When I showed up to listen to two terrific speakers at the University of Pittsburgh’s new student accelerator, Blast Furnace, I didn’t realize I would learn about Eeyore and Tigger. Or that my ‘lawyer uncle’ actually could be helpful in some legal situations.
First, an intro to who shared these lessons: The Furnace hosted Bob Delach, who has over 30 years of experience as a financial and operations executive providing strong business leadership in small and large organizations across many markets. He is currently with the venture firm Allied Growth Strategies Management (AGSM). Beth A. Slagle also lent us her expertise as a veteran business attorney. She works at the law firm of Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP, where she maintains an active practice focused principally on business disputes, insurance coverage and employment law. She also represents a number of “serial entrepreneurs” and actively assists with business and operational issues.
Here are three great takeaways from Bob and Beth’s remarks that will benefit any entrepreneur:
- Winnie the Pooh can help you plan: First and foremost, Bob emphasized that even in the era when 50 page business plans are dead, planning is not. You have to plan. Bob’s advice reminded me of the old Dwight Eisenhower quote of “plans are nothing; planning is everything”. It goes to the heart of today’s popular lean and agile startup methods, where testing your startup assumptions is key. Bob emphasized another important aspect of planning: laying out your ‘expected’ case, as well as your worst cast (Eeyore) and your best case (Tigger). This is great advice. One of my early bosses was Glen Chatfield of Duquesne Systems, and he used to emphasize the best/worst/most likely approach to planning the numbersy. I was reminded by Bob of its importance. The assumptions and guideposts that we think about in any of these scenarios are very, very important. They help us recognize when one of our scenarios (expected, Eeyore, or Tigger) is occurring, which allows us to react better to the situation.
- 3D: Bob also relayed the need to think in ‘3D’ when you’re planning, meaning dollars, deliverables and dates.
- Dollars: Do I know how much money I will need and how far it’ll take me?
- Deliverables: What will I deliver with the amount of money raised?
- Dates: When will I achieve these goals given the plans I have in place?
All three of these are integrated and dependent on each other. For example—miss the date and there’s a good chance you’ll need more dollars. So think in 3D when planning.
- You don’t need a lawyer for everything, but when you do, make sure you have a good one: We could have spent hours with Beth Slagle, who reviewed everything from hiring an attorney, to company formation, to non- competes! There is so much that an attorney can do for you, or to you, if they don’t get things right from the start. Beth gave us a lot of good nuggets and one that struck me particularly was understanding how to manage your relationship with your attorney so you can get access to the important advice you need while not spending money you don’t have. Beth discussed the costs of attorneys and how most startups don’t have access to the capital they need to pay for a good attorney, and how to mitigate that risk early on.
- Be prepared: Beth recounted a story about one of her clients who was always prepared, which kept the call short and the billing time low.
- Create a checklist and send it beforehand: This was good advice for both hiring the attorney and managing your time with them. Write down what you want to discuss with the attorney and send it in advance.
- When seeking to hire an attorney, ask for a free consultation: Ask and you will get. See if your values and style match theirs. As Beth emphasized, your attorney is another part of your message to the market, and they are also a key extension of your operational team. Remember that.
- You can do some things yourself in today’s world: While this advice was a bit different than the guidance from our entrepreneurs from the week before, Beth did emphasize that some things can be done by you without an attorney. It’s important to remember that a doctor would not advise you to do your own heart surgery, or a dentist to ‘drill and fill’ your own teeth, but Beth is correct: you can brush your teeth and do a regular cardio workout without your doctor or dentist present. For example, you can do a trademark look up on the USPTO site and then get a review from an attorney. Maybe your lawyer uncle can help you, IF he has relevant experience. But check out that IF before you rely on it.
The Blast Furnace has been ’hot, hot, hot’ with insights, guidance and advice for a couple of weeks now. We’ve heard from fantastic folks who have firsthand experience starting, building, and supporting companies with their domain expertise and skills in Pittsburgh. Which brings me to another point, in Bob’s opening comments he remarked the majority of venture capital is spent in California (the highest concentration goes to Silicon Valley). Despite this, cities like Pittsburgh can compete and entrepreneurs can be successful. Bob pointed out some of the things that go into an innovation ecosystem, all of which Pittsburgh has.
- Venture capital (we don’t have much of this- and it’s declined in past 5 years)
- Angel networks
- High net worth individuals (for early first round of money)
- Support professions (Accounting, Lawyers, etc.)
- Management talent (Pittsburgh is growing in this area due to an influx of businesses setting up shop here)
- Economic development (Innovation Works, URA, Thrill Mill, Idea Foundry, etc.)
A great list to remember for any town. Whether you are Tigger or Eeyore about your city’s infrastructure and its ability to support entrepreneurs and their activities, at least you have a checklist and can plan appropriately for the risks and likely outcomes ahead.