Interview on IdeaMensch

Honored to have been included in IdeaMensch earlier this week.  What a cool format for interviews, like a radio interview via text.

Ryan Vaughn is the co-founder of Varsity News Network, the largest, fastest-growing network for school sports. VNN’s product is a turnkey content production platform for high school and middle school sports that facilitates the digital communication of more than 1,000 schools nationwide.

“It’s incredibly important to focus on a growth model that’s replicable,” Vaughn says. “Focus on the smallest unit of growth that you can put a dollar into, and get more than a dollar out of, along with growth. It’s critical not to focus on “whales” in the early days; instead, focus on the small growth engines that can scale with additional capital.”

Read the full article here:

Job #1: Scaling Culture


Yesterday, Erik sent the entire team a link to this blog post by AirBnb’s Brian Chesky, entitled “Don’t F*ck Up the Culture.”

It’s brilliant, and doubly so because of the context in which Erik circulated it around VNN.

We’ve doubled the size of our team over the last 45 days, not only in Grand Rapids but across the country.  It’s a time of incredible momentum (multiple sales & traffic records), but also risk, as each new team member brings with her the opportunity to either extend, or derail, the culture that we’ve built.

Scaling software requires scaling servers, optimizing code and adding infrastructure.  Scaling people requires scaling culture.  The stakes are higher than running a high-traffic app on GoDaddy.

Everyone at VNN expects themselves, and everyone around them, to Move the F’n Needle.  This is our greatest strength.  And to achieve our potential, above all we must not compromise the expectations we have for ourselves, and for one another.  We must be intentional about our culture in everything we do, and very selective on who we allow to join us, even amidst incredible pressure to hit goals, and fill positions according to plan.

We owe our success thus far to an intentionally crafted culture of empowerment, teamwork, accountability and entrepreneurship, from every role within VNN.  And as Erik illustrated, it is our shared responsibility, in everything we do, to protect it.

It’s up to entrepreneurs to lead

A friend of mine said this to me today:

I’m a big Brad Feld fan, and he makes a point of saying out startup ecosystems have to be led by entrepreneurs, not investors. That makes you one of the most important people in town! (no pressure …) I love what Start Garden is doing, but entrepreneurs gotta lead. We’re all looking up to you …

I’m also a huge Brad Feld fan (check out his post on this topic if you haven’t yet.  I’ll be here when you get back), and I remember agreeing wholeheartedly with this idea when he talked with Grand Rapids via Google Hangout in the Spring.  I would argue that there are a large, large number of entrepreneurs more successful than I in Grand Rapids, but the concept is dead on.  And hearing it again like it was the first time hit me like a punch in the gut, particularly since I’ve been so head’s down recently in growing VNN.

Yeah, I’ve been working hard.  But in another way, equally important but different, I’ve been slacking.

To illustrate: the StartGarden grand opening event this weekend was actually my first time being at a gathering of entrepreneurs in at least 90 days.  That sucks, especially for someone who likes startups as much as I do.

Yes, I think there are times when you absolutely need to barrel through.  Like when you’ve just closed a round by promising the world, and now you have to deliver.

But in doing so it’s also important to recognize the cost, to yourself and the place you call home.

I have no illusions that I have gotten where I am on my own, so I know the vital importance of the ecosystem lifting the entrepreneur to new heights.  I have an ironic amount of people to thank for my company.

I’m privileged to be a part of the renaissance of Grand Rapids, and while StartGarden is certainly taking a leadership role, my friend was right.  It’s up to us to lead.

Putting makeup on your company

People work to look attractive, because it gets you what you want.  You buy fancy clothes, put “product” in your hair and makeup on your face, covering up blemishes and accentuating features in an effort to appeal to the world by showing the best version of yourself.

If you’ve ever seen one of those celebrities without makeup magazines, you can’t deny that it works.  Not only are you more likely to date the manicured version of Jessica Alba than the normal version, you’re also more likely to jump start her car or help her carry groceries.  And yes, you’re more likely to invest in her company.

The reality is that your best self, the one you spend time curating, gets you more of what you want.

As a founder, you want things.  Partners, investors, employees, customers — you’re always looking for people to help bring your vision to life.  So why would you talk about your company’s challenges when you meet someone new?  You’re squeezing a huge pimple right in their face.

And then you ask them for a date.  Yup, that’ll work.

Sure, your company has pimples — so does every other company in the world.  But your company also has great hair, or a sharp sense of humor or an incredible smile.

You can choose to discuss either aspect, but it’s your smile that will get you what you want.

My Alma Mater gives a shout out

GVSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation just put out an article about founding a company in college, using me as the example.

@GVSU_CEI was formative in the creation of my current company, Varsity News Network.  They’re a young CEI, and they certainly have room to grow, but they’re hustlers.

Lead by Kevin McCurren and Shorouq Almallah, CEI is a huge driving force behind the development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in West Michigan.

If you’re starting a company, they should be a first stop — triage to every resource in the region.  If you need a connection to them, hit me up.

What a leader looks like: Honoring Mike Jandernoa

One of the leaders of the West Michigan entrepreneurial community was honored today.  Mike Jandernoa is the guy responsible for taking Perrigo from a $30M private company to a $2.5BN public firm.

I could go into his philanthropic resume, but that’s all over the net (his mentoring organization, for example).  Suffice to say he is as generous as they come.

I had the opportunity and honor to be a part of Mike’s video, during which time he told me that at two different points in his career, he believed so strongly that what he was doing would work, that he put everything on the line.  That stuck, as a reminder of what leadership looks like.

So I wanted to share that vision of the consummate leader in the video below.

You’ll notice he doesn’t mention himself.

Patience is a virtue, even for startups

I’ve noticed something in myself recently, that has caused more than a couple frustrations.  Our team will pull in a bunch of data from customers and develop a plan.  We’ve examined all options, and everybody’s in agreement that this is our best option, and we break the huddle to get to it.  Figure it’s about a 30-day project.

Then a couple days go by, the team is just getting into the groove, and I get the urge to revisit the plan again.  We’ve barely begun to execute the first plan, and I’m already tinkering with plan B.

By itself this isn’t such a bad thing, although it does suck up bandwidth that might be better spent elsewhere.  The real problem, so I’ve learned, comes in excitedly sharing plan B with the team as they’re neck-deep in executing plan A.

The excitement is natural, because plan B is shiny and new, while it’s clear by now that plan A is going to take work (after all, it’s been a couple days now for chrissakes).  But there’s not too many more effective ways to kill productivity than to explain to someone the merits of what they’ll be doing after they fail at their current project.

Part of what makes an entrepreneur is the need to change things to make them better.  But when your team is still busy validating plan A, have patience.  Consider keeping plan B in Evernote.

Other good reading on the value of patience for an entrepreneur:


Man-sized Jenga


How about some man-sized Jenga for Memorial Day?

No more puny, child Jenga, Lowe’s will hook you up. Next year we’re using 4×6 for maximum manliness.

I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure our troops would be proud.