepreneurial mindset, and how other people think. I’m a great example. I did not start out thinking this way, and that’s part of the reason why I wrote the book. I started as a developer, and here I am, running a media company and writing a book about how to start companies. A totally different direction, obviously, and it took me about a decade to be able to do it.
You have to become comfortable with certain elements, and start thinking a different way about how you take action. Otherwise you have this risk-averse approach, rather than being able to dive in and see opportunities in problems, as opposed to seeing problems and saying, oh, shoot, that’s going to be hard.
There is an opportunity to rewire yourself, and my hope in the book was to show that is possible through thinking this way. And if you don’t think that way, you can’t get to that point. Or it could take you a while, because it’s a shift, and there is going to be risk tolerance involved — thinking optimistically about how things are going, and re-framing about what could be, instead of saying that’s just not possible.
TechRepublic: What do first-time entrepreneurs need to know about the harsh realities of startups?
Frank Gruber: We brought that section in because I don’t feel that there’s enough attention being paid to the hardships along the way.
The first thing to realize is that it’s not going to be smooth sailing the way you think it might be. But in doing so, you’ve got to realize while hardships are going to happen, you have got to continue to be optimistic in your approach. And that’s where the celebratory moments come in — you can use them to help propel you.
And to be honest with you: first-time entrepreneurs, in some cases, if you are naive, it actually helps you. It sounds ridiculous, but if you don’t know what’s going to hurt you, that may help you at certain points. You may walk into a dark alley, and not realize that you’re in danger!
I don’t think that a lot of folks who are diving in because startups are hot realize that you have to be okay with doing this for a decade, or just under. And if that’s something you want to devote yourself to, then you should go all in.
TechRepublic: Steve Blank says startups need to engage in customer development, that is — constant contact with customers. How does a techie with a passionate product idea do this and avoid the common pitfalls of product focus?
Frank Gruber: We have all done it. I’ve done it. There are examples in the book. We all get hung up on this problem, and we are obsessed with it, and we want to change the world. Well, that’s great, that energy is perfect. Now you have to go in and see whether customers actually care about that.
I think the key is immediately checking yourself. You have got this amazing passion and product you’ve identified, because maybe you’re in this niche space and you realize that, wow, this is a hurdle for all these people. You’ve got to go back and do a test, and it doesn’t have to be with a lot of people. It could be something as simple as a litmus test with a small group of beta testers, and then get feedback. Are people doing what you thought they were going to do?
You need to find your customers quickly, rather than being super passionate about your product, because that could change. You might realize that the customer doesn’t think the way you think, and if you’re building this thing in a vacuum, then they will never know about your product.
TechRepublic: Chapter Nine of “Startup Mixology” is about culture. How do new teams and entrepreneurs figure out their organizational culture?
Frank Gruber: It starts with the core team. A lot of times when you are starting, it is the founders and that first level of team members who create culture. And that culture gets moved on to the rest of the new employees. And as that company evolves, the culture evolves.
With us, it was just myself and a couple others, and thus our culture at Tech Cocktail was based on how we interacted and worked together. And we formalized that once our team got bigger, when we had about a dozen people. We actually did an off-site kind of thing, where we actually went out and said, here’s what we think the culture should look like. What do you guys think? What are our core values? What do you think we should stand for? And obviously it starts with a mission, and you build your culture around that with your core values.
Once you realize what the cultural core values are, you can actually use those as a guide for decisions, as well as for when something goes wrong. For example, if somebody doesn’t do something in line with what the core values are, instead of scolding them, you can actually point and say, hey guys, what went wrong here? What core value did we not follow, and how can we correct this? Versus making it about them, it’s about how we messed up on the cultural side.