The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Category: Entrepreneurship (Page 1 of 2)


Startup confession: I hate validation with a passion. Not the process of it (whatever that process is, anyway), but the expectations that have been placed on it.

Validation is supposed to determine whether an idea is worth commercializing. The theory is that the innovator goes through a series of processes that lead to a black-and-white answer: either yes, this opportunity will obviously make me a zillionaire; or no, this opportunity should die on the vine. Validation becomes the insurance policy against failure and, with failure being a fate worse than death in many innovation circles, it’s be-all, end-all.

Let me be clear: no one ever, ever, ever does this.* Why else do you think that 90% of startups fail?

The problem is that we’re mostly wired to pursue the new and shiny, to say yes rather than no. Consciously or unconsciously, instead of validating the idea (i.e. empirically determining whether to move to the next step using a rigorous, data-oriented methodology), we try to rationalize all of the reasons to move forward. While we usually need about six positive messages to make up for one negative one, in our “validation” process, we tend to focus on all the data that we’ve got that says that we should keep pushing forward with commercialization.

There are plenty of articles about how best to validate (caution: whatever validation is, it is not a five-minute process), so I won’t duplicate the efforts of the many who are trying to sell you some sort of secret sauce. However, there are four big things that tend to be make-or-break when deciding to pursue a new idea. They are:

  • Degree of Differentiation – Your idea needs to be different enough to compete against other solutions while being tough to duplicate (technically or legally).
  • Market Size – The business needs to pursue a market big enough to meet your goals, whether that’s just to put food on your table or to make enough return to attract investment
  • Resources – You need the time to pursue it, a team that can compliment your strengths, and the financial resources to fill in the gaps, all from the first flick of the light bulb to the moment you put out the “for sale” sign.
  • Marketing 4Ps – Product, place, price, and promotion; they all need to work together to make the awareness-interest-decision-action cycle as short as humanly possible.

There’s other stuff, of course, but these are the big four. If you can rationalize this publicly with your right hand on a stack of enter-your-sacred-text-here, then you’ve done great work. This is what most people want when they want validation. They want some data, some third-party information that shows that you’re not a mad scientist.

For extra credit, I recommend one more step — the project premortem. The idea is simple; instead of waiting for things to get to their logical conclusion before doing an analysis of what went wrong, have a session with you/your team to talk about all of the reasons the project will fail miserably. When this is the goal of the discussion, everyone is open to talking through the potential pitfalls that they might otherwise be uncomfortable expressing in the face of the blinding optimism that comes with launching a new venture. It’s a fantastic exercise.

*This isn’t technically true, of course. Like how some people rotate their tires after every 3,000 miles or balance their checkbook every month instead of checking the balance online, it happens, but not often enough to discuss.

Three Ways to Be a Better User: RaceJoy and the Pittsburgh Marathon

It will be a joy to use next year.

It will be a joy to use next year.

“How great would it be if we could track you using your phone GPS for the race tomorrow?” I asked my wife in anticipation of her 13.1 mile run at the Pittsburgh Marathon. She thought it would be a cool way for family and friends to keep up with her, so we began searching — and quickly found — the solution. RaceJoy is an app designed to help get information on race day, with an $0.99 upgrade that would let you use GPS to track runners (as well as send cheers and other cool little features). We both ponied up the fee in our respective app stores (we’re a mixed iPhone/Android family) and moved on with our day.

The next morning I was standing at around the sixth mile and assumed that my wife wouldn’t get past the starting gate until at least 7:30 (she was in the fourth “corral” behind the starting line leaders going at 7am sharp), so I began checking my phone around then to see what her progress might be. After a few refreshes, it was obvious that RaceJoy was down. A few check-ins over the next 45 minutes or so and I realized that it was likely down for the count. Disappointing, obviously, but not the end of the world. I got to see my wife, she finished the race injury-free, we got to grill burgers and sausages with friends, and the world continued to turn.

Or, at least I thought. I decided to check in with Twitter to see if I was the only one who had issues with the app. I found a couple of tweets like this:

Then I began to read the tweets from RaceJoy. They’re a two-person team and look to be from Pittsburgh (or at least CMU), and seemed to have developed this system with the Pittsburgh Marathon in mind, though it had been used at other events. You can tell that they were looking forward to this being their big coming out party, and the scale of the failure just made it all that much worse. Piling on was unnecessary, though there was no shortage of it.

To their credit, RaceJoy let everyone know that they would be refunding anyone who paid the upgrade fee through Google Play, and would be mailing checks to anyone who bought it in the Apple App Store. They owned up to the issues, apologized to everyone they could, and were trying to solve enough technical issues to salvage the day. Then there was this tweet:

That one hit hard.

I’m writing this as an innovator apologist and realize the importance of feedback — no matter how severe — in the real world. To some extent, there’s nothing better that could have happened to RaceJoy long-term than to have an expensive catastrophic failure (assuming they’re not financially devastated by the refunds). But the level to which people were comfortable being mean was disappointing and decidedly un-Pittsburgh-like.

For those who’ve never invented anything, let me say this — making stuff is hard. It’s very hard. It’s excruciatingly hard. It’s nearly impossible. And, making something that works every time is even more difficult. It takes days/months/years of meticulously working through every imaginable (and unimaginable) scenario to make sure that the customer experiences something effortless. Think about that — years of work so that your experience is effortless. And we expect this effortless experience for 99 cents (a good portion of which goes to Apple and Google).

We should be better users.

This isn’t a complete list, but if you want to be a constructive user who encourages people to take the risk of making something to improve your life, I ask you to keep a few things in mind:

  1. Be Kind: Inventors have thick skin, but please do not treat every malfunction as if it was akin to the brutal murder of a household pet. Innovators understand that you’re disappointed and expect a better experience. Most innovations you use aren’t made by large corporate monoliths, but by individuals or small teams (in this case, Shelly and James) who are trying to make the world incrementally better. Vitriolic anger and condescension are not kind responses.
  2. Be Specific: Please provide specific, constructive feedback. Things don’t always work and it’s not always obvious as to why. Sometimes it really is user error, but sometimes it might be a situation that the innovator hadn’t previously considered.  Knowing what happened from beginning to end can help an innovator take one step closer to making the experience effortless for everyone.
  3. Be Forgiving: Life is hard. We all fail. Being open to trying something again (or trying until it works). Nailing an app with a flood of one-star reviews might feel good, but it might also ensure that the innovation made to make your life easier that didn’t quite work as expected won’t be available the next time you need it. It helps to have perspective, realize that most of these failures are not life-threatening, and be open to trying again when you have a chance.

In closing…

Please, please be better to each other. Innovation is hard. And, to Shelly and James, who were working tirelessly to make things work in the middle of a whirlwind of crappy feedback — well done. You two did an exceptional job of handling the issues fairly, kindly, and publicly. It’s easy to get defensive in these situations and you handled yourselves perfectly. If I wrote a post about how to be a better innovator, your response would be a case study.

My ‘Buying Local’ Mistake

For those who might not know, I host a radio show for my real job called Pittsburgh Impact Radio (click here for the iTunes podcast). In my most recent show, I interviewed Buy Pittsburgh First, an organization that promotes the idea that companies can, and should, buy from local suppliers. From an economic development standpoint, this is a huge opportunity — between 40%-60% additional economic impact is made when a purchaser buys from a local supplier vs. a national/non-local one. That translates to jobs, more consumption of local products and services, multiplier effects and other good stuff.

As an entrepreneur currently selling into the local and national market, I too have skin in the buy local game. It is easier for me to market and sell product to companies nearby (I can demonstrate how our product looks and works). It’s cheaper for me to fulfill my orders to local companies. And, in the (rare) case where something isn’t quite right, I can fix it personally. Our company is another case study in why buying local makes sense — the service is often far beyond any national vendor and we’re willing to go above-and-beyond in ways that are impossible for our other customers across the country.

So, my ‘buying local’ mistake. Somewhere in the radio interview, and I believe it might have been said multiple times, I mentioned that there is an obligation to buy from local vendors. Given the regional impact, and what it can do to accelerate growth, it sounds like something that is reasonable to say. Further, I have also worked in economic development for seven years, so I’m comfortable talking about connections between buying from companies and how that can impact an economy. But, after more reflection, I realized that I was dead wrong. There is no obligation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In any business transaction, the decision comes down to what option brings the most value. Some of these are objective measures (price, turnaround time), and some of these are completely subjective (brand, reputation). A commitment to buying local is decidedly a subjective perception of value. Regardless of how much value we might individually place on buying local, that doesn’t mean that we do it at each opportunity, or that it’s right to always buy local. Sometimes, the local option just doesn’t deliver the value we need, regardless of proximity.

I won’t say that it doesn’t hurt when a local company won’t take a meeting or consider our product. I’ll admit to getting irritated when a company decides against giving us a chance to prove our concept. But, the reality is that it’s not their fault for not buying. It’s our fault for not delivering enough value (or, worse, targeting the wrong market).

This doesn’t mean that I will not continue to be an advocate for buying local — I think it’s a great opportunity to have a disproportionate impact on the local economy (and get exceptional customer service at the same time). However, I have made a decision to stop making it personal, start delivering more value, and eliminating the words “should” and “obligated” from my vocabulary.

With QR Codes, You’re Probably Doing it Wrong

Can we bury QR codes? (Image from

Can we bury QR codes? (Image from

I’ve been hearing that QR codes are going out of style. Through three experiences with bad QR code management last week, I learned why.

The worst example was Macy’s, a company sophisticated enough to know better. My fiancee and I had stopped by to register for our wedding last Wednesday night to take advantage of a promotion that would give us a chance to win a gift card between $50 and $2,000 (note: we were told that everyone who opened a registry that night would receive a $50 gift card just for showing up, a nice little bait-and-switch by Macy’s). In order to enter, we had to scan a QR code.

I pulled out my phone to scan while my fiancee downloaded a QR code reader (showing just how ineffective the whole QR code thing can be). I scanned the code, which took me to my browser. I waited. And waited. And waited.

About three minutes later, a non-mobile-optimized site loaded informing me that I had not won anything, though I was given a star-shaped sugar cookie for my troubles. My fiancee had no better luck with the same load time. Already frustrated by the special trip we made to the store for the non-existent gift card, the poorly-executed, anti-climactic contest gave us good reason not to use Macy’s for our registry.

My second experience was in the new Gateway Center subway terminal, where I saw an advertisement for KeepPGHMoving, a marketing campaign to build awareness for a potential transit crisis in Pittsburgh. On the ad was a QR code, which I scanned to get more information. Again, I was taken to a full-load site (complete with javascript) rather than a mobile one. As a supporter of public transit, I was frustrated by the poor execution.

Finally, a confession — I’ve made the exact same mistake on a marketing piece for the Pittsburgh Impact initiative, a program I run for my day job. Last year’s version of the piece contained a QR code, which pointed to the initiative’s website, Once again, the site to which the QR code was pointed was not mobile-optimized.

QR codes could be a very good marketing tool if marketers didn’t use them poorly. In fact, had Macy’s had created a mobile site for its contest, I think it would have been a well-executed way of entering. However, between the inconsistent application of QR codes with respect to mobile platforms — really the only time a QR code would be used — and the potential security risks associated with the codes, I can see why they’re falling out of favor.

If you insist on using them, here are a few pieces of advice:

  1. Give a good reason to scan the code – I hate the phrase “call to action”, but it’s exactly what you need to make the QR code an effective marketing tool. Don’t just give information, give an incentive to scan the code in the first place.
  2. Point to a mobile-optimized site – No flash, no large javascript, just quality design for the small screen that’s easy to navigate and gives the user an opportunity to interact with the site.
  3. QR codes are inherently place-driven – If you’re using a QR code, you’re targeting someone who is getting from one place to another. Only use them if you’re providing some value to someone on the move.

For some great examples of marketers’ poor QR code usage, check out

Celebrating Success at Work

We need to celebrate.

We need to celebrate.

We need more celebration at work.

Real celebration. The scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, carry-the-coach-out-on-your-shoulders kind of celebration. Wins matter and we need to acknowledge them

As my team filmed a viral video for our social media marketing class (below: please watch a million times, we’re competing for views against other MBA teams), I was reminded of a conversation with Buddy Hobart ( about how world-class performers celebrate their successes. Why can’t we celebrate like a football team would when we land a big deal? Why do we settle for a “thanks to so-and-so for great work” in a snoozefest of a team meeting?


Gen Y is often accused of wanting to be coddled, having an extreme need for constant positive reinforcement. But, really, who wouldn’t want to have a team so excited about your success that they’d give you a Gatorade bath after a major career achievement?

One of my favorite things about Pitt is that we celebrate successes. We reward good work in business plan competitions, post successes on the rotating announcement boards that are located throughout the building, and congratulate each other in the halls. It’s not major out-and-out celebration, but I think it’s a great culture to build.

How do you celebrate at work? How could you do it better? Would you stretch your goals a bit more if you know your work would be celebrated?

Can You Be a Great Start-Up Advisor if You Can’t Handle Risk?

Who needs risk <br /> capital anyway?

Who needs risk capital anyway?

The Pittsburgh Business Times ran an interview this past Friday featuring Kit Needham (subscription required), a former colleague at the Allegheny Conference who is now: running her own consulting firm; working as a senior advisor at CMU’s Project Olympus (described as “bridging the gap between cutting-edge university research/innovation and economy-promoting commercialization for the benefit of our communities”); and serving as educational coordinator for Blue Tree Allied Angels, a network of local angel investors. There is no doubt that she has dedicated countless hours to the entrepreneurial community over the years.

In the article, she discusses her own investment strategy, which seems to be directly at odds with her advocacy for early-stage businesses. To quote Ms. Needham:

“It’s so hard to pick the winners and what I’ve learned is, I can’t pick winners,” said Needham, who also runs her own firm, Needham Consulting, and has worked for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and what is now BNY Mellon.

“I learned I just didn’t have the time or, really, the commitment to spend the time to do a good job of this,” she said. “I am not keen on relatively illiquid investments.” (Emphasis mine.)

The article goes on to explain how she came to her investment strategy, which she described as a “proven sets of rules to build and preserve client’s wealth.” She broadly outlines her methods and the success she’s had (roughly 4% five-year return vs. S&P’s 0.99%).

For the record, I don’t fault anyone for a low-risk investment strategy that relies on mutual funds and stocks. Everyone has a different risk tolerance, which should be taken into account when pulling together a wealth-building strategy. Diversification is great. We should all aspire to structure our investments in a way that minimizes losses.

BUT, isn’t it concerning that someone so deeply entrenched in the entrepreneurial community can’t find space in her portfolio to directly invest in a local start-up? Sure, I could see where she might be reluctant to invest because of a potential conflict of interest, e.g. there’s an opportunity for personal profit if she provides advice relating to a company in which she’s invested. However, it seems counter-intuitive that someone who’s so directly involved in commercializing technology and guiding the funding of risky ventures admits that she can’t pick winners and isn’t keen on illiquid investments.

The oft-heard complaint in Pittsburgh is that we don’t have enough risk capital. I’ve heard great arguments from the various sides — some believe that VCs and angel investors are too risk-averse and let good companies flounder, others think there aren’t enough good deals worth funding, still others think that there’s plenty of risk capital in the region. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, can entrepreneurs get a fair hearing when someone who can’t handle the risk of a start-up is advising critical early-stage-oriented organizations? Finally, why would she publicly admit that she’s uninterested in risky ventures given her role?

I perceive that getting funded in Pittsburgh can be a challenge. While I’ve had the chance to help successfully pitch to an angel investor, our funding came from a close contact of one of the company’s founders who isn’t involved in the local angel community. As a result, we were fortunate to bypass the standard pitch-your-ass-off process that most start-up companies have to endure. Perhaps I’m over-reacting to a one-off PBT article, but if the folks influencing investment into our regional start-up companies can’t bring themselves to invest in these companies, then I can’t see how the money tree is going to be shake loose new money any time soon.

Shameless Self Promotion for PortaBeer

As my friends and family are aware, I’ve been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. No matter what I’m doing with my life — full-time job, school, whatever — I always have a project or three that I’m working on as a 5-to-9 job (I discuss this concept in a post over at Untemplater).

You know you want one next Memorial Day

You know you want one next Memorial Day

One of my recent projects, along with three great friends, has been developing a portable draft beer delivery system targeted to tailgaters and campers called PortaBeer (@PortaBeer). Beginning as a giddy conversation while camping with the guys last July, the project has taken on a life of its own. In the 11 months since we first came up with the idea, we’ve been able to haul in two awards (3rd Place, University of Pittburgh’s Big Idea Competition and 3rd place in the PCKIZ Business Idea Challenge for Point Park University), secure some engineering assistance, finance the R&D effort, develop a couple of quality strategic relationships and begin to see the results of all of our hard work. Not only that, we’ve founded a company where beer qualifies as a legitimate R&D expense.

In any case, as a result of the Pitt Big Idea Competition win, I was fortunate enough to talk about our product on The American Entrepreneur radio (AM 1360 in Pittsburgh) yesterday, guest hosted by Dave Wilke of Wilke and Associates.

Here’s the audio:


Nothing like talking about a little beer heading into a Fourth of July weekend. On that note, enjoy, be safe and have fun!

Good Bartenders Teach the Art of Building Rapport

Learn from This Guy. He's better than you at it.

Learn from This Guy.
He understands people
better than you do.

Steve Blank is a damn good entrepreneur. He writes a very interesting blog and seems to be a great guy. He also points out a common entrepreneurial challenge in a recent post that I’ll paraphrase — a lot of engineers start companies, and those founders often really suck at the relationship part of building a business.

I’m a salesman at heart (you build these skills when the Cub Scouts force you to sell popcorn door-to-door when you’re 9 years old), but early on in my career, I sucked at the relationship part too. I’d try to impress people with whiz-bang knowledge, not realizing that I had to build rapport before I could get someone to be interested in my ideas. It’s actually a classic marketing mistake — If they like you, they’ll likely buy from you.

Then I hit drinking age.

I was so impressed by bartenders who could control a room and engage people they didn’t know, especially the folks who weren’t regulars. I realized they had something about them, some sort of skill that I just didn’t have. Maybe because there was alcohol involved, or maybe it was because a lot of people just wanted to have a good time and not worry about whatever crappy stuff they were dealing with in their own lives. Regardless, a good bartender could get anyone going.

So, I watched how they worked and figured a few things out. For those of us where the rapport stuff doesn’t come naturally, here’s the overused bulleted list in a blog:

  • It’s all about the customer — Bartenders make the customer the center of attention. They ask where you live, what you do, how your day was. They greet you with some generic-but-informal name (buddy, chief, whatever). You’re the most important person to them at that moment, and it feels awesome.
  • They’re warm — There’s nothing like being in the presence of someone who’s genuinely warm and welcoming. EVERYONE wants to be Norm from Cheers, because it feels good to be known. The masters make you feel like that, even if you’ve never been there.
  • They give valuable freebies — There’s nothing that can make you feel special like a beer on the house. To add a little drama, a great bartender will use a glass or some other token as a reminder that you’re due when you finished your last drink. It’s like there’s a little unspoken communication between you two, and that builds a hell of a lot of goodwill.
  • They bring people together — They can’t be in two places at once and there are a lot of other people that have to be served. A great bartender makes connections between people so that the attention isn’t always on them. It’s a little bit of sleight of hand, and you never know the difference. Plus, you never know who you’re going to meet.
  • They know how to have fun — It’s all about feeling good, and great bartenders focus on having fun. They’re not talking about the technical aspects of making a perfect margarita or the new electronic system that only lets them pour exactly 16oz pints. They just make you feel relaxed and at ease.
  • They remember the details — If you’re there more than once, they remember your name and what you do. They bring it up the next time they see you. They ask about the kids or what the daily grind is as a (enter your title here). You know that they paid attention.
  • They know how to get your money — Maybe it’s just some great conversation or the extra beer, but you feel compelled to leave a few bucks more for the great bartender. You feel like they deserve it. And you do it voluntarily.

You can get a drink anywhere and great bartenders know this. So, they make up the difference in service and it works. You go back to that place. You have conversations that make you feel good at the end of the night. You tip enough to be surprised by what you left the next morning. In short, you do exactly what you’d love your customers to do. You want them to like you, to refer you, to give you their money voluntarily. You want them to love your level of service and tell people about it. You want them to realize that, even if there might be other solutions out there, you’re bringing a level of game that no one else can match. Perhaps most importantly for any start-up, you want them to like you enough so that when there’s the inevitable hiccup, they’re more forgiving and understanding.

If you really want to understand how to build the relationships you need to succeed, skip the Dale Carnegie books and spend $20 at your local bar. You’ll learn more and have a lot more fun doing it.

Money vs. Quality Deals

I’ve noticed that there are two schools of thought in Pittsburgh about the availability of risk capital and the lack of funds going into local start-ups.  The first is that there are some very good deals in Pittsburgh, and there is precious little lower-level risk capital ($500k-$2M), and blame generally falls on the nearly impossible standards set by the local VCs/Angels. The second is that there is plenty of money out there and that money and finds great deals no matter what, inferring that the issue isn’t money, it’s the companies coming out of the region.

As someone who has worked on a project that got an Angel round (and some subsequent cash infusions), I can understand the difficulty in finding that money and, as a result, I’m a bit biased. Looking at the landscape, I believe that there are some very intriguing companies/technologies coming out of our colleges, universities and innovative entrepreneurs, and that should be supported. Obviously, I’m not alone — the Pennsylvania government and local foundations infuse local organizations with capital that is then extended to these companies. However, when those companies have grown out of the alpha stage and to a point where they’re ready to start beta testing in real-world environments, are they the quality deals that attract VC investment? Is Pittsburgh’s risk tolerance unusually low?

My guess is that our VC community isn’t much unlike others around the country. I’d also guess that Pittsburgh has similar state-level resources to other areas and, perhaps a little more. What I don’t think we have is an ecosystem — a critical mass of successful entrepreneurs that have cashed out for several million and immediately feel the responsibility to return the favor to other hungry entrepreneurs.  The cities most often cited as models for the ecosystem — Silicon Valley, Boston, etc. — have earned that reputation honestly, but have taken decades to build that ecosystem. As one local VC said to me, “they weren’t built overnight, and we won’t be either.”

But, I think we’re getting there. There is a lot of energy in this community and, I suspect, additional resources will be devoted to not only supporting these companies, but helping to create that ecosystem that is critically important. I also believe that we need to do a little marketing to the outside world, showing off some of the companies that are making a difference. Would engaging other cities’ communities help facilitate some cash inflow by introducing their financiers to our companies? Would connecting with the diaspora help us to bring some of that money back to Pittsburgh? I think it would.

In the end, almost any money is good money, no matter where it comes from. Would I like to see more low-level risk capital? Of course. But, until we have a critical mass that can support some of these good-to-very-good deals (as opposed to great deals), we’re going to struggle to fund these companies. Should the state take a more active role? How do we get this done in a down economy? And, what are the best way to keep these companies fed in the meantime?

Persist Through the CRAP

Saw a TED video by Richard St.  John (Twitter @RichardStJohn) , who discussed the 8 things that successful people do (video here). While the other aspects of his presentation might be things you’ve heard before (work, ideas, passion, focus), his perspective on persistence caught my attention, mostly because it incorporated mildly inappropriate language, a technique I enjoy using from time to time.

In his speech, he says that you have to persist through the CRAP – Criticism, Rejection, Assholes and Pressure. I hadn’t thought about it in such quite succinct terms, but that’s perfect.

Entrepreneurs have a unique expertise in persisting through the CRAP. Taken individually:

  • Criticism — There’s no shortage of criticism. The risk of a selling a new, innovative product as a small company is full of pitfalls and opportunities for people to blow up your idea. I think that’s a great thing … people who tend to take the time to criticize are emotionally invested. Proving them wrong drives many of us to make it all work.
  • Rejection — Funders, potential customers, friends, family … you don’t know what rejection is until you try to start your own company.
  • Assholes — I don’t think I have enough time to cover all the different types. From the extreme critics, to the egotists, to the folks that have no problem wasting your time, they’re everywhere. Trust your gut and, if you’re not sure, ask around. Most of these folks have a reputation. If you hear from two people in close-knit community that the person is shady, run.
  • Pressure — There’s nothing like the shut-off notice from the gas company, or a hungry family, to make you work extra hard to close a sale (or politely call every customer who is even 30 minutes past-due).

I’m going to think of my challenges this week in terms of persistence and in terms of CRAP. How many of them are just one element, or how many are all four? How do I manage those situations when I run into them? Am I as persistent as I should be? How does it change as a follower vs. a leader?

« Older posts